The Origins of >Clean Pop<

„It’s cheeky, sincere, and nostalgic all at once“, „a subtle wink back to those lesser aesthetic times, paired with a sincere confidence that we’re doing it better now.“(1) It „represents a kind of ironic prettiness, or post-prettiness. It’s a way to be pretty while retaining your intellectual detachment.“(2) It’s part of an „ambivalent girliness“ or „#girlboss-ness“.(3) „It’s androgynous and can be both glamorous and edgy“, „it has become a ’new neutral'“ and „more acceptable for men and women.”(4)

We are talking about “millennial pink”. The term is not primarily the name of a color, but rather captures a trend that has spread over recent years. A trend which expresses itself in a color spectrum, from salmon to pastel pink; For some, it is like „rose quartz“, for others like “scandi pink.”

What is Millennial Pink?

As in most cases, examples help to imagine the color. The 2007 Acne Studios bags are seen as the precursor to the trend; similarly, Model Charlotte Free, who had appeared with pink hair in 2011, triggering a new hairstyle trend. Others point to the label Yes Way Rosé, which was founded in 2013 and quickly became an Instagram hit. Many name the bookcover of „#Girlboss“ (2014) by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso as the source. Almost everybody considers the color palette of Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” also from 2014, decisive for the success of the color. Finally, the Color Marketing Group projected “shim“ as the trend color of the year 2016. “Shim” is a word play of “she” and “him.” The then president of the Color Marketing Group characterized the color as a “moment of quietude” (in a world full of stress).(5)

Popular examples of millennial pink

“A moment of quietude” is also a suitable interpretation of Miley Cyrus’s video “Malibu,” which was released in May 2017. Instead of posing naked on a demolition ball („Wrecking Ball,” 2013) or pouring sticky fluids on her body (“Dooo it!,” 2015), “Malibu” shows Cyrus dancing in white clothing at the beach, accompanied by pastel colored balloons and huge soap bubbles, in a soft  millennial-pink color tint.

Miley Cyrus, Malibu, 2017, screenshots

Not only the color millennial pink, but also the motifs – sea, balloons, soap bubbles, white clothing – connect the visual language of the video to a defining aesthetic repertoire of our time. These include colors from bright pink (of which millennial pink is a trendy derivation) to sky blue, basically any pastel tones, as well as copper, silver and gold; furthermore motifs such as rainbows, unicorns, mermaids, tropical fruits, glitter etc.

These motifs often appear childlike and feminine, but they are essentially de-sexualized. They appear front and center in many social media trends, most recently in the #slime clips. More and more products also copy the style and the motifs. Just think of Ritter Sport’s unicorn chocolate, Balea’s “rainbow shower” or Starbucks‘ unicorn milkshake.

Examples of Clean Pop

The Origins of Clean Pop

The video “Malibu” noticeably combines two aesthetic trends: a certain clean-ness – white clothes, bright lighting, everything is smooth – and elements of pop – the bright colors of the balloons and soap bubbles.

In the recent past this connection has already been observed elsewhere: in Apple commercials since the 2000s. More specifically, the iPod (and later iTunes) commercials. This is to be emphasized, because these spots functioned musically and aesthetically as important trendsetters.

The iPod and iTunes advertisements were based on two strategies. The first has produced the iconic videos, which for a long time have become a synonym for iTunes. Black silhouettes dance in front of bright background colors – only the white iPod with the typical white Apple cable stands out and is, as will be shown, a discreet prophet. As the videos are aesthetically reminiscent of the pop art – especially in the sum of all videos whose attention-grabbing colors always vary and emphasize the serialism all the more – the iPod becomes a striking pop phenomenon.

The other strategy emphasizes the technical through particularly minimal-clean settings: A white background, before which the iPods now held in metallic colors are taken from a stack – for example. In many other advertising campaigns of Apple, both strategies are still connected today. Especially in the product color “rose gold,” which is not by coincidence usually named as an example for millennial pink.

Left and middle: iPod commercials of the 2000s: right MacBook in rose gold, 2017

Apple has thus pushed an aesthetic code which is based on a fusion of pop and cleanness (as an aside: in Japanese pop culture, however, this code has been present for a long time, partly also in toy design of the 1990s) .

