Beats to Quarantine to: Lofi hip hop music and virtual community during the COVID-19 pandemic

This is the script of a paper I gave at the Challenge and Change in Popular Music IASPM UK/I Conference, hosted by the University of Liverpool on 31 August 2022. It is a more concise version of my longer data analysis in two parts on lofi hip hop during COVID-19 (part 1, part 2).


Introduction

I want to open by familiarising you with – or perhaps reminding you of – lofi hip hop, or at least what I understand it to be. Here’s one minute from the best known YouTube video stream.

That was ‘lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to’ on the channel Lofi Girl. It has over 11 million subscribers and averages 30 thousand concurrent viewers. This anime-inspired animation of a young woman working away in profile serves as a visual emblem for a longstanding staple of social and musical activity on YouTube. Although Lofi Girl is the most watched channel and most prominent recommendation in YouTube’s algorithms, searching for keywords like ‘lofi’, ‘beats’, ‘chill’, ‘study’, ‘relax’ – terms now ironically memed into word soup – will return thousands of videos. We can divide them into three types. Some constantly broadcast music, like a radio station. Mixes are playlists of several lofi tracks sequenced one after another. The third kind of lofi video is an individual track. This paper focuses on the second type, mixes, which are central to the culture of lofi listening.

Lofi hip hop in its current online form emerged in the mid-2010s[1], and is widely viewed and appreciated on YouTube, especially among a student audience. The most popular channels have now developed record labels, complete with vinyl releases and merchandise. A Wikipedia entry, a KnowYourMeme page, and a reference on the Netflix cartoon Bojack Horseman all indicate wide recognition of the phenomenon, at least in pop culture. In 2018, YouTube lofi was characterised as ‘one of the kindest communities on the internet’.[2] Lofi listeners are highly conversational in the comments sections, on a spectrum from sentimental and introspective to phatic and functional. Some write out deeply personal memories, others weigh in, and many more simply say hi. But March 2020 brought great changes. The worldwide introduction of COVID-19 health measures saw almost all educational institutions and most businesses transition to internet-based communication, with those privileged in homes typically working online for several months. And web journalism widely reported how lofi hip hop became well-used and well-loved during the early stages of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. My research investigated how a significant influx of new listeners changed the conventions of engagement with the music on YouTube. Thinking along the conference theme of challenge and change in popular music, how did lockdown affect lofi listening?

Data analysis

I collected 375 thousand comments across 31 of the most popular mix videos like these, using the big data text analysis software Mozdeh. I used 1st March 2020 as a cutoff point for pre- and during-pandemic samples and determined statistically significant differences in the proportions of words used in the comments posted during each period. Reading terms that had substantially increased and declined in use revealed a variety of changes in the comments before and after the introduction of quarantine measures, which I then interpreted and ordered into themes. I also contextualised terms using close readings of especially popular comments and the wider media commentary on lofi. The following table provides a summary of three themes, subthemes, and the most significant changes in word frequency for each subtheme.

Terms in white were more frequently used before 1 March 2020, whereas terms in black became more common (as a proportion of overall comments) after that date.

It should come as no surprise that there is significantly more discussion of COVID-19 during the pandemic than there was prior to its onset. There were zero mentions of the terms ‘covid’ or ‘pandemic’ before the cutoff date, compared to thousands of uses after. Just before I provide some examples, a quick ethical/methodological note: comments that I quote are abbreviated or rearranged to preserve anonymity, but I avoid introducing new words to maintain an accurate portrait of the sentiments expressed. This approach follows best practice in internet studies, communicating a ‘general feeling’ of each comment while protecting the privacy of individual social media users[3].

So, some examples of the posts referring to listening in quarantine: ‘the songs in this playlist help me get through quarantine’, ‘who else is listening to this in quarantine?’, and ‘my teacher says to quarantine at home because of coronavirus’. There is a notable presence of comments expressing gratitude for the music bringing comfort during periods of lockdown, as well as a sense that lofi listeners will ‘get through this together’. …  Alongside positioning oneself in specific instances of quarantine, listeners increasingly reported accompanying periods of study and work with lofi mixes: using the ‘beats to study to’ to study to. This purported function of the music has evidently become indispensable since educational institutions shifted to remote learning, and students enjoyed the privilege of being able to listen while studying. There is also widespread mention of ‘homework’, which was already a popular topic of discussion pre-pandemic. There is a significant increase in students celebrating things like ‘another online module finished!’.

There is clear precedent for a commitment to productivity and schoolwork among lofi listeners, which Winston and Saywood associate with the frame of Jonathan Crary’s ‘24/7 capitalism’[4]. They describe lofi hip hop as an appropriate soundtrack for a social context where the time spent doing homework has continually increased since the 1980s, and where former periods of relaxation and leisure time have been filled with more work[5]. This increase certainly accounts for the lofi audience’s fondness for mixes that encourage activities like a ‘1 A.M Study Session’. The trend towards constant work may have intensified during the pandemic, though the popular word ‘session’ and the idea of undertaking a specific ‘module’ suggests well-organised students successfully putting boundaries around periods of study, with lofi’s timebound mixes as a listening aid.

