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Sea shanties show TikTok is the global proving grounds for culture

January 19, 2021, 5:46 PM UTC

If you’ve visited social media lately—and surely you haven’t because we’re all keeping good on our New Year’s resolutions—you’ve probably encountered a sea shanty.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, a quick recap. The sea shanty arose midway through the last millennium as a breed of work-song for sailors to while away the time, forge communal bonds, and generally keep from going insane. Then a couple months ago, a 26-year-old Scottish postman named Nathan Evans sang a rendition on TikTok that made the world become re-obsessed.

The sea shanty form is particularly suited to TikTok. The youth-craze app lets people create “duets,” a feature that adjoins a video post to one already playing. In Sept., TikTok revamped the feature, leading to a renaissance of collaborative creativity. Soon after, Evans posted his performance of “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” which promptly went viral and set off a flood of duets, remixes, and copies.

For anyone wondering, “the Wellerman” refers to an employee of The Weller Brothers, an Aussie merchant outfit that dominated New Zealand ports in the 1830s. The singers of the shanty are pining for a resupply of staples for their voyage; namely, sugar, tea, and rum. You can consider the tune to be, in spirit, a maritime predecessor to “The Wells Fargo Wagon” in the 1957 musical The Music Man. (Side note: Imagine being that excited to see someone from Wells Fargo today?)

The sea shanty’s resurgence may seem random, but it makes sense. In addition to being perfectly suited for TikTok’s duet technology, the genre fits the moment. During the lockdowns and quarantines of the pandemic, people are starved for human connection. What better way to find solidarity than to lend one’s voice to the hauntingly beautiful harmony of nautical folk a cappella?

(There’s something to be said, too, for the shared human experience of engaging in social media drudgery in the hopes of landing a big, viral score, echoing the grim lottery of 19th century whaling ventures.)

People who learn to exploit the idiosyncrasies of mass communications and tap the zeitgeist gain special powers. (See, formerly: @realDonaldTrump.) Right now, it just so happens that mobile video-sharing software from ByteDance, a Chinese corporation, is one of the most significant global proving grounds for that miracle of a feedback loop we call culture.

Lest you think the sea shanty’s newfound popularity is a fluke, I might point you to the zany genius of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, one of the all-time musical greats. In the ‘60s, Wilson perfected the “wall of sound” technique famously associated with the late hitmaker and convicted murderer Phil Spector, who died in jail this weekend. That groundbreaking style found avid fans through its characteristically fulsome reverberation, a quality that played well on radios and jukeboxes, the then-dominant audio-broadcasting technology.

After you’ve finished with the Wellerman, give “Sloop John B,” The Beach Boys’ own sea shanty adaptation, a listen. True genius is timeless.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

Reaching cruising speed. Microsoft is pouring $2 billion into Cruise, the autonomous vehicle division majority owned by GM. The new funding round, which includes participation by Honda and other unnamed institutional investors, values the venture at $30 billion, up from an estimated $19 billion in the spring, the Wall Street Journal reports. As part of the deal, Microsoft will provide its Azure cloud computing platform to support Cruise’s eventual planned robo-taxi service.

At the home office. Workplace software giant Citrix is shelling out $2.25 billion Wrike, a workflow management software maker. Wrike was acquired by private equity firm Vista for $800 million in 2018, and it counts companies like Airbnb, Google, and Snowflake as customers. The logic behind the deal taps into the distributed workforce trend.

Rebonjour. Parler is back—sort of. The right-wing-favored social media app has switched its domain registration to Epik, a web hosting service known for catering to extremist sites. The changeup is enabling Parler to get back online after being booted off Amazon’s infrastructure for breaching the company’s terms of service.

Government bicep-flexing. Cisco received clearance from China’s antitrust regulator to let it buy Acacia Communications, a fiber optics business. The U.S. is annoyed at Australia for demanding payment for news stories from tech companies like Google and Facebook. India is asking WhatsApp to roll back its planned privacy change. Turkey is banning Twitter and Pinterest ads. And Big Tech is bracing for the Democrats to take office in the U.S. while German and French regulators sharpen their knives.

Microsoft's 365-degree-view panopticon

ACCESS GRANTED

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, says Jeff Lawson, chief executive of Twilio, a tech company that automates customer outreach through texts and calls for businesses. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Lawson chides the mass of San Francisco emigrants who are disrespectfully taking parting shots the city as they leave. He's calling on tech leaders to #committothebay. (He also recently talked to Fortune CEO Alan Murray about his new book, Ask Your Developer.)

There are plenty of ways to leave a party.

You can quietly say your thanks and goodbyes and be on your way. You can stay a while to help clean up. Or you can be a real jerk about it by stomping off and complaining it was a terrible party anyway—even though you drank more than your share of cocktails, scarfed down the fancy food and manspread on the couch.

Unfortunately, too many of San Francisco’s tech leaders are opting for that third option.

FORTUNE RECON

I used to wiretap. This is why encryption backdoors are dangerous by Chris Howell

Cash grants have a huge impact in a crisis—and technology can make that impact even bigger by Jacquelline Fuller

Business could be on the precipice of an automation explosion by Chris Morris

The COVID-19 vaccination drive may be slow—but it’s already faster than any in history by Jeremy Kahn

Future Trump historians ‘petrified’ by task ahead by Jeff John Roberts

How public health ads that incite fear can backfire by Eric Berger

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access.Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

ONE MORE THING

George Saunders, a masterful storyteller, is out with a new book that collects his fiction-writing wisdom. Lots of publications are reviewing the work, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, favorably. As a lifelong lover of the arts, I quite liked Saunders' take on the importance of literature, especially in today's software-obsessed world. Here's how he put it in an interview with Esquire.

Somehow, in my lifetime, storytelling has gotten downgraded. Science and technology are understood to be great because they get you a job, but this very essential human thing of asking, 'What are we doing here, and how should I behave?'—that has somehow become considered a bit of an indulgence. And it isn't.