The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.
Earlier this week, it seemed inevitable that this column would have something to do with the second impeachment of President Trump. In a week when Republicans were likening the impeachment of the president to a “canceling” and saying that Twitter booting Trump was akin to censorship, it was tempting to weigh in. (If free speech is being stifled, how is it possible that it’s all I hear about on every major media outlet in the world? How?) But I digressed. Why? Sea chanteys.
To get everyone up to speed, sea chanteys are the smiling woman in the Distracted Boyfriend meme—they pull your attention away no matter what should be occupying your time. Originating on merchant marine ships in the 18th century, the songs—meant to help sailors through their tasks—started taking off on TikTok after a 26-year-old Scottish postman named Nathan Evans posted a video of himself singing a song called “Soon May the Wellerman Come” (sometimes just titled “Wellerman”) in the last week of 2020. It’s been duetted thousands of times since and has become an online obsession. (If you have not yet scrolled r/seashanties you really ought to.)
Why? Why, in the middle of a political crisis in the US and a global pandemic, has everyone turned to songs that sound like what the Decemberists were trying to be? The conclusion most folks have come to is that sea chanteys are a respite. That at a time when people have to be far apart, joining together in song—even over TikTok—feels like a moment of togetherness, or socially distant karaoke. (God, I miss karaoke.) “They are unifying, survivalist songs, designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body,” Kathryn VanArendonk wrote for Vulture, “all working together to keep the ship afloat.” Similarly, as Amanda Petrusich noted in The New Yorker, “it seems possible that after nearly a year of solitude and collective self-banishment, and of crushing restrictions on travel and adventure, the chantey might be providing a brief glimpse into a different, more exciting way of life, a world of sea air and pirates and grog, of many people singing in unison, of being free to boldly take off for what Melville called the ‘true places,’ the uncorrupted vistas that can’t be located on any map.” (As to the spelling discrepancies between “shanty” and “chantey” your guess is as good as mine.)
These things are undoubtedly true. After nearly a year of quarantines and fear, having something simple that you can sing along to even if you’re halfway tone-deaf is welcome. The unironic embrace of something that feels old and ethereal also fits right in with the spirit of TikTok. But at the same time, collective culture consumption has been one of the hallmarks of the pandemic, from a collective obsession with Tiger King to “WAP.” Not to mention, gamers were singing chanteys while playing Sea of Thieves long before the pandemic hit. Yes, some of this popularity came courtesy of the Longest Johns, the a cappella folk band that released a version of “Wellerman” in 2018, but still.
Beyond the collective sing-along nature of the sea chantey craze, there’s something else: It’s catchy as hell. As much as it’s easily dueted on TikTok, it’s also an earworm. After you hear it once, you’ll be humming it for hours, even if you’re no longer scrolling your For You page. In that sense, the meme has more in common with something like Numa Numa or “Gangnam Style” or—forgive me for even planting this in your head—“The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” Lots of memes can have long runs, but they’re often, if not always, longer when they’re musical. Remember that week when everyone was trying to learn how to do that thing with cups that Anna Kendrick did in Pitch Perfect? Sea chanteys are like that, only they require a lot less practice, and the tools of TikTok have made collaboration much easier.
Perhaps the latter is the key. Late last year, TikTok unveiled the Stitch feature, which lets users start their post with someone else’s video and then add on their own content. It’s produced a lot of really creative results, but it also became a mechanism for responding to people’s political posts—like retweeting with comment. Such an apparatus was (mostly, kinda) valuable for discourse, but it lacked the synchronicity of the TikTok duet. During a week when politicians were making sus calls for “unity,” perhaps what everyone needed was to join together in song.
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