Full-text audio version of this essay.

In The Time of Money, economic sociologist Lisa Adkins argues that finance capitalism has reworked money and debt so they function “not as quantity, volume, quantum, or substance but as heterogeneous processes that … surround life.” Value, in other words, is less an objective quantity and more a milieu, an ambient affect, or — to use a term whose popularity is currently cresting — a “vibe.”

“Vibes” have become a common reference point across social media, where the #vibes hashtag is used as a way to describe content that foregrounds a mood or other extra-verbal disposition, as with the “sad vibes” of this rainy nighttime urban TikTok montage. It’s also not unusual to see “vibes” pop up on any kind of content to signal that something more than straightforward information is being presented. For example, a graph of cryptocurrencies’ exchange rate can be described as having a “vibe” on crypto Twitter. “Vibes” both describe the visual content of these images and make a normative statement about how users ought to feel about it or how they should orient themselves in response to it.

That aligns “vibe” talk with recent evolutions in capitalism’s methods of extracting surplus value from human activity. In the older form of industrial capitalism — which some scholars call “Fordist” after Henry Ford and the factory model of the division of labor and standardized mass production — surplus value was extracted by converting, as Adkins put it, “living labor into exchangeable abstract equivalent” units of time, paying workers for their hours instead of the value they generate while working. This is made possible by the wage form, which commodifies labor and flattens out the qualitative differences in work performance into a kind of average. Finance capital, however, emphasizes these qualitative differences. Beginning in the late 20th century, markets began seeking value mainly in speculative sentiment about a company — in its growth potential (how investors feel) rather than its current profitability (its current rate of labor exploitation). For tech startups like Spotify and Uber, what matters most is often whether the market maintains a favorable view of their potential, whatever the bottom line may be. In other words, that means that companies and investors need evidence of good vibes.

“Vibes” align with recent evolutions in capitalism’s methods of extracting surplus value from human activity

In “The Wealth Affect: Financial Speculation as Everyday Habitus,” Fiona Allon argues that “emotional life has become an important ‘object-target’ for technologies of surveillance, intervention, and capital accumulation,” as evidenced in everything “from the measurement of ‘consumer confidence’ to attempts to engineer a specific ‘public mood.’” For example, what matters to Spotify shareholders isn’t its record of past earnings so much as its ability to orient itself to markets in ways that activate perceptions of positive future potential in investors and other observers. And that goes for workers as well. They too are targets of affective engineering through which work becomes not merely time “on the clock” but a qualitative orientation, i.e., a vibe. Workers have to give off the right vibes for the job, because that’s part of how companies build the speculative value of their own brand.

Because vibe now equals value, exhibiting the prescribed affective comportment is becoming a job requirement at offices. At Canon Information Technology’s Beijing office, for instance, employees must smile at an AI-monitored camera before they can enter certain rooms or use some office equipment. As a company spokesperson told Business Insider, “We have been wanting to encourage employees to create a positive atmosphere by utilizing this system with the smile detection setting ‘on.’” Unlike the Fordist factory floor, where workplace cooperation was a matter of temporal coordination among workers, in this office workplace cooperation is a matter of affective comportment or perceived mood.

In another example, earlier this year Fujitsu announced that they had developed an AI facial recognition algorithm that could reliably estimate employees’ level of concentration by measuring minuscule muscle movements. Instead of measuring worker productivity as an amount of output, this algorithm calculates it as a degree of orientation: Just how concentrated are you? With this tool, managers assess workers the same way investors assess companies’ stock value: not in the amount of profit but in perceived alignment with the qualities that lead to success. To assess that, you need to drill down on the fine qualitative differences that wage labor abstracts away. Instead of producing a quantitative surplus of value for their employers, workers produce the nuanced affects and comportments that investors and algorithms use to estimate the speculative possibilities inhering in both the workers themselves and the companies exploiting their work.

This shift from Fordist abstraction to financialized vibes is even impacting how music is organized, in the turn away from genre toward vibe-oriented listening. In the early 20th century, the recording industry invented the contemporary idea of musical genre to distinguish among otherwise abstractly equivalent musical commodities. However, fast-forward a century and it seems like everyone is in a rush to proclaim genre’s imminent death. In a piece for the New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich suggests that the rise of streaming services like Spotify have led to “genre-less,” vibe-based playlists replacing genre-oriented ones. Streaming technology disrupted the record store’s commodity-based business model and replaced it with a subscription-based one more resonant with finance capital. As Adkins notes, finance capitalism doesn’t make money by selling people things but by roping them into subscription and debt-repayment plans that grant them only temporary access to assets like houses or copyrighted recordings. These repayment streams are then remade into securities that can be traded on Wall Street, as with the securitized mortgages that drove the 2008 financial crisis. And as I’ve discussed previously in a review of Spotify Teardown, Spotify applies a basic model of asset securitization to music: just as financial securities break assets down into component parts, which then get rebundled into groups of similar risk profiles and sold, Spotify breaks albums down into their component parts (songs), which it then repackages as playlists grouping songs of similar vibe.