With COVID-19 measures and studying largely occupying the minds of commenters, it follows that there are fewer references to other times and places than before. The terms ‘night’, ‘Monday’, and ‘summer’ were much more frequent in the sample prior to the pandemic, in reflections like ‘it’s 1am here, a perfect night to forget about everything’ and ‘this takes me back to the summer of 2015’. One might assume that listeners’ memories of better times would become more common during the pandemic, but such writing reduced as the pandemic took precedence. Arguably, comments reflecting on the poster’s current environment and activities resemble a miniature form of diarizing or blogging[6]. Personal blogging on YouTube typically takes the form of the videos themselves, but not only do individuals posting on lofi mixes during COVID-19 seem eager to acknowledge living through an important period of history, but often ask questions seeking solidarity: ‘who else is vibing to this during lockdown?’, ‘the covid situation here is bad, have schools in your country opened yet?’, and ‘anyone else listen to this to calm down?’. Such comments prompt other respondents to share in their sentiments, with the implied forms of communality – like ‘who else’ – suggesting collective identity shared among the lofi audience.

Next: new associations and expressions of personal identity have emerged among the lofi audience during the pandemic, some of which are rather surprising, even spooky. The most statistically significant increases in the entire sample are for the terms ‘witch’ and ‘ghost’. There is a simple explanation for this. Two of the most popular lofi mixes brand the music as designed for these audiences (only). Understandably, there are few references to witches and ghosts prior to these videos. At first glance, commenters using these terms from the characterful mix titles might seem like a mundane finding or big data anomaly, but these fantastical identities are worth some consideration. Lofi listeners increasingly identified with such figures after COVID-19 lockdowns, and it may be easy to see why. A great deal of research examining the impacts of quarantine measures have focused on loneliness and social isolation.[7]. The practical consequences of self-isolation align closely with the emotionally isolated, otherworldly imagery of ghosts and witches. Consider the experiences of these figures, at least in popular media: they are invisible or outcast loners removed from social connections, typically situated indoors, and committed to domestic hobbies. With the absence of conventional social interactions, lofi listeners have increasingly associated with such supernatural figures. Lofi’s ancestor vaporwave has similarly evoked the ghost as a figure produced by online communication, which leads to feeling ‘social while alone, thronged with invisible entities’[8].

There are broader tendencies adopted by lofi commenters. A prominent example observed since the earliest appearances of the community on YouTube is the use of fullwidth characters, known as ‘aesthetic text’. Fullwidth lettering – or simply typing a space between each letter – is an iconic feature of many lofi mix titles and comments. However, this kind of text appears to be going out of style. It may be that as the music rose in popularity during the pandemic and brought many new listeners to the YouTube mixes, more recent commenters are not as familiar with – or choose not to adopt – this typographical trend, skewing the dataset towards conventional text. But there may also be a larger shift at hand.

A similar trajectory sees a decline in the popularity of references to animated TV series like Cowboy Bebop, Rick and Morty, and The Simpsons, earlier lofi favourites that previously served as shared cultural touchpoints, indexes of childhood memory, and nostalgic sadness. Let’s listen to the opening of the mix ‘BAD FEELINGS’ by the bootleg boy.

The video loop of Bart Simpson crying, the reverb and delay-drenched audio (effects widely used to evoke memory and emotional significance), and Marge’s encouragement to suppress sadness all exemplify the sentimental and nostalgic qualities of lofi, contributing to a sense of collective identity among listeners of a similar age and shared childhood media experiences. Yet the word ‘Simpson’ is used twice as often prior to March 2020, with the arrival of newcomers during COVID-19 less inclined to reinforce such references. Meta-references to the music have also reduced accordingly.

Words providing positive appraisal of the music – ‘love’, ‘good’, and ‘beautiful’ – appear less often after March 2020. The related drop-off of ‘dope’, a word derived from hip hop slang, indicates a distancing of lofi from its instrumental hip hop origins. In its place, there is more generic conversation, with increases in the uses of ‘hi’, ‘comment’, ‘reading’ (as in reading other comments), and ‘vibing’. A representative example combining these terms is: ‘hi to everyone reading my comment while vibing along’. I should emphasise how many comments are essentially a variation on this. General greetings – often directed to ‘whoever reads this’ – seemingly act as a substitute for direct social connection which helps provide ontological security. The hailing of a virtual (even an imagined) community enables posters to experience ‘security in the sense of self and confidence in the continuity of one’s being-in-the-world’[9].

The comment section not only provides an opportunity for staving off isolation, but also holds the potential for encouraging wellbeing practices in others. Many individuals offer advice to the crowd, such as, ‘hi everybody ❤️ make sure to drink enough water and have regular meals today’, and ‘Hi to everyone studying for exams, we’ll get through this, keep going!’. The desire to share activities with others – like ‘who’s still vibing to this in 2020?’ – further affirms a sense of belonging united by common behaviours, and the ‘kindness’ of the community noted at the beginning. At the same time, the genericness of these messages indicates mainstream digital culture infiltrating lofi’s formerly tight-knit social connections, and sentimental conversations.

