A famous TikTok personality is laughing about using the n-word and the kids are dancing.
It is likely, if you’re reading this, that you don’t use TikTok (or a similar app, musical.ly, which merged with TikTok in 2017). TikTok is an app whose demographic firmly targets tweens and teenagers. Like most social media networks, however, it’s used by more than just that. You’ve got the teenage girls of course, but you’ve also got women with that Kelly-Clarkson-divorced mom energy. Artists. Standard social media cop propaganda. People cooking delicious food in the rough and beautiful Chinese countryside. K-Pop style street dance routines. Comedy. It’s easy to equate TikTok to something like Vine, which itself shut down in 2017, but it’s different than that. TikTok thrives on the themes of derivative content and the language of memes in a way that Vine never quite managed. Its basis as a “lip-sync” app is incredibly important to its future as a creator of meme-able content and its ultimate longevity. Form derives function in this regard.
Drama is fast on a service like TikTok, where the videos are traditionally short – 30 seconds can feel like an eternity when you’re doing a popular dance craze or iterating on the meme of the moment. It’s faster than any other format currently and the drama moves at much the same pace. In June of this year, a popular TikTok’er known as radicalseb was effectively shut down by the community for, among other things, allegations of long-standing abuse against minors and racism. The Daily Dot did a fairly good write-up, which you can read here.
Some TikTok’ers took to the platform to respond in the only way that made sense. They danced to him laughing and admitting to using the n-word. It’s easy to see this kind of reaction and think that they’re not taking these allegations seriously, and that would earnestly be the wrong take. They’re dancing, yes, but they are mad. This is the kind of responsive content that breeds on TikTok, a meme unto itself.
Take this user, a Vegas teen who danced to Siri reading out their mom kicking them out of the house. It’s the same kind of content, the same kind of movement, but in a lot of ways even more personal than the girl dancing to a well known user turning out to be a dick. There’s an open sharing of wounds on TikTok that is probably a huge reason that it’s frequently dismissed as cringe (I also blame the TikTok compilations on YouTube which seem custom made to discourage people from using the app). Emotional openness, to the point of harm in some cases, is frequently a huge selling point of both the humor of the age group that frequents TikTok as well as the actual use of TikTok — here’s a cop doing a divorce TikTok to a weirdly terrible cover of Zombie by the Cranberries. Divorce TikToks are their own subgenre, featuring mostly middle aged men taking off their wedding rings with somber faces, black and white filters, and heavy country music. Sometimes, inexplicably, they involve their children as well.
I might need to take a step back here and explain what I mean by emotional openness as a point of humor. It’s very likely that if you’re not on TikTok you probably haven’t heard the lines “I’m going to dip my balls in some thousand island dressing/cause I got depression.” In June, this comedic hook hit TikTok like a bomb and it was from a joke video from producer Kenny Beats and comedian Zack Fox (here’s a Genius video breakdown of that song as well some pure chaotic energy from Fox) and in a lot of ways it was treated both incredibly seriously and also with a great deal of humor. The line itself is basically gibberish — like most of the song it’s top-of-the-dome riffing on a sampling that is described as having a “domestic violence filter” over a “post 9/11, pre-death of Whitney Houston” beat. But the TikTok community ran with it, pushing the original video to 1.5 million views on YouTube, and making an unknowable quantity of videos on the TikTok platform predominantly to that line as well as the follow-up line where he yells “Shout-out mental illness…I put my dick in a bag of Doritos.”
Zack Fox speaks to the kids.
In a lot of ways, the kids on the platform match that nihilistic “I’ve disappointed my dad for the last time” energy of Zack Fox’s gibberish lyrics. Take this video of a teenager interviewing his friends at a Steak and Shake. His question, which he asks directly into his phone, is “are your parents disappointed in you,” while his friends look on and then direct to camera explain that yeah, they probably are, because they failed their college finals or because they’re gay or because of all of the drugs they’ve done. It’s presented as almost comedy, but it’s also very real. That video has been liked 1.6 million times.
TikTok has this element of pseudo-outsider culture to it. Pseudo because TikTok is an incredibly popular app — it’s #5 in Photo and Video apps on the App Store — and a slowly growing giant of social media. TikTok users attended VidCon alongside their YouTube and Instagram counterparts this year. They’re getting more and more comparable, but frequently you’ll see posts from mid-popularity users posting (sometimes shamefacedly) about being on a “cringe-y” app. The reputation of TikTok as “that place where you lipsync for teenagers” is a reality of the platform and it’s one that’s not necessarily going away.
The news might be reporting on how millennials are dancing on the grave of corporate America and diamond companies with their avocado toast and the inability to afford proper health insurance, but no editorial has ever grasped the weirdness of some Gen-Z kids dancing in the corpse of a closing J.C. Penney while a teenage girl scream-sings the Bishop Briggs song “River.” Even after writing that monstrous sentence I feel ill-equipped linguistically in describing both the sensation and the actual video itself. Perhaps it’s because I couldn’t find a way to include that the sound itself was entitled “DOLPHIN GIRLZ VOICE – sims.gamers4.”