The fact that pop has become clean, but at the same time cleanness has become pop, can be observed in the particularly impressive trend of dying one’s hair bright pink or light blue. This is not about washed out colors – which signify negligence and uncleanliness – as they were worn in the area of punk and grunge in the 1990s, but the color bright pink with its connected associations of fantasy, childhood, purity through positive thoughts. The colors are acquired exactly as they are – entirely without waiting until a bright pink becomes washed out.

The punk pink of the 1990s (left) and the millennial pink of the 2010s (right)

In a way, this trend is the result of a cleanness that needs a little bit of pop to be cool; and a pop that does not want to be too poppy anymore – because that is no longer cool. White (cleanness) + pink (pop) = bright pink/white pink (Clean Pop). It is to be assumed that all pastel phenomena of the present result from this equation.

Apple’s product design and advertising history is an example of how, over the course of time, the consolidation of pop – in the sense of Andy Warhol and thus in the sense of art – and the cleanness of a product designer such as Dieter Rams, was forced. Essentially, two aesthetic strategies which are actually complementary.

What Does Pop Actually Mean?

For a long time, pop had been mostly associated with the filthy, the intentionally careless and rebellious, and not with cleanness and purity. This is about the kind of pop, which is a rebellion of the youth against the parent generation. Pop as a generic term for rock, punk, hip hop and many other subcultures as well as the resulting mainstream. Pop, whose „eternal guiding values […] are authenticity and anarchy“ (6). Pop, which is the filthy saint – and not pure reason. (7) Pop, which is a medium to question conventions, rise above them, be cool. „Who’s bad?“ asked Michael Jackson in one of his songs and answered with pop (not only rock). Pop, which is innately ‚bad‘.

Pop Cultures which are not clean at all: Punk, Hippie, Hip Hop

What Does Clean Actually Mean?

Cleanness is clean and tidy, conformistic. Cleanness is the pure, the untouched, the virginal. The pure and unspoilt is again essential, natural, genuine. Cleanness, however, is also and especially present in the presentation of technological products and signifies the untouched. New, freshly packaged, never touched – that is why unboxing videos are so popular and their favorites are not by chance Apple products.

Some time ago, Cleanness has already entered into popular culture, both stylistically and in terms of content. In norm core, for instance, a fashionable pair of jeans and a white t-shirt express the essence of normality – and that is unisex.

Cleanness is always morally and politically correct: in numerous YouTube videos, young people exchange ideas about their dietary change, rid themselves of material goods in the name of minimalism using the so-called Kon-Mari method and discuss terms such as “detox,” “purification,” and “work-life balance.” Cleanness is free space, clearing, emptying, transcendence – physically and mentally.

Very clean: normcore, Voss-water, and minimalism on Instagram

What Does Clean Pop Actually Mean?

Clean Pop is the result when pop and cleanness mingle. When the trashy appears under the blur and over-exposure of Instagram filters. Clean Pop are poppy motifs in bright colors or mixed with white. Clean Pop are fantasy beings on flat screens of smartphones, tablets and computers. Clean Pop is when the horn of the unicorn is pointing to the sky, as if it were about to fly away – as a sticker on the glowing apple of the MacBook. Clean Pop is (old) pop in high-resolution or freshly packaged. Clean Pop is a factory freshs Care Bear stuffed animal. Clean Pop is an ombre of dark brown roots and white-blown lengths – it turns negligence into determination and perfection.

Essentially Clean Pop is the German YouTuber Bonnytrash. The setting of her videos is a pink-colored psychedelic pattern in front of which various unicorn and Care Bear stuffed animals are placed, along with mint green liqueur, a pink candle and a landscape painting in pastel colors. Bonny wears a pink sweater and a cap, also in mint green and with a unicorn print.

In a video, in which she discusses a song by Bibi H. – which, by the way, is also kind of Clean Pop – she explains that the fact that she made a song in itself is “really cool”, only the people on Twitter “really fucked her up.” But in general one shouldn’t argue. “If one person thinks it’s great, and the other thinks it’s totally shit – just leave it at that guys. Everyone is free to have their opinion. I am really happy for Bibi. We live in such a free world, where everyone can do what he wants to do.” Clean Pop is cool pop slang from the mouth of a unicorn cap bearing girl who preaches tolerance and charity.

