TikTok advice from the 1890s
08 Jun 2021
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ (George Santayana). I've got news for Mr Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what.” - Kurt Vonnegut.
December 1, 1902.
It’s Monday evening, and the Temple Theatre in Detroit is about to open its doors for yet another Vaudeville night. The performance bill reads:
Burt Jordan and Rosa Crouch. “Sensational, grotesque and ‘buck’ dancers. A good act …”
The White Tscherkess Trio. “A man and two women who do a singing turn of the operatic order. They carry special scenery, which is very artistic, and their costumes are original and neat. Their voices are good and blend exceedingly well. The act goes big with the audience.”
Sarah Midgely and Gertie Carlisle. “Presenting the sketch ‘After School.’ … they are a ‘knockout.'”
Theodor F. Smith and Jenny St. George-Fuller. “Refined instrumentalists.”
Milly Capell. “European equestrienne. This is her second week. On account of the very pretty picture that she makes, she goes as strong as she did last week.”
R. J. Jose. “Tenor singer. The very best of them all.”
James Thornton. “Monologist and vocalist. He goes like a cyclone. It is a case of continuous laughter from his entrance to his exit.”
Burk and Andrus and Their Trained Mule. “This act, if it can be so classed, was closed after the evening performance.”
>> Fast forward
May 22, 2021.
It’s Sunday night, and I promised to write this LinkedIn blog post for Monday. It’s my second extension. Of course, I still haven’t started. Since I have reached the end of Instagram and Twitter, I naturally move to TikTok as I continue procrastinating. The first five acts on my ‘For You’ read:
@TikToker1 Too Hot to handle – man tries to touch hot coffee mug to the intro of Billie Jean.
@TikToker2 Challenge vs my sister – brother falls face-first to the floor as he attempts to mimic sister’s moves.
@TikToker3 Soccer Test on street – random people getting nutmegged, hilariously.
@TikToker4 Parrot meets puppy – parrot says I love you.
@TikToker5 Can you do this – person tries to turn off a switch across the room and run back to the camera in under 3 seconds.
Which makes me think Mr. Vonnegut was right.
It would be crass to say TikTok is just Vaudeville on an iPhone. However,…
Both are built on variety. Both are fuelled by diversity. Both are gag based. Both are stunt heavy. Both are made popular by young, virtuous performers. Both cash in on quirky talents. Both use humour. Both are defined by simple plots.
The similarities go deeper.
Beyond the dazzle, Vaudeville was a way for disillusioned and disenfranchised minorities and immigrants of the late 19th century to survive in a new world, find a voice and even challenge stereotypical views of ‘outsiders’ (check out Dr Charlotte Canning’s talk “Vaudeville: Immigrants Get the Job Done” for a deeper look at this). Communities came together around the acts, and the Vaudeville Star was the most accessible form of stardom the world had seen up to that point.
A century later, Gen Z was brought up with the promise of a great future, yet similar to the Lost Vaudeville Generation, the seemingly perfect world they got given is going to sh*t. If we look beyond the dance challenges, we can see TikTokers often make bold and brave social statements.
TikTok is their megaphone, and humour is their refuge. Communities are closely knit together, albeit digitally, and being TikTok famous is the most accessible form of stardom the world has seen yet.
Hell, both Vaudeville and TikTok peaked around a global pandemic.
Then Vaudeville died. Slowly, while barely realising it.
Because at the same time as Vaudeville stars were getting standing ovations from packed concert halls across America, over in Lyon, France, two brothers were working hard on this funky little thing: a box which played back the developed roll of a film by projecting bright light through it to show images. Their contraption became known as the cinematograph, and it is probably (still) the greatest modern technological advancement in the arts.
It was indeed Cinema that killed the Vaudeville star.
Similarly, TikTok is booming in the backdrop of major technological advancements. AR, VR … you see where I’m going with this.
But TikTok’s time is now. So be open and embrace it. Get involved. Trust the creators. Empower them. Learn from them. Even if nothing lasts forever, their influence on entertainment will extend beyond their time … much like Vaudeville.
I’ll end this with a question. If Cinema killed the Vaudeville star, what do you think will kill the TikTok star?