When you think back on 2023, what do you see? Do you see flashes of hot fuchsia, spurred by the thousands of people who flocked en masse to their local cinemas decked out in ‘Barbie Pink‘ to watch what has now become the highest-grossing film of the year with more than US$1.36 billion (S$1.86 billion) in box office sales?
Do you start dry-heaving from the anxiety of rushing to Ticketmaster in the hopes of scoring a ticket to Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, which has triggered a ludicrous amount of media coverage purely based on how quickly fans (and scalpers) have snapped up tickets in mere minutes?
Do you start cackling, just thinking about the infinitesimal handbag that American art collective Mschf created over the summer, which fetched US$63,750 (S$87,100) at an auction and requires an actual microscope for its owner to view it?
Or do you lament in regret as you read about how your entire collection of NFTs is deemed as “dead” by Forbes – a product of market-driven buzz that once traded at over US$2.6 billion (S$3.56 billion) at its peak in the middle of 2021 but is now worth a mere 3 per cent of that.
Welcome to the world of hype culture.
The fan frenzy at the Barbie premier in London in July. The popularity of the show has made it the highest-grossing movie in the world this year so far – raking in US$1.36 billion (S$1.86 billion) at the global box office.
It felt as if the culture of popularity and hype truly went into overdrive in 2023. There was every manner and form of collaboration that rode on the Barbie wagon – you could brush your teeth with Barbie toothpaste after eating a Barbie burger at Burger King, and get dating motivations from Barbie and Ken in your Hinge app. Open up TikTok, and an endless deluge of Barbie vs. Oppenheimer memes, Barbiecore fashion videos, and other Barbie-focused content would spring out at you.
In a post-pandemic world – one which saw the recovery of cinema remain slow in comparison to revenge travel or revenge shopping – Barbie was the ticket that filled seats. “I have watched Barbie three times in total,” says Rachel Soh, a 20-year-old student at Singapore Management University, who recounts how she first went with her sister, then her group of friends before her last trip to the cinema with her colleagues. “I’ve not felt this excited by any movie in a long while. Usually, I just wait for the movies to drop on Netflix, but with Barbie, I knew I had to watch it as soon as it came out.”
Soh makes a fair point. When was the last time the whole world – from critics to everyday cinemagoers – was collectively hyped up about a movie after 2019’s Avengers: Endgame?
But it’s not just Barbie that benefited from the culture of hype. Think of Taylor Swift’s Eras concert, and the endless debacle around getting tickets, and you have another clear example of hype culture at work again. So awful was the experience that many fans had with Ticketmaster that it spawned a flood of irate social media posts across the world, so much so that even POTUS weighed in on the situation. A ticket to her concert now became IRL equivalent of a Willy Wonka golden ticket – you had to do anything and everything to get your hands on one.
Or Beyonce’s Renaissance world tour, which has shattered records for raking in US$179 million (S$244 million) in a single month. Or Uniqlo’s crossbody bag that went viral amongst social media users which caused it to sell out umpteen times and has been named the hottest product of 2023 by Lyst – beating out other luxury items from the luxury likes of Rick Owners and Alaia. Or Kim Kardashian’s Skims brand that TikTokers love, and has now raised a multi-billion dollar valuation. Or Nike’s Dunk Lows, which has been laced up on everyone from Kylie to Hailey Bieber, and have become known for their resale value that can amount up to 16 times its original selling price.
“I think hype culture is a celebration of what resonates in the current zeitgeist,” Josiah Chua, a 35-year-old fashion creative who has seen his share of viral fame, after he repurposed the hyped-up McDonald’s x BTS packaging and turned it into a pair of sneakers in 2021. “I am fascinated by this culture of hype because it goes beyond the product itself. There is a certain status that is attached to owning it as opposed to any other regular item that brands are already selling.”
That would perhaps explain why a pair of red boots created by Mschf that resemble those worn by the cartoon character Astro Boy were seen on just about everyone at fashion week earlier in February this year. Why pay US$350 for a pair of regular designer shoes when you can get the Mschf boots that guarantee photographers would be snapping at you and people would be talking about you?
In 2021, fashion stylist and designer Josiah reimagined the hyped up McDonald’s x BTS meal packaging as a pair of custom sneakers with “a pocket for your nuggets on the go”.
“Hype can be blinding because people buy it when they want to fit in,” says Donson Chan, a 35-year-old fashion stylist. “They don’t have to like it enough to buy it, they just wants to be a part of this community.”
Chan is known for his personal style that marries streetwear and luxury fashion to head-turning effect. From paint can-shaped Louis Vuitton bags to Supreme jeans, Chan’s worn it all. Yet in his own words, hype culture, he is just not for him. “You need to know what works for you. For me, it’s a form of self-expression,” he says. “For instance, crop tops are a hyped product in menswear now, but I know it’s not for me and I wouldn’t wear it just because everyone else is. The last time hype culture made me buy something was years ago when I picked up a pair of Yeezys. I only wore them twice and they were a major regret.”
Even in the world of sneakers, hype culture is ever-present. “It’s definitely helped to expand sneaker culture and introduced it to a new generation, but hype culture has its pros and cons,” says Jack Chin (better known by his moniker, Uncle Jack), a 38-year-old account director who started his sneaker collection in 2010. “The hype around certain shoes has pushed brands to re-release sought-after pairs from their vault benefiting collectors, but on the downside, some newcomers focus solely on hype rather than genuinely loving sneakers. Worse still, they may mock people for their footwear choices if people around them don’t follow the hype.”
Of course, hype culture isn’t new. Before Beyonce’s Renaissance, there was BTS’ Love Yourself world tour. Before Nike’s Dunk lows, there were Balenciaga’s Speed trainers. Before Uniqlo’s bag, there was Loewe’s straw bag. Before Mschf’s tiny bag, there was a brick by Supreme. Yet 2023’s phase of hype culture feels more far-reaching, perhaps because social media has an expanded effect on the way we shop, play and eat.
The term “TikTok made me buy” has seen more than 422 million views, pushing everything from butter graters to stain removers into viral and retail stardom. According to one study in June this year, 85 per cent of Gen Z shoppers say social media has helped spur them to make purchases. Just last weekend, this writer went for dinner with friends at a restaurant in the middle of Serangoon because someone “found it on TikTok”.
Chin – who has a sneaker collection of over 300 pairs – also believes that social media has played a role in fueling peak hype culture, citing extensive celebrity collaborations to help push products into the vocabulary of everyday social media citizens, or working with luxury brands to generate greater share of voice in the already-saturated sneaker scene.
Chua agrees with this too. “Social media definitely expands the desirability of a product, and it’s interesting to watch how it can help expand the potential influence and reach of a product in demographics where it normally wouldn’t be able to enter.”
Like it or not, by the time you’re reading this article, most of the items, names and brands mentioned here would feel dated, because social media has found another movie, shoe, or brand to obsess over. And so it goes, the wheels of the hype machine continue to propel forward. Sure, it may look different in every phase it returns, but for better or worse, it’s here to stay.
This article was first published in FEMALE.