Is Clean Pop Female?

Clean Pop motifs are often cute and are mostly worn or otherwise expressed by women. Is Clean Pop thus feminine?

In fact, the trend is aesthetically similar to the motif of the Madonna lily in art history, which has become a symbol of purity and innocence because of its bright white color, especially in Christian iconography. As a frequent motif in the images of the Lord’s proclamation, it becomes a synonym for the virginity of Mary and also the ideal of virginity as such. At the same time the white lily has a bright yellow pollen stamp, which keeps the fertility in memory. In a sense, thus, the virgin birth is a Clean Pop motive.

„Die Verkündigung des Herrn“, Painting in the Fulda cathedral, detail

Therefore, it can be said that clean pop transfers old but not yet surpassed ideals of femininity, such as purity and virginity into the present. It is strongly associated with fantasies of virginity. Fantasies that pop culture has tried to surmount, as in the case of another Madonna – the one who tried, in her 1980s videos “Like A Virgin”, “Papa Don’t Preach” or “Like A Prayer,” to reject the ideal of purity.

In fact, Clean Pop within pop culture is surprisingly prude and can be regarded as a medium which revives the old ideals of innocence in the internet age – partly unnoticed, since they are dressed in a poppy garment .

Against this backdrop, the aesthetics of net feminism and cyber-art also become more relevant. On the one hand, they are strongly influenced by the aesthetics of Clean Pop, and vice versa, but they also subvert it with various elements of impurity. For instance, bleeding is combined with heart-patterned panties and underarm hair shows beyond unicorn tank tops.

The critique of net feminism proves to be strategic and effective from this point of view – and not, as often portrayed, as a mere means for the image-cultivation of beautiful young women. At the same time, it reverts to the aesthetics of Clean Pop and creates new motifs and ideas. In its artistically advanced form, the net-feminist variant of Clean Pop shows that this is the first pop generation that is dominated by female and not by male codes.

Left: Clean Pop mainstream; right: Clean Pop subculture (in net-feminism)

Is Clean Pop Childish?

Yes, maybe and no. Yes, because Clean Pop was an Internet phenomenon in the beginning and was, among other things, encouraged by children and young teenagers. On personal blogs, YouTube, Instagram and co, they have for the first time developed their own aesthetics, which is dominant far beyond their age limit. Just think of Tevi Gevinson, who had her breakthrough on Blogspot at the age of 11 and has since published one of the most important online (and offline) magazines for teenagers: Rookie. By the way, this also explains the prudishness of the trend, which is genuine innocence.

Maybe, because Clean Pop often fuses with another internet trend: the cult of the 1990s. And this cult is predominantly run by generation Y & Z, which were children in the nineties and thus have a special affinity for toys and TV shows of this time.

No, because often – or rather, eventually, – adults glorify and refine the childhood sentiments. For example, when Tommy Hilfiger or Esprit, in their current collections recall famous pieces of clothing from the 1990s and color them in Clean Pop tones, including Millennial Pink.

Clean Pop and nostalgia. Tommy Hilfiger (top) and Esprit (bottom) recall cult fashion from the 80s and 90s (left) in their current collections and recolor them in pastells (right).

On Google, one of the top results for Clean Pop is a South Korean face cleaner colored pink and white. The double meaning that it is on the one hand a cleaning product, on the other hand designed in a clinically clean fashion, can be transferred to Clean Pop as stylistic concept: It is about the clean-up of pop, which is anarchic and ‚bad,‘ under very clinical conditions – white color, bright light, smooth surfaces.

The South-Korean face cleaner “Clean-Pop“







(6) Klaus Neumann-Braun, Birgit Richard: Wir sind anders als wir. In: Coolhunters. Jugendkulturen zwischen Medien und Markt. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main 2005. S. 9.

(7) Robert Pfaller: Das schmutzige Heilige und die reine Vernunft. Fischer Verlag: Frankfurt a. M. 2008.