March 7, 2020

TikTok and the return of dance-step fever during warm-up phase of excitement cycle, like late 2000s online culture

The explosive popularity of the mobile app TikTok coincides with the transition out of the vulnerable phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, and into the warm-up phase when energy levels return to baseline from a refractory level, and people feel restless to get moving and interactive again. It reminds me of the late 2000s internet culture, the last time we were in the warm-up phase of the cycle.

The app lets you upload 15-second audio-visual clips to share with other users, and by far the main tendency is to have music playing on the audio, with the video saved for quick comedy sketches and sight gags, lip sync, or dance routines. It's most popular with people under age 25.

This first post will focus on TikTok's link to the return of dance mania, and a second post will focus on the return of non-parasocial media and its absence of personas.

To give a feel for what the app is being used for, and how it's spreading its influence into the broader pop culture ecosystem, we'll look at a dance routine for the song "Say So" by Doja Cat, a current top 40 hit in the US. The music is reminiscent of the disco era, and the late '70s was another warm-up phase of the cycle (naturally marked by dance fever).

First, a compilation of TikTok clips from Haley Sharpe, the originator of a dance routine set to the song, then a series of clips of other TikTok users adopting the routine, and finally the music video for the song which incorporated the routine and the originator herself. (All videos are small in order to not disrupt the flow of reading; click fullscreen to see them in a larger size.)

If you can't see these videos, reload the page (at least for me).

The moves in this routine recall my discussion of the nature of dance crazes, from the original post on the restless warm-up phase of the excitement cycle:

The most distinctive feature of this phase is, not surprisingly, dance crazes. I don't mean music that is highly danceable -- but music with accompanying dances that are so simple, repetitive, and color-by-numbers, that even someone who's barely emerging from a refractory period can get into them. Even those who are just getting out of their emo mindset from the vulnerable phase can get social enough to do these dances.

These dances are so rule-defined that they have their own names, and a list of them shows that they do in fact occur mostly during the third phase of the cycle.

It is not a spontaneous, free-form routine that requires a high level of skill and comfort-in-your-body to adapt on-the-fly. There's a small finite number of easily distinguishable moves or steps, each of which is simple enough to do and to carry out in a certain order. Painting-by-numbers, assembling building blocks according to the instruction manual, etc. It's like the Watusi, the YMCA, the Macarena, or the Cupid Shuffle (all from warm-up phases: early '60s, late '70s, early '90s, late 2000s).

Also like those examples, the song and the dance for "Say So" are linked together in a pair -- this routine goes with this song, that routine goes with that song. That way, there's no ambiguity or uncertainty -- and no social anxiety or awkwardness -- when the hit song comes on and everyone has to figure out how to move along to it. It's simple: you have no choice but to follow the routine that everyone else already knows, rather than trying to come up with your own individual moves.

Again, that's not so much about individual vs. collective orientation -- since plenty of these song/dance pairs emerged from the individualist, hyper-competitive neoliberal era -- but just a consequence of the routine's simplicity, widespread popularity, and the desire to not stand out or feel socially awkward when people are just starting to come out of their low-energy vulnerable-phase cocoons.

TikTok reminds me so much of YouTube during the late 2000s, when dancing and DIY music videos were among the most popular kinds of videos. It may be hard to remember, but way back in the olden days, there were no 20-minute monologues, no reactions to current events in any domain of society and culture, no characters, no false sense of intimacy -- just brief entertaining clips to get you in a good mood and feel excited. It was simple, unpretentious, engaging, and fun.

That state of YouTube did not last into the 2010s -- it was part of the warm-up phase of the late 2000s.

The main dance sensation was twerking, which was only just blowing up in popularity. And one YouTube dancer mesmerized millions with her instruction -- Patty Mayo. Lots of girls uploaded clips of themselves shaking their ass at the camera, but she had gymnastic training and a greater level of corporeal / kinesthetic skill, making her dances more of a proper performance. True to the zeitgeist, she did not put any effort into a visual brand (costume, staging the set, etc.), never spoke to the camera, and never revealed anything about her personal life. Just some random teenage girl cutting loose in her suburban home.

She was not just a viral video creator at the time, you can google her name (along with "dancer") and find large numbers of people asking what ever happened to her, from the early 2010s to present. YouTube has tons of copied videos of hers, although she only kept a few of them up on her own channel. Below is her dancing to "Cyclone" by Baby Bash. Again, the main dance move she's modeling for others to imitate is twerking, but there's also the moves that tie in to the song title, holding her hands above her head and undulating head-to-toe like a cyclone.

From the artistically inclined teenagers, there was the DIY music video for an existing hit song. These were less corporeal than a full dance routine, and less focused on the body moving in time to the rhythm. But they still incorporated a kind of choreography -- discrete, identifiable moves or gestures executed in a sequence -- especially if the creator edited the shots to transition in tandem with the beat. This is harder to do with TikTok due to the 15-second time limit, but if they relax that to a few minutes, it could come right back to popularity.

I first stumbled upon Olivia Parenteau's DIY music videos when "Hot N Cold" by Katy Perry came out. It was big in the dance club I spent most of my weekends at, so I figured there would be an official video for it, to listen outside of the club (I've never used iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, etc., and never will). At first, though, there was only some random teenagers' DIY video for the song -- but the stop-motion-inspired editing made it so infectiously fun to watch!

Below are her videos for "Hot N Cold," and "7 Things" by Miley Cyrus, each with millions of views (equivalent to hundreds of millions today). They were as popular as Patty Mayo videos, and just like them, have left their original fans returning to leave comments about how central they were to their pop culture experience of the late 2000s, from the early 2010s up through the present.

Of course, the original viral video on YouTube was a DIY music video for "Hey" by Pixies, made by two college babes way back in 2005, complete with choreography (if not dance-floor moves):

And then there was the 2007 viral video of two teenage girls dancing to "Harder Better Faster" by Daft Punk, choreographing not only their moves to the rhythm, but timing the display of their body parts with certain lyrics written on them to the moments when those lyrics are sung in the song. Like the video for "Hey," this one has tens of millions of views, equivalent to billions today. Its moves and the "lyric on body part" concept are simple enough that it spawned numerous imitators.

Although these once highly popular forms of YouTube videos did not last into the 2010s, they can easily be reborn in the current warm-up phase of the excitement cycle, although it may take a few years to reach its peak, and TikTok -- or some successor platform -- will have to relax the length to a few minutes instead of just 15 seconds. Welcome back to an online atmosphere when no one will care about your feelings, reactions, or persona construction -- when people will simply want to get into a groove and have fun with other people.


  1. Another original viral YT video: "Evolution of Dance" from 2006, over 300 million views by now.

    It didn't feature a babe, so it slipped my mind. But I was reminded of it when browsing through this gallery of YouTube's changing looks:

    Check out the front page from 2006 (3rd image down). Almost all of the "Most Viewed" are DIY music videos, dancing, or playing an instrument.

    It was just like TikTok with a somewhat longer time limit.

    Before it became part of the parasocial economy.

  2. The Warm Up has cooled down. People are cocooning with a veangence. You think it'll be short term?


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