2021 is starting off in full dumpster-fire fashion, but it has also given rise to one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the internet. Let’s talk about #seashantytok.
I’ve been watching the evolution of the Wellerman arrangements on TikTok with glee over the past few weeks. As you can see from the version above, this simple sea shanty, which was originally posted by user @nathanevanss, has grown and evolved based off of the additions of multiple users. It’s the latest example of a really wonderful and unique TikTok option called the duet (#duet). TikTok users also have the option to stitch (#stitch) with other users, and there have been some lovely comedic products of stitching that are worth mentioning when discussing the versatility of this creative platform.
TikTok itself has been a social media sensation, ending up in headlines in 2020 when it was accused of being Chinese spy software. There’s probably something to this, though I won’t go through all the allegations and possibilities. Suffice to say you should watch John Oliver’s episode on facial recognition if you want to delve more deeply into the problematic aspects of Chinese-owned (and American-owned, let’s be fair) social media companies. But regardless of how you feel about TikTok, it’s undeniable that it has transformed online culture and is currently the host of some profound pieces of art and social critique. You can’t talk about pop culture or the arts right now without talking about TikTok.
One of the reasons TikTok is so powerful is that the duet and stitch options allow for users to co-create across time and space. In the case of the Wellerman, the original post was made on December 27, 2020. Each subsequent duet has added layers onto the original arrangement, transforming it from a single voice to something that might have been made by a small acapella group or barbershop quartet to a full choral arrangement — a whole community singing in unity at a time when unity seems almost alien in concept. This song shows clearly the positive power of social media in an age of increasing isolation. Between the pandemic and aggressive curfews, disturbing headlines and a general sense of instability, it may feel impossible that there are other people in this world to connect to. That the simple joy of singing with someone else, of collaborating to create something beautiful, can exist.
But look. Here it is. It’s staring right at you. And no, it’s not the same, not entirely. But it’s still beautiful.