Infinitely doom-scrolling on TikTok at 2 a.m. has become a common experience for a lot of people these days, and if you’re one of those people (me included), you’ve probably seen a video like this:
“Okay,” you say to yourself. “That’s kind of sad, but also, same.” You keep scrolling and then you find another one. And another one. And another one. All these TikToks share the same qualities: Amateurishly-edited clips of found media, a blisteringly quick editing style, and depressing, melancholic music. They all share the same hashtag: #corecore.
Before you start assuming that I’m just making up words, the #corecore hashtag, and its cousin #nichetok, have a combined 600 million views on the social media platform at the time of this writing. At first glance, #corecore videos seem to be a meaningless collage of videos that connect to a shared message. However, it is the idea of corecore and what it can (or could) represent that has given rise to what some consider a genuine form of art by Gen-Z.
What is corecore?
Corecore is an aesthetic trend on TikTok that derives its name from an ironic use of the -core suffix. In the modern internet age, the -core suffix is used to describe shared ideas of culture, genres, or aesthetics and groups them all into one set category — think cottagecore or goblincore (which in turn come from the music genre hardcore, and the tendency of new hardcore-related subgenres to use -core as a suffix, as in “emo-core”). So through its name, corecore makes itself sound like the antithesis of genre itself; its content can be anything and its creators can use any type of media to convey a central premise. On the corecore page on Know Your Meme, the site states that the trend “plays on the -core suffix by making a ‘core’ out of the collective consciousness of all ‘cores.'”
Kieran Press-Reynolds, a digital culture blogger who first wrote about corecore back in November 2022, is an eagle-eyed trendwatcher who writes extensively on niche internet microgenres. He told Mashable that corecore is essentially an anti-trend that can be loosely defined as similar and disparate visual and audio clips that are meant to evoke some form of emotion.
“They’re like meme-poems, rife with short movie clips, music, and soundbites that are often somewhat nostalgic, nihilistic, or poignant,” Press-Reynolds told me through email. “When I wrote about the genre back in late November, most of the popular clips I saw were really frenetic — they were these rapid-fire 15-second montages of surreal memes (like cute cats, alpha wolf edits) with intense music (Drain Gang and other internet rap) that didn’t have much of a discernible meaning beyond the pleasurable rush of recognizable audiovisual material.”
While the style of short-form meme montages has existed since the early days of Youtube (remember Youtube Poop), according to Know Your Meme, the corecore hashtag itself was first seen on Tumblr in 2020. However, corecore on Tumblr, and especially Twitter, existed solely as a pun on the literal definition of core, created out of users’ frustrations of the over-saturation with the concept of “-cores.”
Corecore, by the way, is not the same as nichetok, although, for a lot of users on TikTok, the terms are seemingly interchangeable. For the sake of clarity, Know Your Meme says nichetok is an aesthetic movement made up mostly of shitposts that reference multiple fandoms, subcultures, and genres — requiring one to have a niche understanding of TikTok trends.
New life on TikTok
As Chase DiBenedetto wrote for Mashable, “TikTok has shifted many Gen Z users towards the romanticization of Millennium (and Tumblr) aesthetics, from fashion to tech.” Just like YouTube Poop before it, corecore is essentially a fresh take on an old premise. Whereas #corecore existed on Twitter and Tumblr as fun jabs towards a saturated naming convention, the aesthetic itself took on new life upon its introduction to TikTok.
Some of the first corecore videos to arrive on TikTok were published around Jan. 2021, according to Press-Reynolds and Know Your Meme. These first TikToks interlinked found media to push a certain message, with either an anti-capitalist or environmentalist slant. When done right, a creator can, in sequence, splice together a clip from a 30-year-old movie, an unrelated actor’s interview, and random b-roll of a house tour, to create a compelling impression that hints at meaning, but may not be anything more than a feeling.
