My friend tells me he has been wiping Oreo cake batter from his microwave all day. We are chatting on Google Hangouts, one of a multitude of video-calling platforms we now use to communicate, keeping up the pretense that seeing each other’s faces means that everything remains normal, and that we haven’t been locked inside our houses for months. He tilts his laptop to show me the microwave, and I make sounds to indicate that I am able to see the mess he’s referring to, when all I can see is a blur of pixels.
“At least she’s not dancing half naked,” he shrugs, explaining that his daughter had been attempting to emulate a recipe on the social media app TikTok, when the batter, for reasons unknown, exploded.
After we wave goodbye — the internationally recognized gesture indicating that a video conversation is over — I swipe through my phone’s apps to TikTok and scroll through the short videos that the app’s algorithm has decided I would most like to see.
There are many objections you could have to the app: privacy concerns, censoring the Hong Kong protests, banning LGBTQ material in certain countries, and the fact that, every few seconds, the app reads any text you have copied onto your clipboard without your consent. But I must admit that my first reaction was not far removed from my friend’s fear about the sexualization of his teenage daughter: this app is not for me, a nearly 40-year-old man. There is something undoubtedly voyeuristic about watching teenagers perform a variety of dances for one another, almost like eavesdropping on a conversation that you are not meant to hear.
Still, I have kept the app on my phone. While baby boomers post factually dubious claims about the causes of the coronavirus on Facebook, and Generation X and the Millennials are engaged in a political deathmatch on Twitter, the really inventive “content” on the internet is now on TikTok.
And because it is primarily a visual medium, linguistic restrictions do not hamper people as they do on, say, Twitter, where the languages you speak force you to follow only certain accounts, and be subjected to certain worldviews. A casual swipe through my TikTok feed shows me K-pop fans in Korea, children in India, Emirati teens and British families doing awkward dances together. The scarcity of political statements — not entirely absent but far from being its core content — is, of course political in itself. The app’s users are simply keener on breadmaking and acrobatics than, say, a critique of the Chinese government. But, as the proliferation of cat videos since the dawn of the internet has demonstrated, sometimes bread and circus moves are what we need.
At no point has this become more evident than during this global pandemic: most intellectual pursuits prove to be too arduous, too tiresome. We have reverted to shows like the brainless-but-fun Netflix production The Floor is Lava, and, yes, an endless stream of TikTok dances.
Although the app has a multitude of different genres and memes, the dances are what make TikTok truly tick. A neat feature — which has been instrumental in the prominence of various “dance challenges” (generally repeating a set of moves to the same song) — is the user’s ability to respond to existing videos, remix and reuse them to make them their own.
The postproduction ethos that began with hip-hop culture has become the backbone of internet memes. Theorized as a reigning art-world methodology by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, postproduction has become available to the masses at the click of a button. As a friend shows off their moves to Doja Cat’s song Say So, you can get your response polished, uploaded and ready to go in minutes.
Suddenly, the dances no longer seem like teenage entertainment or a form of sexualization to be disparaged by parents. Instead, they are a kind of communion: a way to share a physical experience at a time when physical interactions are few and far between. It is no coincidence that the hashtag #familychallenge (where the user ropes in their family to do a particular challenge or set of dance moves) has racked up over 380 million views. Parents are as bored as their children, and dancing together to The Weekend’s Blinding Lights lets technology bring the family together. Dancing on TikTok today plays a similar role to that of playing music in Jane Austen’s novels: a way of passing time, together.
There are some challenges that seem virtually impossible for an untrained dancer to master. For instance, as far as I can tell, the #tkndancechallenge to the song TKN by Rosalía and Travis Scott requires an entirely liquid spine and a PhD in twerking. But most are deceptively simple. A few steps to your right, some robotic, angular arm movements reminiscent of Britney Spears’ moves in the late ‘90s, a twirl, and you’re done. As a result, dances are more democratic than they have been for a long time — the focus is on the “shareability” of a certain combination of moves, meaning they can be done by an old man and his dog, as well as preschool kids. It offers the simple joy of observing people doing something just for the fun of it, as well as getting a large number of views, which is what separates the TikTok stars from the amateurs.
But this is a brief moment in time, before another social medium is co-opted by money and celebrities. TikTok is currently what Twitter was before, say, 2014, or Tumblr before the “family-friendly” content restrictions sapped it of its life force: a space filled with possibilities. Celebrities have already begun infiltrating the app. During lockdown, Hailey Bieber got her husband, Justin, to take part in a challenge to Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, — a challenge you can also see Ashley Benson and Cara Delevingne doing.
Meanwhile, the music industry is gearing songs to TikTok popularity, buoyed by the rampant success of Lil Nas X’s TikTok song Old Town Road. The song was popular during the #yeehawchallenge, before it hit the mainstream and topped the US charts for 19 consecutive weeks. Short, memorable verses and heavy beat drops are increasingly popular. Pop songs had already become shorter with the advent of streaming, because services such as Spotify pay artists and record labels per song streamed, not time listened. But TikTok has accelerated this process, putting the focus on short, memorable snippets. It is only a matter of time before TikTok, which is currently valued at 100 billion US dollars, becomes a playground for financial interests.
But, for now, we can get through these months of isolation watching people dance together, alone.
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