If you’ve been hitting social media lately – and you certainly haven’t, as we’re all sticking to our New Year’s resolutions – you’ve probably stumbled across a seabed.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, a quick summary. The sea slip came into being in the mid-last millennium as a sort of work song for sailors to pass the time, forge common bonds, and generally not go mad. A few months ago, a 26-year-old Scottish postman named Nathan Evans sang a rendition on TikTok that once again obsessed the world.
The sea-slip shape is particularly suitable for TikTok. The youth madness app allows people to create ‘duets’, a feature that adds a video post to a video that is already playing. In September, TikTok revamped the feature, sparking a resurgence of creative collaboration. Shortly after, Evans posted his performance of “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” which promptly went viral and spawned a flood of duets, remixes, and copies.
For anyone wondering, “the Wellerman” refers to an employee of The Weller Brothers, an Aussie merchant who dominated New Zealand ports in the 1830s. The shanty singers crave a stash of staples for their journey; namely sugar, tea and rum. You can think of the tune as a maritime precursor to “The Wells Fargo Wagon” in the 1957 musical. The music man. (Side note: imagine being so excited to see someone from Wells Fargo today?)
The seafloor revival may seem arbitrary, but it makes sense. The genre is not only perfectly suited to TikTok’s duet technology, but also suits the moment. During the pandemic’s lockdowns and quarantines, people are starving for human connection. What better way to find solidarity than by giving your voice to the hauntingly beautiful harmony of nautical folk a cappella?
(There’s also something to be said about the shared human experience of engaging in social media in hopes of hitting a big, viral score, echoing the grim lottery of 19th century whaling.)
People who learn to exploit the idiosyncrasies of mass communication and tap into the spirit of the times are given special powers. (See previously: @realDonaldTrump.) Right now, mobile video-sharing software from ByteDance, a Chinese company, is one of the main global evidences for that miracle of a feedback loop we call culture.
If you don’t think the renewed popularity of the sea slip is a fluke, I could point you to the wacky genius of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, one of the greatest musical greats of all time. In the 1960s, Wilson perfected the ‘wall of sound’ technique famously associated with the late hitmaker and convicted murderer Phil Spector, who died in prison this weekend. This groundbreaking style found enthusiastic fans through its characteristic fulsome reverberation, a quality that played well on radios and jukeboxes, the then dominant audio broadcast technology.
When you’re done with the Wellerman, check out ‘Sloop John B’, The Beach Boys’ own adaptation of the sea slip. Real genius is timeless.