“I think there’s a kind of therapeutic quality to these videos for some people,” Press-Reynold said. “The chaotic and disordered structure of these clips […] deftly capture feelings of technological disarray and ennui that I think a lot of young people relate with nowadays. It’s like a balm for TikTok-broken brains.”
Corecore edits do not exist in a binary, however. Some can be unintelligible meme dumps that are upbeat, bordering on dada-style collage art and other edits are just clips of cats and Fortnite mashed together (also referred to as #pinkcore). Some of the most common signifiers of corecore edits included British Football clips, Family Guy, Blade Runner 2049, any clip of Jake Gyllenhaal screaming, and melancholic music (usually a soft piano score or Aphex Twin).
This is what makes corecore so interesting: one’s feelings that couldn’t be expressed through words are instead presented through images. Whether that emotion is happiness, a fear of the future, or the excitement of falling in love, corecore edits, through the use of multimedia, speak to our common experience. It’s what one Youtube creator describes as a “beautiful art form that fits our generation so perfectly.”
Corecore stands as the complete opposite of what we consider memes. With memes, a piece of film or television is divorced from its source material, taking on a life of its own until you don’t even know what the original context even was. In a corecore post, individually the snippets don’t make sense, but when connected the video gives them a shared context, and therefore a certain power. Corecore edits taken as a whole then create a more powerful relatedness among the genre’s enjoyers, something no Breaking Bad meme on Twitter can offer.
Press-Reynolds says that he believes corecore to be a genuine art movement, although not in the traditional sense. “The videos are simple but they have a lot of emotional expression — or if they don’t, that’s still expressing something, the absurd realness of vibelessness.”
Is the TikTok trend dead?
Wasted potential, or natural evolution?
The hashtags for corecore and nichetok sit at around 600 million views, making it an increasingly popular trend on TikTok. Ironically, however, the promise of what corecore can be, as both an art form and an anti-trend, is arguably being ruined by its trendiness.
As pointed out by fans and critics of corecore, one of the problems with any trend that becomes popular on TikTok, and social media in general, is that eventually, the rat race to recreate content that’s already trendy leads to a dilution of the original purpose of corecore.
I don’t see how culture can keep fracturing and growing increasingly decentralized without reaching some sort of impasse — people can’t keep creating cores and cores and corecores forever.
– Kieran Press-Reynolds
Matt Lorence points this out in his TikTok about the misuse of corecore. He says in his video that “people are taking these movements with strong political ideologies, completely divorcing them of that, and turning them into soulless and meaningless aesthetic trends.” He concludes that while he doesn’t know the reason for this, he believes that users don’t want to intellectually engage with the art that they consume.
In his video on the subject of corecore and Gen-Z’s self-pity obsession, the YouTuber known as angle says that TikTok has become a landfill of “overly self-pitiful forms of content” and expresses his disappointment with where the corecore trend is heading.
“Gen-Z as a whole constantly takes things from older ideas and modernizes them in a way that is socially acceptable, just to get over it and deal with the next thing in a few months,” he says in his video. “More or less my concern with [corecore] is that something so unique and different, that is exclusive to the internet babies of our day and age, is being wasted due to that very same generation’s habit of running things to the ground for the sake of internet points.”
He continues, stating that when he comes across corecore videos now, they’re lazy attempts at describing a feeling (using the same clips and music) that usually boils down to “she left, and took the kids.”
“It can start to feel like just listlessly scrolling, your mind overwhelmed by hashtags, drowned in a digital murk of media that doesn’t ever really profoundly affect you but kind of swishes over you like a limply lapping tide,” Press-Reynolds said. “I don’t see how culture can keep fracturing and growing increasingly decentralized without reaching some sort of impasse — people can’t keep creating cores and cores and corecores forever.”
Corecore hasn’t exactly hit the mainstream yet, but there’s a burning question already about what happens when it does: can it avoid being yet another in an endless revolving door of fads and aesthetics that float by meaninglessly, and rather depressingly, like, well, a corecore video?