The news has been a lot these last few weeks, and the U.S. is facing crises on several fronts. But in the background of the chaos, one strong, steady chorus has been cutting through the din. It's a pulsing beat that has united disparate parts of the internet in a way that few would have thought possible just a few weeks ago.
I am, of course, talking about ShantyTok.
ShantyTok, or Sea Shanty TikTok if we're going to be formal about it, is exactly what it advertises on the label: a subset of TikTok culture devoted to the performance of sea shanties. Now, for the uninitiated, before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as The Youths being at it again, I assure you that this is extremely worth your time. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say ShantyTok represents the ideal form of masculinity in 2021.
Sea shanties have a quality that breaks the rigid confines of male emotionality that feels almost radical in this moment. For all the bawdiness of some verses, they still lack the preening machismo radiating from President Donald Trump as he urged his followers to overturn the election's results. And ShantyTok is the antithesis of the performative shell that toxic masculinity requires, one that lashes out at everything to protect the fragility hidden inside.
Before we go much further, some background: Shanties are simple tunes that sailors at sea in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would sing to help them keep time with their chores. Ethnomusicologist Gibb Schreffler broke down the call-and-response nature of what he called the "shanty form" in 2019 on the history podcast "BackStory." Basically, Schreffler said, a leader will sing a verse, often improvised, and the rest of the crew will jump in with the chorus, set in time to whatever task is at hand.
"The chorus is a fixed part of the song," Schreffler explained, linking the format to both modern military cadences and the singing of enslaved Black Americans working the South's fields. "All of the crew must know that part of the song, so they can come in and sing it together."
That format has made the humble shanty perfect for the TikTok era. We can attribute the most recent comeback of the shanty, for the most part relegated to the dustbin of musical history, along with ragtime and the harpsichord, to Nathan Evans. Evans posted a rendition of an old shanty from New Zealand called "Soon Will the Wellerman Come" on TikTok, and weeks later, he's the guy you can thank that the words "to bring us sugar and tea and rum" are constantly stuck in your head.
It's his original version that's been expanded on further and further on TikTok as people add their voices using the app's duet feature, gifting us electronic remixes and a very convincing Kermit the Frog impression. When I came across the song, the musical blend of the five men singing in harmony was an unexpected delight in a generally overwhelming week.
The same goes for this masterpiece from TikTok user @strong_promises, whose skepticism is gradually subsumed by his friend's love of "The Wellerman" until he's adding in a harmony himself. The whole thing is peak bro friendship, wrapped in an extra layer of Black excellence.
In shanties, we find something both extremely manly and subversively tender. The former is easy enough to spot: Working on a whaling ship or a merchant vessel involved tedious, backbreaking toil, the kind of physicality often associated with ideals of masculinity. Crew members were never at rest asea, author Richard Henry Dana Jr. wrote in 1840, with never-ending tasks before them, including: "tarring, greasing, oiling, varnishing, painting, scraping, and scrubbing," not to mention "watching at night, steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction."
In shanties, we find something both extremely manly and subversively tender.
This, along with pop culture depictions of pirates on the Spanish Main, has led us to create the idea of mariners as a hearty, well-muscled bunch of brawling, rough-and-tumble drunkards, lads covered with tattoos who would rather punch a man than deal with anything sappy or sentimental. But the early 19th century, when sailors' labors had yet to be replaced with steam and steel, was literally a romantic period, one in which artists felt the need to spill out every single one of their emotions, free from shame.
That spirit is infused in many of the lyrics and titles of the songs sung out on the ocean, wrapped up as they are in what Anita Duneer, an associate professor of English at Rhode Island College, calls "the maritime romantic ideal, which is often associated with the notion of the brotherhood of the sea." There are enough shanties about longing, keening, pining, unrequited love, a need for connection with your crew and other overwhelming emotions that modern memesmiths have had to create charts to categorize them appropriately.
"The men who sang these songs freely exposed strong emotions about leaving home, leaving behind a young woman who might have become one's wife, dying away from home, leaving mother without a protector and provider, and facing the deaths of comrades," Stephen N. Sanfilippo wrote in the Long Island History Journal. "For Yankee whalers the possibility of such losses must have engendered very real fear and anxiety as they spent long months or even years at sea, far from their loved ones."
Consider that in contrast to the standards set by today's self-appointed gatekeepers of masculinity, the ones whom marketers rightfully target as needing Q-tips to be described as "men's ultimate multitool." The toxicity that exudes from the performances we've seen from the White House and Trump's allies is a symptom of this overwhelming need to highlight the physical over the emotional.
Overt hypermasculinity that would make a Spartan blush has been one of Trump's defining traits as he positions himself as a chest-beating, swaggering alpha male. In Trump's version of masculinity, anything that you can't do yourself — from fixing the sink's drain to fighting a war to beating a virus — isn't worth doing. It's a philosophy of stoic isolationism, cutting yourself off from everything as a pre-emptive defense.
But there's no good way to sing a shanty alone. It goes against the intended purpose, hollowing out the art form. Even Evans, whose TikTok first went viral, used artificial layering to add additional voices in his original video. It's only through a shared experience that you can get the full impact, allowing yourself to sing about all the soft things that adherents to more recent constructs of manliness scoff at as belonging to the realm of snowflakes or Pajama Boy. (Remember him? I bet he'd love ShantyTok.)
It's worth remembering that, for sailors, singing also helped stave off the mind-breaking monotony of being out on the open ocean, alone save your crew in the middle of nowhere on your stupid, creaky wooden deathtrap. And is that not the most relatable thing right now, as we're trudging our way through a pandemic winter, trapped inside and isolated from most casual contact? "If it wasn't for TikTok, I would be so bored and claustrophobic," Evans told The New York Times. "But it can give you a sense of having a group. You can collaborate with other people and make friends so easily."
Using this musical form that's all about the collective and harmony, both literally and figuratively, in the middle of a pandemic is joyous in a way that feels extremely welcome. Beyond that, there's something weirdly beautiful about hearing these baritones, basses and tenors coming together in the pursuit of building something that, while clearly masculine in nature, comes free of hatred or malice. (Though I'm sure there are whales who'd disagree, given that the mass whaling industry was one of humanity's greatest tragedies.)
And while there are no alto or soprano parts in traditional shanties, divided as their world was by gender norms, it hasn't stopped women from writing their own parts and joining the growing display of aural magnificence. It's a masculinity that doesn't feel exclusionary or toxic. It's one that lets two men in a car belt out "The Wellerman" at top volume, not caring about anything but the music and how it makes them feel to weave their notes together.