However, we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the new centrality of “vibes” means the death of genre. Even though streaming content generally decenters musical commodities, another kind of music platform is putting genre back to work as the focal point of user experience: Peloton.

Because Peloton’s online splash page focuses on selling exercise bikes, you might reasonably think it is primarily in the home gym industry. But CEO John Foley apparently wants his company to be regarded as “a media company akin to Netflix” — in other words, as a subscription-based streaming service. But unlike Netflix, which presents a spectrum of scripted and unscripted programming, Peloton is more like 1980s-era MTV. Its interface quite literally puts music first: In its workout descriptions, users have to scroll through the playlist to get to the workout plan.

Peloton thus has more in common with Spotify than it does with Netflix: It’s a subscription music service focused on building branded playlists. But Peloton wants users to interact with music in different ways than Spotify does. Spotify wants listeners to remain tuned in for as long as possible, whether music is in the foreground or background; it pushes mood or vibe focused listening, encouraging users to, as Liz Pelly puts it in this Baffler essay, “just pick a playlist and let it roll.”

By contrast, Peloton wants to use music as an integral part of a more immersive interactivity. “We do not go on the bike or the tread to listen to music,” Peloton vice president Tony Calandra told Music Business Worldwide. “We experience music.” Peloton wants users to pay attention to the music so they’ll stay focused on and enjoy the workouts it’s selling. But these different approaches aren’t just about active vs. passive listening; they also reflect different stances toward genre and the kind of value that can be extracted through the different kinds of “work” the platforms have users perform.

Both Peloton and Spotify want to reach the same sorts of consumers — elites with lots of social and cultural capital. But they disagree about genre’s role in that process. Whereas Peloton uses genre-specific playlists and instructor brands to position itself as an upscale platform invested in representational diversity, Spotify uses “genreless” playlists to reach elite consumers who care about diversity because it reflects their own highbrow tastes.

Managers assess workers the same way investors assess companies’ stock value: by perceived alignment with the qualities that lead to success

In the early 20th century, the recording industry developed products like “race records” and “hillbilly music” that were intended to reach specific demographics. As Karl Hagstrom Miller argues in Segregating Sound, genre was rolled out as a way to bring some distinguishing features to mass-produced industrial commodities and create new market segments for more or less the same stuff (in some cases, down to covers of the same song). From this emerged a notion of different music genres as being “appropriate” for specific people — an understanding that remains in force, as illustrated by the recent controversy about whether the twangy trap hit “Old Town Road” belonged on the Billboard country chart.

Peloton has seized upon this understanding of genre to not only brand its instructors as diverse individuals — Calandra told Music Business Worldwide that Peloton’s 35 different instructors can be viewed “almost like 35 radio stations, where each instructor has their own brand, their own music sensibility” — but also the company itself as invested in “diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice,” a position that is central to its marketing strategy. Genre, as Peloton deploys it, helps the company try to make the case that it raises the voices and visibility of underrepresented groups, while connecting with users who are members or allies of those groups. Its roster of instructors and genres seems curated to hit a range of notes of sexual, racial, linguistic, and national diversity (though non-cis and disabled people are not currently represented). Black British instructor Hannah Frankson does drum-and-bass rides, white cis gay instructor Cody Rigsby is known for his girl pop and diva-focused rides, African American instructor Tunde Oyeneyin does Afrobeats rides, and white cis male instructor Matt Wilpers is known for his “rhythm-free experiences” (i.e., rides that break with the convention of tying pedaling cadence to the tempo of the music). When instructors clash with the identity implied by a particular music genre, users tend to react negatively (as with the user backlash against white instructor Kendall Toole’s Megan Thee Stallion Artist Series ride), which suggests that Peloton has cultivated a user base invested in genre as a politics of representation.

Unlike Peloton, Spotify treats genre-based listening as decidedly old-fashioned. John Stine, the project lead of its flagship genreless playlist Pollen, claims that “now there’s a lot more openness and eagerness to find different things from different spaces,” unlike the old days when “you were really defined by your music tastes.” From this perspective, forward-thinking listeners no longer demonstrate their hipness or their personal (as opposed to social) identity through allegiance to one specific cutting-edge genre but through exhibiting diverse tastes. This reflects the broader industry view that, as one anonymous major-label A&R representative told Complex, “a varied taste is expected these days, and a marker of being cool and being in tune.”

It’s as though the music industry has taken the landmark 1996 study “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore” by sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern as market research gospel. As the title of that paper suggests, it argued that in the 1980s cultural elites changed the way they signaled their status, replacing an exclusive snobbery centered on the most refined high culture with a flexible and open acceptance of both high and low culture. In this context, listening to “everything but country” or “everything but hip-hop” signals one’s rejection of the provincialism implicitly attributed to those identity-bound genres and their audiences. Both the rhetoric and the musical markers of genres are present in Pollen, but they function as evidence of listeners’ own transcendence of narrow aesthetic and identity categories that weigh down those without enough privilege to move beyond them. Where Peloton uses pluralistic affirmation to leverage diversity as a status symbol, Spotify reaches the same sorts of users by negating genre via the language of overcoming and supercession.

Playlists become tools for perceiving oneself the way one is perceived by employers

These different approaches to genre, however, are not just a matter of different marketing strategies and brand identities. They also condition users to different modalities of productivity. Peloton’s approach to music genre is related to what the company needs its users to do: exercise. That is, they generate a physical output that can be measured in watts — a quantitatively equivalent, time-based unit not unlike the wages of Fordist factory labor. At this level, no matter which instructor — or fitness platform — you work out with, you are effectively doing the same work: a watt is a watt and a calorie is a calorie no matter what you are listening to when you expend or burn one. So just as genre allowed the early recording industry to create qualitative distinctions among commodities, Peloton uses musical genre to make the otherwise featureless and fungible work of working out feel less monotonous.

By contrast, Spotify orients users to a mood or vibe, a horizon of possibility that can be captured through data collection and analysis and evaluated analogously to how everything from facial expressions to securitized debt are assessed. In this respect, Spotify functions as a hack that people can use to adopt whatever vibe is expected of them — like “concentrated” at Fujitsu — as they work or study. Playlists become tools for perceiving oneself the way one is perceived by employers and the algorithms they use to evaluate workers, as when they assess that workers are “on the job” only when properly oriented.

If Peloton’s music helps users perform work as an amount of time, Spotify’s helps users perform work that is gauged qualitatively, as mood, vibe, or affect. Its vibe playlists assist users in attuning themselves for whatever disposition they are trying to achieve. Even in its workout-oriented playlists, Spotify emphasizes mood above genre or even activity. For example, the covers for both the Beast Mode and Hype playlists feature a ripped white guy sitting on a weight bench holding two massive dumbbells, and there are both Power Workout and Power Hour playlists. Here, working out isn’t about burning calories (another abstract unit of measure) but about becoming beastly, hyped, and powerful — a vibe. Spotify and Apple Music’s plethora of mood- and vibe-based playlists can be understood as productivity hacks that help users practice in producing the right vibe for the job, training them in maintaining a particular emotional current, a quality or texture of one’s comportment.

Although Peloton and Spotify use music to motivate different kinds of productivity, Peloton’s approach to musical genre and abstract labor time is significant because it recruits established Fordist categories and practices to serve post-Fordist forms of patriarchal racial capitalism. Peloton resembles a World War II–era factory — where, as musicologist S. Alexander Reed notes, recorded music was commonly piped in to coordinate assembly line workers and “make humans as machine-like as possible.” By synchronizing the rate and intensity of each worker on the line, music helped standardize labor performance to better reflect in practice the abstract uniformity it had in theory. Reed cites a passage in a 1943 issue of The Musical Quarterly that could just as well describe a Peloton workout: “The music most certainly helps you to forget [your job] and stops you from grumbling.” If in a factory, music kept workers working; in a Peloton workout, it keeps users working out — with and on Peloton. Tying users to a brand that frames social justice as a matter of representational diversity in elite spaces (such as Peloton’s roster of stars), Peloton uses musical genre and Fordist abstract labor-time to produce distinctly neoliberal, post-Fordist forms of patriarchal racial capitalism that exclude through nominal inclusion.

Even though Spotify presents its vibe-based system as a more progressive alternative to hidebound and identity-laden genre, it too re-tethers users to underlying systems of domination in new ways. For example, it’s well known that facial recognition technologies like the one used at Canon Beijing are racist and cissexist. And work in a capitalist system is inherently exploitative no matter how it’s framed. Today’s “vibe renaissance” is also a reconfiguration of longstanding relations of domination. And as Peloton’s use of musical genre shows, genre and abstract labor-time are themselves being reborn and repurposed to serve contemporary logics of popular feminism and multiracial white supremacy. Just as we shouldn’t rush to the conclusion that musical genre is dead, we shouldn’t be too quick to believe Spotify’s hype about vibes.