The video app offers an endless scroll of creativity and goofing off, told in 15-second snippets. What did five critics see when they went down the rabbit hole? Art, artistry and a lot of dancing.
In 2019, we take our entertainment in microdoses. A complete story may be unspooled in a fleeting video snippet, a tweet, a GIF. The social media app TikTok has built an entire world on that premise, amassing a vast global collection of 15-second clips that are changing the way we sing, dance, pose, joke, dress, collaborate and cook. It is home to comedy sketches, dance challenges, makeshift runway shows and short-short films. The most ambitious ones arrive as mini-epics, complete with soundtracks, visual effects and narrative arcs.
TikTok was started in 2017 by the Chinese company ByteDance, but only recently has it gained real traction in the United States. (Though this country is by no means the center of creative gravity, which is a part of its appeal.) TikTok is a kind of Frankenstein's monster of micro-video platforms — reminiscent of the defunct app Vine, it is an international clone of ByteDance's Chinese app Douyin, and last year merged with the popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly — but it is now a cultural force all its own. This year, it produced a bona fide crossover celebrity: Lil Nas X emerged from the platform's viral soup as a fully-formed pop star, shattering records with his song "Old Town Road" after it became a popular soundtrack for TikTok dance routines.
And yet there is something about TikTok's presence in mainstream culture — as a testing ground for "real" stars, as an Emmys joke about what the kids are into — that underestimates the power of the thing itself. It feels as if there are endless TikTok universes unfolding all at once. And so last week, over 48 hours, five critics of The New York Times with different specialities and varying familiarity with the app took a look at what it has to offer.
It's bite-size, low-tech TV
- By James Poniewozik, TV Critic
The scene: someone's backyard. The star: a pine cone, to which someone has attached googly eyes, Popsicle-stick arms and a string. An unseen force tugs on the line, and the pine cone (his name is Willy) ascends spiralling heavenward, to the gushing chorus of Josh Groban's You Raise Me Up."
The video is 11 seconds of perfect idiocy. I have laughed every time I watched it; I am laughing as I type this out. It's absurd and low-tech and parodic but also — can an inanimate seed cluster be joyful? Well, this one is. The clip is like the climax to an inspirational movie no one will ever make.
This, I discovered after recently downloading TikTok for the first time, is the beauty of the platform. Like Vine before it, it's all climaxes. It's all punch lines and dance outbursts and dramatic (or comedic) reveals.
As a professional TV watcher in 2019, I'm immersed in maximalist video — Netflix binges, Game of Thrones. Yet what we often take away from these giant entertainments are the moments: the Neverending Story singalong in Stranger Things, Arya Stark leaping out of the dark at the Night King.
TikTok gives you nothing but the singalongs and leaps. It is not a 21-course meal. It's a bottomless gumball machine, serving up ephemeral treats. Flick — hamster eating a tiny pancake! Flick — guy vacuum-sealing himself into a garbage bag!
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This is not "TV" as recognisable to anyone who grew up when televisions were furniture. It's what TV becomes when it's something you pull out of your pocket, standing on a cashier line, sitting on a bus.
So fittingly, it belongs creatively to people who were holding a screen since they could make a fist. Videos are set in teenage bedrooms, classrooms, suburban living rooms. A girl dances to audio of her mom arguing with her boyfriend (#someonegetmymomagoodman), an unsettling slice of dark irony. A group of friends creates an "Avengers assemble" tableau by jumping backward into a swimming pool, then reversing the video. A dancer busts an intricate set of moves to a Drake song in front of a kitchen island, while an older man — her dad? — wanders into the frame in the background, unnoticed.
It's easy for An Old on TikTok — certainly this middle-aged viewer, maybe anyone north of 20 — to feel like the wandering dad in the hallway, an interloper in an impenetrable hangout of references, Billie Eilish memes and comedy bits about homework, driver's ed and #dormlife.
But the more time I spent with the app, the more I realised that any feeling of exclusion I had was my own baggage. The pervasive feeling I got from TikTok was inclusion. It wasn't, like Instagram, trying to persuade me of its users' happiness, or, like Twitter, of their rightness. Instead the vibe is: Look at this cool thing I did. What can you do?
I don't know if I've developed a new habit; my streaming and TiVo backlogs have too great a hold on me. But the beauty of this new relationship is how little commitment it demands. TikTok is there, whenever I want to be raised up, for 11 seconds at a time.
