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TikTok’s ‘corecore’ is the latest iteration of absurdist meme art

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TikTok goes a little overboard when it comes to categorizing every last aesthetic into its own microtrend. You notice it when Spotify Wrapped calls your music taste goblincore, or when you strangely end up at a charity gala in San Francisco and a tech exec asks you if he should be concerned that his teen daughter is obsessed with cottagecore (yes, this happened to me). Take any noun, add the suffix “core,” and you’re good to go.

There is no more natural terminus to this phenomenon than “corecore,” a meta aesthetic from “nichetok” that uses nihilistic video clips to create something so absurd and meaningless that somehow, it comes back around and makes you feel something. It leans into our impulse to mask all of our emotions in 12 layers of irony, but in the process, gets so earnest that it might not be ironic after all.

Take a look at arguably the most popular corecore video, which tallied up 2.2 million likes. It begins with a clip from a salary transparency account, in which people ask strangers what they do and how much money they make. A child says that when he grows up, he wants to be a doctor, and when the host asks him how much he wants to make, he says, “I’m gonna make… people feel okay.” Then, you’re immediately exposed to fast-cycling clips: a timelapse of a busy street; a guy screaming; elderly people playing slot machines in a casino; a TikToker talking about a chicken that lives in the metaverse; and people rushing out of a garage in crisis.

@flicksaga

Yea #nichetok #corecore

♬ The Sound of Myself – Disasterpeace

Some corecore videos look like they could come out of an overwrought documentary that tells us really obvious truths about how social media makes us lonely; others make little sense at all. But most of these videos are tied together by a general malaise — a concern that life has no meaning and technology is alienating us from one another. Within corecore, we see clips of robots at CES talking about how people are afraid of them, demos of new VR headsets and clips from Elon Musk’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast. This lack of faith in corporate tech innovation is the exact opposite of the ubiquitous “day in a life as a tech employee” trend, which shockingly isn’t a top-down corporate propaganda psyop (… or is it).

Corecore has been popular on TikTok since late 2022, but the techno-futurism-doom vibes feel especially appropriate now, as we watch Microsoft, Google, Meta, Amazon and Salesforce all wage massive layoffs within weeks. These nichetok posters are probably not reacting to the state of tech employment, but something bigger that encompasses it: how we are all subject to the whims of a few billionaire tech guys who can just decide to buy Twitter or make “metaverse” a word that normal people think about. And of course, there’s the added layer of irony that corecore is, too, part of that ecosystem — that people are making TikTok accounts dedicated to creating their own corecore compilations, promising things like “face reveals” once they reach 10,000 followers, using an anti-capitalist, lonely aesthetic to attain social capital.

Corecore is not the first meme of its kind. In any given moment in internet culture, there’s usually some sort of absurdist meme in circulation, whether it’s corecore, deep-fried memes, weird Facebook, bad animated videos or the iterations on loss.jpg. That’s because it’s very normal, almost cliché at this point, to make nonsensical art in response to a world that doesn’t seem to make any sense. As anyone who’s taken an introductory art history class knows, this is how Dadaist artists reacted to the tragedies of World War I — and now, it’s how contemporary meme-makers respond to the horrifying realization that we are all addicted to scrolling through short-form videos. And it’s how the greatest minds of the weird internet will react again, the next time the world feels a bit too dystopian.

In the end, the only thing that really makes sense about corecore is the fact that it exists.

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