TikTok is the Only Way to Understand America: An Introduction

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

In 2013, a high schooler named Semi made a vine called “Another 6 Sec Rap.” This past week, the TikTok user Ondreaz Lopez created a video of himself dancing to Semi’s tight lyrics: “I’m Semi, I stay automatic / money add then multiply, I call it mathematics.” Lopez is wearing black skinny jeans, chains, an Iron Maiden t-shirt over a long sleeve shirt, with a middle part: a classic e-boy. This video has 2.2 million views, with reactions ranging from appreciation for his outfit and his looks, nostalgia for Vine, and the one very important comment by laxla.p, “My sis: ‘don’t come in my room with your bs’ Me: — ”.

On my “For You” page, the app’s portal to an infinite number of trending TikToks, I’ve seen hundreds of high school TikTok creators recreating Lopez’s dance to Semi’s lyrics. Many of these videos are accompanied by the captions: “me on my way to annoy my grandma ’cause I’m bored,” “I became an e-boy for this,” and, in an interesting twist, “me walking into my basement to see what person I kidnapped will be licking my toes clean tonight.”

This is, in essence, what TikTok is. It’s young people, mostly Americans and mostly high schoolers, picking up on a multitude of references and inspirations as a way to entertain and express themselves. Most Yale students aren’t making TikToks or even watching them. So, obviously, my unwavering dedication to my daily TikTok regimen is an asset to this campus. TikTok is reminiscent of Vine, but the videos are usually 15 seconds long and can last as long as 60. Most of the videos are set to clips of music and depict a related trend. “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X’s inescapable anthem, was made famous on TikTok, where the song’s drop was used to animorph average teens into country cowboys.

TikTok involves a whole lot of lip syncing to songs, media audio bites, or any string of words, both funny or serious, taken from other internet users. The app is invested in the constant transformation and creation of memes, and its users are very smart about it, although rarely self-aware. It’s a painfully cringey medium, with videos ranging from entire high school baseball teams standing and flexing into the camera, girls demonstrating how they are catfishes through makeup transformations, teens doing complex coordinated dances in the streets of their subdivisions, or people just staring into the camera flipping their hair and biting their lips. These videos beg the ultimate question which can’t simply be answered in a biweekly Herald column: Why?

The Semi trend is a complex intertwining of digital-era cultural references and the Gen Z desire to look hot and be out there on the web. TikTok trends pick up on suburban teens’ anxiety surrounding identity, presentation, and the desperate need to be attractive, interesting, and maybe funny. And the stakes, let me tell you, are high. TikTok is one of the only digital media platforms that doesn’t favor actual celebrities, and so regular kids can benefit enormously from creating good content. What do our country’s teens want out of their digital experience, and what is important to them? TikTok might just be able to tell us, and so, I’d argue this means that it’s a damn good way to understand America.


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