A social network for the self
- By Amanda Hess, Critic at Large
TikTok is often referred to as a "social" network, but I'm not there to make friends. I feel no need to follow anyone I know, or to follow anyone at all, or to attract followers myself. When I am TikTok user @amandahess88, I am free.
Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have trapped us in the slippage between personal and public, consumption and production. We use them to chase pleasure at the same time as we perform reputational maintenance, and this seeds our delight with a sense of duty. We like being in these spaces even as we feel that we are not quite allowed to leave. Our images and observations are weighted with power relationships. "Liking" a thing may also fulfill an obligation to a friend, or help to cultivate a work relationship.
But when I tap the heart icon on TikTok, I do so selfishly. I "like" to tell the algorithm that I like something, and to teach it how to provide me more things that I like. Inverting the impulse of every other major social app, TikTok defaults not to content from people you have chosen to follow but to content the algorithm has chosen for you. This has made it the only platform for which the term "algorithm" has, for me, a positive connotation.
The "algorithmic timelines" on Instagram and Twitter breed suspicion that looser, messier posts are being hidden from view, obscured by carefully framed announcements of engagements and jobs, pregnancies and euthanized pets. These platforms operate with a brittle predictability. But TikTok deals in the illusion, at least, of revelation. Even if all I'm doing is tapping my screen, "discovering" new videos has the feel of an internet treasure hunt. They have now become a central draw of other social platforms, as friends cross-post the gems from their feeds — the guy who cooks in a stream in the Chinese countryside, surfaced by Jay Caspian Kang or the young rural supermodel found by Dodai Stewart.
Though TikTok videos seem to arrive with the guilelessness of under-the-covers childhood play, their creators are highly skilled semiprofessionals who are entertaining me, and building TikTok into a mammoth platform, for no direct monetary rewards. I realize that my uncomplicated relationship with TikTok is a gift afforded by age; I am so far outside of the demographic that aspires to be a TikTok creator that I could be the demographic's mother. When I tap the heart on some high school kid's weird video, I feel a flicker of pride, as if I am supporting him in some way. But all I am really doing is demanding more.
Music and culture in a warp-speed blender
- By Jon Caramanica, Pop Music Critic
A South Asian teenager screaming at his haplessly silent grandmother over a decontextualised hip-hop snippet. A goth girl doing a dance routine in a Walmart. A young woman turning the profane bits of one of the raunchiest rap songs of all time into guttural animal shrieks.
TikTok moves at something faster than warp speed, and crucial to its joy is its reliance on the hard contrast: Why is this person doing this thing, and why does the jolt feel so good?
Lost, or at least muddied, in that permanent triggering system is that TikTok creates cultural blurring on an astounding scale. It is an appropriation accelerant. Swimming in it for a while makes clear how easily the app jumbles together inputs and references, with varying levels of comfort and discomfort: white kids rapping along with hip-hop; seemingly straight bros playing with queer aesthetics; young people of all races embracing cowboy styles; and adolescents from many countries using common soundtracks for skits about timeless teenage problems. All you need to participate is a phone and a desire to be seen.
Music is key to TikTok — essentially every clip has a soundtrack, and you can press the spinning icon in the bottom right corner to see other clips that use the same audio. Scrolling through that page is the Infinite Remix.
Much of the music is hip-hop, though often stripped down to just a couple of key sentences. With its reduction of people to human GIFs, TikTok all but eradicates traditional norms about cultural ownership. It can be difficult to identify source material — often songs are listed under completely different names than their actual titles, reminding me of the wild file-sharing days of early Napster, when you were never quite sure what you were downloading until you hit play.
After dipping in and out of TikTok for a few months now, I've come to believe it perceives music as a bug, not a feature. The app's success depends on its ability to vacuum up audio pulled from anywhere, at any time, but rarely is it interested in the song as an end. Instead, it is a means to a simple dance routine, or an easily replicated micro-narrative.
Occasionally, a snippet that animates the app becomes a song that escapes into the real world. Lil Nas X was able to reverse engineer mainstream fame from the spare parts of viral engagement. But even now, months later, it's unclear whether he's more meaningful as the soundtrack to a million journeys, or as a destination of his own.
Dancing as though billions are watching
- By Gia Kourlas, dance critic
You look at TikTok and think the world is a musical. This celebration — of movement, of bodies, of dance — is addictive, and not just to watch but to do.