Emotionally sincere commentary has been a hallmark of lofi mixes since their earliest days on YouTube. However, words related to personal feelings appear less commonly in the later subset, including ‘life’, ‘feel’, ‘make’, ‘alone’, ‘depressed’, ‘nostalgic’, ‘sad’, ‘childhood’, and ‘lonely’. There is a sense that more diverse commentary from newcomers to the lofi comment sections has increased the general ‘noise’, enabling us to see a reduction in marked emotional language. At a broader level, it is therefore tempting to see an earlier manifestation of the lofi community on YouTube as a form of internet subculture or digital counterculture that has been somewhat dissolved by the flow of YouTube users tuning in for some musical pandemic distraction.[10]

Commercial and political appropriations

A further consequence of lofi’s growing popularity is its openness to commercial and political appropriation, as new uploaders produce videos using the aesthetic veneer of lofi as a point of reference. Just as the first American states imposed stay-at-home orders, media celebrity Will Smith uploaded ‘chill beats to quarantine to’. This 90-minute mix features an animation of Smith himself in the place of Lofi Girl, complete with a cat on the windowsill and an urban skyline visible out the window. He wears a hoodie with the logo ‘Bel-Air’. The first line of the description, highlighted here for clarity, encourages listeners to buy merchandise from his clothing company Bel-Air Athletics. This is not the only commercial intrusion on the community. Code Pioneers offer a lofi mix apparently designed for coding to, but provide their Amazon affiliate link to a smart coffee mug warmer, as well as a sponsored product list of all the computer equipment pictured in the animation. Redirects to Code Pioneers’ other YouTube videos and merchandise also appear. The apparent functions of lofi – to code to, to draw to, to cook to – conveniently expand in tandem with virtual product placement opportunities.

The potential for political appropriations of YouTube lofi were identified at an even earlier stage.In late 2019, the official UK Conservative Party channel uploaded ‘lo fi boriswave beats to relax/get brexit done to’. The music is overdubbed with lengthy samples from Boris Johnson speeches, and the conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph sits, just visibly, on the train table. This mix mostly features beats from a commercial music library, and given the video uses a Creative Commons Attribution license, the tracks must have been bought outright, which leads one to wonder whether it is a good use of taxpayers’ or donors’ money. But evidently the return on investment comes through the sonic propaganda and the up-front hyperlink to join the Conservative Party in the description. Variations on the mix format like this demonstrate the potential danger of lofi’s growing popularity.

Such commercial and political interests may continue to encroach upon lofi, but they ultimately make only a minor impact given the major channels’ hold over the existing audience. There remains a good deal of communal expression that indicates the use of music to alleviate challenging sociopolitical contexts, as users report on their listening situation, share aspects of identity, and make social connections with others. Viewing the genre reductively as something easily transferable, re-purposable, and approaching ‘meme’ status would fail to see the rich expressions of community and sociality present in the comment sections.

 

References

[1] Emma Winston and Laurence Saywood, ‘Beats to Relax/Study To: Contradiction and Paradox in Lofi Hip Hop’, IASPM Journal 9, no. 2 (24 December 2019): 40.

[2] Kemi Alemoru, ‘Inside YouTube’s Calming “Lofi Hip Hop Radio to Relax/Study to” Community’, Dazed, 14 June 2018, https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/40366/1/youtube-lo-fi-hip-hop-study-relax-24-7-livestream-scene.

[3] Helen Kennedy, Post, Mine, Repeat: Social Media Data Mining Becomes Ordinary (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 118.

[4] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso Books, 2014).

[5] Winston and Saywood, ‘Beats to Relax/Study To’, 49.

[6] Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

[7] Tzung-Jeng Hwang et al., ‘Loneliness and Social Isolation during the COVID-19 Pandemic’, International Psychogeriatrics 32, no. 10 (October 2020): 1217–20, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1041610220000988; Jing Xuan Koh and Tau Ming Liew, ‘How Loneliness Is Talked about in Social Media during COVID-19 Pandemic: Text Mining of 4,492 Twitter Feeds’, Journal of Psychiatric Research, 7 November 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.11.015; Yuval Palgi et al., ‘The Loneliness Pandemic: Loneliness and Other Concomitants of Depression, Anxiety and Their Comorbidity during the COVID-19 Outbreak’, Journal of Affective Disorders 275 (1 October 2020): 109–11, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.06.036; Ben J. Smith and Michelle H. Lim, ‘How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Focusing Attention on Loneliness and Social Isolation’, Public Health Research & Practice 30, no. 2 (30 June 2020), https://doi.org/10.17061/phrp3022008.

[8] Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave And The Commodification Of Ghosts (Winchester: Zero Books, 2016).

[9] Lynn Jamieson, ‘Personal Relationships, Intimacy and the Self in a Mediated and Global Digital Age’, in Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, ed. Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013), 15, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137297792_2.

[10] Jessa Lingel, Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).

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