I used to be smart.
Maybe smart is the wrong word for it. Pretentious might be better – which I know is a shock to hear from your friendly neighborhood art reviewer. But it’s true. In my youth I obsessed over philosophy and snubbed most popular music and film franchises (Except for the mediocre, three-part Atlas Shrugged adaptation, which I went out of my way to see in theaters). I wanted so desperately to be seen as highbrow – so what changed?
Mental health probably had a lot to do with it. I either got worse or got better, but either way I changed significantly. I don’t read as much as I used to. I’ve developed a love for the music of Jimmy Buffett that was maybe once ironic but is now entirely genuine. And, in what is perhaps the most jarring development, I’ve now spent hours – seriously, hours – watching compilations of TikTok on Youtube. It was the type of impulse that seemed to defy explanation, a compulsion that was a mixture of nature documentary and thumb-sucking comfort. I’ve been thinking these past few months about what draws me to the platform, and recently I’ve developed a working theory. And, in the name of steadily pushing the limits of what ArtsEarth lets me post without problem, I’m going to talk about it.
So welcome to TikTok, and the rebirth of Vaudeville.
TikTok, for those not plugged into the zeitgeist, is a Chinese video-sharing app that gained massive popularity in the United States after merging with Musical.ly in August of 2018. In the vein of Vine and musical.ly, TikTok specializes in looped, five to sixty-second videos. In only a few short years it’s gathered over 800 million active users, far surpassing the growth of other sites like Instagram and even Facebook. It’s undeniable to see that what started as a musical lip-syncing app quickly blossomed into something incredible.
Compare this to the growth of vaudeville. It’s the late 1880s, and immigrants travelled en mass to the United States with dreams of a better life. What they got, however, were ghettos to live in and a country that refused to give them honest work. So they found their livelihood in vaudeville, performing in every – really, nearly every aspect. There were singers and dancers, sure, but there were also escape artists and impersonators, sketch artists and ventriloquists. Truly if there was something strange or unique about you that’s able to be harnessed, it could be done on the vaudeville stage.
Now this concept could apply to most video platforms, even to the internet as a whole, where you can find fame in everything from selling nudes to running a twitter for your cat. But the landscape of the internet has changed. Take Youtube, for instance, which hasn’t seen an independently produced video top the view charts since “Charlie Bit My Finger” in 2007. As the platform developed, the algorithm started to favor longer videos, causing many creators to spend less time creating content and more time padding to get at least ten minutes and allow for monetization. This is a sharp contrast to vaudeville philosophy, where going over ten minutes could cause a performer to lose their job. And this is taken even further on TikTok, where you have less then a minute to make yourself seen.
And what is there to see? There are carefully choreographed dances to popular songs, like in the work of Charli D’Amelio, the most followed creator on the app. Then there’s Zach King and his magic tricks and digital illusions. But don’t stop there! Scroll a little further and you’ll find original songs, strange animals, pranks and challenges, and rapid-fire comedy routines spanning across all cultures.
While vaudeville became a way for disillusioned minorities to survive in a new world, TikTok has become a place of refuge for the 16-24 year olds that make up just under half of their user base. This is Generation Z, where – like the early immigrants to the United States – we were promised an impossible future and given a world that is rapidly falling apart. In the face of this we’ve developed a rebirth of personal, absurdist humor that centers on finding connection in an increasingly chaotic world.
Does that make it smart? Probably not. Is it some profound work of art? Maybe. Did I use this an excuse to watch more TikToks in the name of research? Reader, you know me all too well.
But the world right now is, for lack of a better word, a complete garbage fire. There are protests and riots, along with the ongoing pandemic, a brewing economic depression along with two inch Murder Hornets. And there’s things you can do. Wash your hands, wear a mask, sign petitions and support black voices. But when you’ve done all that, when the weight of the world pushes towards the breaking point, there’s a near-infinite well of original and innovative content on TikTok. It’s not perfect, but, to quote playwright Edwin Milton Royle, “Vaudeville may be a kind of lunch counter art, but art is so vague and lunch is so real”.