Graphic by Michael Kearney.
It feels so scary getting old
The year is 2014. I’m listening to Lorde’s Pure Heroine while waiting for the bus to middle school — anxious about if I’ll make it there on time. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, I’m welcomed with numerous renditions of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” memes, images that glamorize oil spills inches away from Dr. Martens boots, grungy teens smoking cigarettes and an influx of The Fault In Our Stars fan edits. Little did I know that these were glimmers of what defined a short-lived pop culture moment that came and went — the 2014 Tumblr aesthetic.
The 2014 Tumblr aesthetic took social media by storm in the early 2010s. Fostering a whirlwind of photos with moody color palettes and typically edited with high contrast, this beloved yet dark aesthetic depicted the melancholy of everyday life, such as abandoned alleyways and distant cityscapes. It also ignited a nostalgia that felt inborn, with photographs coated in black and white, grainy and overexposed filters reminiscent of Polaroids and old camera effects. At the time, the main pioneers of these pop culture choices were the millennials, paying homage to ‘90s grunge — sporting vintage band tees, distressed flannels and oversized sweatshirts. Revisiting these grunge elements in the early 2010s, millennials experienced these fashion choices while growing up and grew familiar with the style. This generation was the first to define social media trends, gazing at the ideas of music, fashion and art.
Now, specks of the 2014 Tumblr aesthetic have integrated themselves back into the mainstream, from music genres to fashion choices. So why has it reemerged nearly a decade after its death? Many cultural trends, including the 2014 Tumblr aesthetic, have resurfaced since the COVID pandemic. Due to the high political and public health tensions of the pandemic, many young people — particularly Gen Z — felt out of touch with reality and lost structure in their daily lives. Being forced back into their childhood bedrooms, many innately sought to find an escape from the present by indulging in the past.
The first of these cultural trends that Gen Z revitalized during the pandemic was the Y2K style, which was repopularized by Gen Z influencers and TikTokers. First originating in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the newfound Y2K style heavily gravitated toward a futuristic, metallic view of fashion, bathing in holographic materials and bright neon fabrics. The anticipation of fast-developing technology and the oncoming of a new millennium led to the Y2K aesthetic, trying to maintain an optimistic outlook on the future and soothing these uncertainties through fashion. The Y2K aesthetic eventually evolved into the McBling trend, having an affinity for low-rise jeans and tracksuits.
Historically, these fashion choices followed a similar path in how people perceived the pandemic. The quest for vibrancy in a murky world brought nostalgic comfort to the mundaneness of the pandemic. Eccentric TikTok star Aliyah, better known as @aliyahsinterlude, derives her “Aliyahcore” style from Y2K inspirations and finds joy in upcycling and thrifting chunky shoes, DIY accessories, fuzzy earmuffs and sunglasses. Favoring vibrant color palettes and playing with different fabric combinations calls for the aesthetics of childhood nostalgia, which young Gen Z witnessed as they grew up. During the pandemic, they largely adopted a newfound fascination for upcycling and thrifting, ultimately resulting in the fusion of these fashion styles and their inner younger selves’ desires.
Soon after the resurrection of the Y2K trends in the 2020s, the 2014 Tumblr aesthetic slowly came into the forefront — just like how indie sleaze emerged after the McBling aesthetic in the 2000s. Indie sleaze was the precursor to the 2014 Tumblr, being a messy blend between Brooklyn hipster fashion, ’70s/’80s electro-rock music and ’90s grunge, and it is often used interchangeably with early 2010s culture.
This mismatching style of fashion evolved into the darker 2014 Tumblr aesthetic, including jean jackets, plastic chokers, tennis skirts and combat boots, along with wired headphones and imprecise eyeliner. A visual representation that seamlessly defined the 2014 Tumblr lore is a group of teenagers standing along a concrete wall, all looking miserable in dark clothing and dressed head to toe in the brand American Apparel. Though many tweets and Reddit posts have questioned its origins, no sources have been found for the original people, forever remaining a mysterious legacy in this grunge subculture.
Symbols and nostalgic motifs built purpose to this aesthetic. Among many were cigarettes, black and white flowers, aliens, color-highlighted broken iPhones, mustaches and countless more. Though not many have been retained today, the romanticization of cigarettes and nighttime imagery have become prevalent in magazines and pop culture. Most notably for Interview Magazine, Lana Del Rey taps into her renowned vintage aesthetic, commemorating cigarettes and retro cars while wearing a lace dress that feels reminiscent of her earlier album concepts. She is known as one of the “it girls” of the 2014 Tumblr aesthetic, along with Kylie Jenner’s dyed blue tips, Effy Stonem from the television series Skins and grunge artist Sky Ferreira — who can be seen on every 2014-core mood board. In 2023, some actors that follow this grunge aesthetic are Maeve Wiley from the TV series Sex Education and Kat Hernandez Euphoria, both flaunting leather items, chokers and smoky eyes.