Tutorials, in which steps are broken down, are ubiquitous — instructors demonstrate each action of a movement phrase and then perform the dance full-out. (For some reason, these instructional videos are less tedious than those found on YouTube.) Now the performances happening on my train as it crosses the Williamsburg Bridge have branched out, from seasoned street or subway dancers to amateurs practicing footwork. These buoyant steps, repeatable and ranging in complexity, should really be part of a metabolic workout, but you can do them anywhere. I practice them when I'm stuck in traffic during a run.
What makes TikTok so magnetic is not just the frequency of dance, but the unspoken truth of this performative genre. When it comes to dancing, there are no rules: Everyone can move. Here, the amateur is just as revered as the professional, a belief that has its roots with Judson Dance Theater, the 1960s collective that ushered in postmodern dance. Its founding members were highly trained, but its performers could come from anywhere.
Most of us in the dance world know that to be true — that dancers come in many forms — but TikTok has opened up that philosophy to the greater world. And it has the whole world moving: a basketball coach on the court, a woman in front of a lake with a hoop as a partner, a couple performing the collegiate shag in the rain in New Orleans.
While Instagram and YouTube love dance, TikTok has figured out how to put on a show, one challenge at a time. There's the #DipandLeanChallenge, a rapid-fire showcase of different street dances, like the Milly Rock, the Floss, the Dougie and the Roy Purdy, or #SwanDance, which features people extending their legs at different levels to form a wing — sometimes seriously, sometimes not. It's a rabbit hole of interpretation and technique.
A dance — even a short one — erodes over time, as Twyla Tharp proved in her 1970 classic "The One Hundreds," which starts with two trained dancers performing 100 11-second movement sequences; next, five dancers perform 20 of them; and in the end, 100 ordinary people perform one of the 11-second sequences. It's three different views of the same dance performed under different circumstances, and it's usually a mess by the end. TikTok is that, too, for dance: unruly, witty and beautiful, with the continual possibility of invention and rejuvenation. There's always a new challenge waiting to be born and, most important, willing bodies to see it through.
When 15 seconds is not enough
- By Wesley Morris, Critic at Large
Remember the shopping mall? It's dying. But now your phone's a mall. Your phone is actually a mall full of other malls. One of those malls is TikTok. And TikTok is an infinite mall. Excusing the ads, there's nothing to buy. But there are people to watch, infinite amounts of people. Lately, the first TikTok people I see are doing the I Used to Be So Beautiful Now Look at Me dance. It's set to a snippet of a catchy club-pop track, "Absolutely Anything." But everybody calls it the TikTok song.
In the opening halves of their clips, users mouth the lyrics, usually in sweats. (This is the "used to be so beautiful" part.) Then, in time with a stutter in the beat, they cross both arms above their heads or in front of their middles, and whip them up and down two times, like salad days Britney Spears. And suddenly they're hot zombies or flirty princesses, walking in place but sexily. (The "look at me" part.) There are scores and scores of "Used to Be" videos. And falling into a pit of them is better than people-watching at the mall yet entirely in the mall's bargain spirit, since you get two people in one.
Not everything is so literal-clever at the TikTok mall. The users you're watching can be obnoxious. A guy heaves a watermelon into the ceiling of a Target and runs when it falls explosively on the floor. (A million and a half people liked that one.) They can be banal. Few of the "nope/yup" TikToks — in which people lip-sync over the misty opening chimes of E-40's "Choices" ("nope ... yup") while questions ("Am I straight?") hover over them — did it for me. The funny thing about the app is how quickly it can turn you from onlooker to rummager — swiping for magic until you find some, until you settle for something — to judge.
After a few hours at the mall, I realised I was fishing hard for fun I didn't need. I'm not a 10th grader unhappy in social studies. I don't have time to be this bored. What I really needed was on Twitter. What I needed was @SupremeDreams_1, the handle of a person named Mark Phillips. There's nothing I've seen on TikTok like the crisis-satire video he posted last week: "How They Expect You to React When You Get an Amber Alert." In the clip, when an alert comes through, a dude springs into action and joins an all-black-bro rescue caravan. This thing moves with so much mocking emergency and shock craftsmanship that brilliance rises out of the absurdity. It's like a "Key & Peele" sketch under the director Tony Scott's command, 48 seconds long (that's all!) and way more exciting than what currently seems possible with TikTok's twee, one-dimensional starter kit.
Written by: James Poniewozik, Amanda Hess, Jon Caramanica, Gia Kourlas and Wesley Morris
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES