The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Signifiers


The Varieties of Vibe Experience

Kyle Edward Williams

THR illustration/Shutterstock.

Are you vibing? It would be understandable if you’re not. After all, we live in the age of the polycrisis—of wars, climate emergency, economic uncertainty, political instability, and so forth. When it comes to public life, the vibes are not great. Which is perhaps one reason why they have become a subject of popular discourse in recent years, especially among Millennials and Zoomers. We talk about the vibes of a certain place or event or scene. A restaurant, for example, can have great vibes, a quality that makes it an attractive place to pass the time. On the other hand, a person can give off bad vibes, radiating anxiety, a harsh mood, or something creepy or oddly uncomfortable—not the kind of person you want to talk to about the news (or anything else). But sometimes you meet someone you can vibe with, which gives not only the pleasant surprise of realizing you have more in common with a new friend than you could have expected but also offers one of life’s greatest gifts: being in the company of someone with whom you are deeply aligned. Vibes, in short, matter—but they are not a new linguistic phenomenon.

Words once fashioned in communities of craft and art have a way of circulating, getting taken up and repurposed for unexpected uses. So it was with vibes. The term originated in the world of jazz, as a slang reference to the vibraphone (also known as the vibraharp), a mallet-percussion instrument invented in 1916 that resembles the xylophone except that, like the steel marimba, it has a much mellower and deeper sound. According to the 1956 Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz, Lionel Hampton was the first musician to feature the instrument in a recorded solo, in his 1930 performance of “Memories of You” with Louis Armstrong. Hampton had a long career in subsequent decades as a bandleader, pianist, drummer, and vocalist, but it was the swinging smooth tones of his hammered solos that earned him the title “King of the Vibes.”

A vibration is a mechanical phenomenon, the oscillation of particles around an equilibrium point, which is a process that can be measured in terms of frequency. The measurement of frequency—and the study of acoustics and vibration theory in general—originated with the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who, Boethius reported, happened to observe that the hammering sounds coming out of a metalworkers’ shop differed depending on the weight of the hammers being used. In the terms developed by the Pythagorean school, vibration was a simple matter of physics.

But there is an alternative school of thought when it comes to vibration, a more recent spiritual conceptualization attuned to the unruliness of motion—the way vibrations move in and through and around us, affecting, transforming, and connecting the seemingly inert material of the universe with that which is alive, transcending not just our own bodies but even our souls and spirits. The nineteenth-century American businessman William Walker Atkinson, probably the best-known evangelist for “New Thought”—a spiritual movement that William James famously said was premised on an “intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes”—preached that thoughts were powerful because they were not confined to the conscious minds of individual human beings. According to Atkinson, thoughts were vibrations that went out into the world. What’s more, he said, every person “is constantly surrounded with a thought-aura which affects those with whom he comes into contact.” Clergyman Norman Vincent Peale was no doubt picking up on this line of thought when he wrote in his 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking that “prayer is a sending out of vibrations from one person to another and to God.”

Although by the mid-twentieth century the word vibe, as one historian has put it, “remained strongly tied to the physical notion of acoustics and sonic vibrations”—indeed, the slang term would never entirely lose those musical connotations—it began to take on more expansive meanings. Maybe it was because of the embodied experience of those jazz clubs where Lionel Hampton performed. Or the experimental and pulsing sounds of amplified rock ‘n’ roll. Or the development of a counterculture that, like New Thought, drew inspiration from the mysticism and meditative practices of Eastern religions—and experimented with mind-altering drugs. Likely all three shared the increasingly common view that, as Peale had put it, “all of the universe is in vibration,” but it was the 1960s counterculture that experienced vibes more acutely than any other group.

The language of vibes registered both the varieties of experience beyond the self and interpersonal feelings among people. You can observe this dual meaning in Brian Wilson’s account of the beginning stages of writing, along with lead singer Mike Love, the Beach Boys’ groundbreaking 1966 song “Good Vibrations.” “I was high after smoking pot and sitting at the piano, relaxed, playing. Mike came through with the lyrics for me on this one. He heard me playing and singing the ‘Good, good, good vibrations’ part,” he wrote in his autobiography I Am Brian Wilson. “That excited him and he went from room to room talking out the idea of good vibrations—what it meant, that it was connected to the peace and love happening in San Francisco and everywhere else.” In contrast to Love’s frenetic rumination on the term’s meaning for the hippie movement, Wilson had in mind the intuitive aspects of relationships: “I was thinking of how people sense instinctively if something is good news or bad news—sometimes when the telephone rings, you just know.”

It was in this sense of interpersonal intuition that the word became most commonly used. John Lennon, for example, told a Rolling Stone reporter in 1971 about a fight between George Harrison and Yoko Ono: “‘You give off bad vibes.’ That’s what George said to her and we both sat through it, and I didn’t hit him, I don’t know why.” Eugene Landy, the infamous psychologist and counterculture guru who treated Brian Wilson and managed his affairs for years (before Wilson filed a restraining order against him), defined vibes in his popular 1971 book The Underground Dictionary as “vibrations, feelings, or thoughts that are transmitted non-verbally—e.g., I got good vibes from him.” But it wasn’t just people who could give off vibes—places could, too. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his gonzo journalism–style account of a reporting trip under the influence of all manner of drugs and alcohol, Hunter S. Thompson titled one chapter “Hideous Music and the Sound of Many Shotguns…Rude Vibes on a Saturday Evening in Vegas.”

It is remarkable how little the usage of vibes has changed from the era of the counterculture to the present day, though there is a recent verbal formulation that I have noticed. Sometimes people will say that they vibe with another person—or with a place or event. This usage suggests what we might call greater vibratory agency, and it emphasizes the extensive aspect of the self: Like a tuning fork, your vibes may resonate with another person’s, or, like a stringed instrument, your vibes may complement the harmony of vibes at a party.

But what has certainly changed is the popularity of this term. It seems clear that vibes is used more often and more widely in our moment than it was ever used in the 1960s or 1970s. Why?

One reason might be the premium we put on experiences—and on the curation of experiences. Not surprisingly, music is a big part of this (and, come to think of it, so are drugs). The convenience of streaming music on smartphones, as well as the ability to create or listen to playlists that convey particular moods, allows us to literally set the vibes for our day, for a party, or just for a task—like writing an essay such as this or going on a run after work. The ready availability of, say, THC or Adderall only contributes to this ability to curate experiences. Vibes are more than just music and drugs, of course. It seems that the smartphone, through apps such as TikTok and Instagram, has also contributed to greater sensitivity to how such things as lighting, fashion, vocal affects, and scenery evoke ever more refined feelings and connotations. Life seen (and performed) through the lens of the smartphone is a life in which everything is curated—and for what? Perhaps for the vibes.

Today’s vibes, then, can’t be accounted for without taking into consideration the role of Internet culture. We might talk about the norms of discourse online in such terms: Some have called the backlash against “woke” progressivism a “vibe shift.” Or consider the consequences of the fact that most of our culture’s communications takes place in disembodied spaces where people can fashion their identities and styles according to more malleable intuitions or aesthetics. To take one among many possible examples, the state of contemporary Internet culture helps explain why the number of young people identifying as LGBTQ+ has skyrocketed at the same time that, according to social scientists, young people are having fewer sexual encounters than any previous generation on record. In this disembodied moment, the way we understand our own gender and sexuality has taken on vibe-like qualities.

But it shouldn’t be surprising if both the meaning of vibes and the reasons why the term has become so popular again are difficult to explain. We reach for vibes when we’re trying to explain something that can’t easily be expressed. Writer and video creator Kyla Scanlon recently coined the portmanteau vibecession to explain why the American public has felt so negatively about the economy in a time when, according to most metrics, it’s actually doing quite well. That’s not to say Americans simply have incorrect opinions—or that their views are of no consequence. As any good economist will tell you, the way people feel is a serious matter. And in this case, the economy isn’t so very different from the rest of life. Ignore the vibes at your peril.