Elements of these fashion choices have made their reappearances on the streets today. Trend-forecasting Tiktoker Mandy Lee (@oldloserinbrooklyn) is one of many who has witnessed the shift in these cultural preferences. “The rise of outdated technology” gears towards a newfound fascination with older forms of photography and other technologies, such as vintage cameras, vinyl record players and headphones.
In her video, Mandy also notes the comeback of mashups that originated in the early indie sleaze scene, now with TikTok audios being the culprit for this reemerging trend. In this subculture, music played an integral role in curating your vibe. Many bands and musicians have made a comeback to relive their early 2010s fame. Popular artists from this era, such as Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift, released albums in the early 2020s that set a new agenda in their genres and public images. Lorde’s acoustic album Solar Power highlights her growth and maturity since her teenage years, maintaining a minimalist sound production like her debut Pure Heroine. Lana Del Rey’s recent alternative pop album Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd taps into the vintage black and white vibe reminiscent of her 2014 pop rock album Ultraviolence. Taylor Swift stepped into her synth-pop genre once again with Midnights — nearly a decade after releasing her first fully-embraced pop album 1989. Delving into new genres rooted in old ones fostered warm nostalgia in matured soundscapes for the public, feeling like the 2014 aesthetic has now grown up.
Other artists from the early 2010s also came back to bring the indie sleaze sound back on our radars. Most notably, the synth-pop musician Sky Ferreira has been off the radar since her debut album Night Time, My Time. The release of her 2022 single “Don’t Forget” was the first indicator of the current-day indie sleaze revitalization, with bands from this era announcing albums with familiar sounds and themes from their older works later in the year. English rock band The 1975 gripped the hearts of their early fans in their newest album Being Funny In A Foreign Language, experimenting with synthesizers and groovy guitars. Their introspective, self-titled album from 2013 brings many genres and instrumental styles to the table, ranging from pop rock, funk, and indie pop — Being Funny In A Foreign Language takes these same song-making ingredients to form a cohesive, atmospheric and love-filled collection of songs. Arctic Monkeys — another English band who carried this genre on their backs — returned with the funk-rock album The Car. According to a Reddit user, the lead single “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball” commemorates their fans and how far their discography has come. Somber nostalgia journeys through the album in its yearnful lyrics, reminiscing the old days in their newer approach to music: “Yesterday’s still leaking through the roof, that’s nothing new.”
In other forms of media, content production in films and YouTube has maneuvered its way back into the light. A cherished series for many Tumblr users was The Hunger Games, favoring the dystopian and apocalyptic feeling of Katniss Everdeen and others. With Lorde curating the soundtrack for the Mockingjay films, this heavily spoke to these fandoms. Now with the coming release of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, those who have waited a decade for the prequel are in high anticipation. Among another fixation was an influx of YouTube stars, ranging from Zoella, Dan and Phil, Bethany Mota and Smosh, as well as gamers, such as PewDiePie, Jacksepticeye and Markiplier. What came along with these dedicated fanbases were thorough fan edits, multilayered collages and other text-based quotes — justgirlythings, for example. Still prevalent today, millions of fan edits and “get ready with me” videos can be found all over TikTok, along with Pinterest mood boards and continued fascination for gaming videos.
Gen Z garners the same nostalgia for 2014 Tumblr —and Y2K — as younger millennials did with ‘90s grunge. Both generations now reside in this same feeling of nostalgic comfort with the resurgence of the 2014-core.
On the surface level, trends survive on nostalgia to cope with the present. Generations readapt trends to fit what they collectively witnessed when they were younger, creating a continuous chain of pleasure with age. And especially today, trends cycle faster than ever before due to fast fashion, having a short lifespan of months instead of years. Determining what is considered “in” allows for openness to all possibilities, and it will all eventually circle around in the end.
The year is now 2023, and it feels like I’m channeling my early teenage years again. I’m still a religiously devoted Lorde fan and have adapted to a style that I’ve always wanted in middle school. She was right — getting old is a scary thing. And Lorde definitely doesn’t make me feel alone in this. In her most recent album Solar Power, she reflects on her personal life and growth in Solar Power:
Couldn’t wait to turn fifteen
Then you blink and it’s been ten years