How the return of the sea shanty became the most unexpected viral trend of 2021

Isobel van Hagen
Thursday 14 January 2021 16:08
Viral
(istock cokada)

Almost nothing that has happened in the past year has felt easy to process or even generally conceivable. But one trend that seems like an especially arbitrary development is the rise of the sea shanty.

Yes that’s right, shanties: the simple songs, typically performed by merchant sailors, fishermen or whalers, that harken back to the 1400s. The shanty “ensured sailors involved in heavy manual tasks... synchronised individual efforts to efficiently execute their collective task”.

How is it, then, that these old-timey harmonised tunes are taking over the internet?

It started when Scottish musician Nathan Evans recorded a video performing a  rendition of “Wellerman” – a 19th century song of New Zealand origin (“‘Wellerman’ is not really a shanty,” said David Coffin, a folk musician and music educator told the New York Times. It’s a “whaling song” with the beat of a shanty.)

It instantly went viral, garnering millions views on TikTok alone. TikTokers soon duetted with the tune, posted their own shanties and harmonies, and soon #ShantyTok took on a life of its own.

One of the best Shanty TikTok videos exemplifies how non-believers get sucked into the sea shanty-lifestyle. An at-first reluctant sea shanty disciple in the passenger seat of a car flashes the audience with a video of the driver listening to a shanty and he writes, “get this man off this aux”. Only seconds later he relents, “ok this is fire” as he enthusiastically sings along.

This encapsulates basically everyone’s reaction to the appeal of the sea shanty, which now have flooded TikTok and elsewhere with complicated harmonies and catchy rhythms. Even songs like Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” have been transformed into shanties.

Even the impeachment trial got a sea shanty remix:

And don’t forget about Kermit the Frog’s rendition:

While it feels like a highly unforeseen return of the centuries-old genre, there’s something about the melodious message that makes the songs so charming and captivating – (often to the point they are unendingly stuck in your head).

And if you think about it, it actually makes total sense this is the internet’s new obsession in the midst of a global pandemic and unprecedented political global turmoil. 

As noted by Vulture‘s Kathryn VanArendonk, sea shanties, at the core, are “unifying, survivalist songs, designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat.”

Huh, sounds like some kind of metaphor, no?

As one person commented on a shanty video: “I guess it makes sense when you think the artform originated as a way to provide pleasure, connection and entertainment during periods of sustained social isolation.”

If you want to become a shanty stan, there are plenty of playlists to get you started, including: “POV: you've never listened to sea shanties before”, “emotional support sea shanties” and “literally just the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Score”.

And if you still don’t get the appeal, you’d may want to get onboard. As Paper Magazine put it, “You'd better start believing in sea shanties, Miss Turner. You're in one.”

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