TikTok and taking chances: How the pandemic made way for a new genre of entertainment
Reckoning with the internet as a place of creation and commiseration
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in our December 2021 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
The entertainment world was struck in a way that was both soul-stirring and inconceivable in March 2020. Theaters, museums and concert halls across the world went dark, leaving creators to look inward and consider more confined ways of making art. For creators at American University, this meant making content from their childhood bedrooms.
Many found that this time caused unparalleled stress; a waiting game fixated on nothing but the return to in-person work. For others, this time presented a chance to explore the boundaries of art in the most versatile space possible: the internet. And while the coronavirus raged across the country, the social media app TikTok began to emerge as an emotional and creative outlet for young people.
For individuals who considered themselves performers in the pre-pandemic world, the platform gave them a way to channel their artistic tendencies while engaging with an audience. Such is the case for Grace Bressner (@gracebressner), a dancer and freshman in the Department of Performing Arts at AU.
“I started blowing up more during the pandemic: there was this one video I posted, and it got me my first million views,” Bressner said. She now has just over one million followers on TikTok. “People were on the app, everyone was starting to join [it], because that’s all there was to do.”
And although Bressner finds that the type of dancing she continues to do on TikTok is very different from her in-studio dance styles, she does feel that it was a great place for her to fill out some of her desire to entertain during lockdown.
“In the sense of performance and of entertainment qualities, TikTok for sure fulfilled that,” Bressner said.
She currently creates her own dances and revises the dances of other creators in her own style. One of her dances was even performed by TikTok superstar Charli D’Amelio.
“[The dance] was known for Charli doing it three times,” Bressner said. “But there was also so much hate associated with it. When you create your own TikTok dance, the most common comment and recurring thing that people will say is that it’s just recycled movements.”
As a result of this reaction, Bressner now spends more of her time recreating the dances of others. She also finds breaks from her virtual presence with in-person dance lessons and through preparation for AU Dances, an event between dance courses where students showcase their learned skills. For her, it’s a welcome return.
For other entertainment forms, remaining fully virtual seems likely. Content creator Upneet Kaur (@createbyua), who is a senior in the School of International Service, began developing her video crafting skills on the platform. On TikTok, she creates content centered around fashion, art and lifestyle. Her videos amass thousands of views; she currently has a following of upwards of 60 thousand.
“In terms of short films, I’d never done them before I joined TikTok. I have in the past just filmed videos or taken pictures,” Kaur said. “But compiling it into those videos and giving them a theme was never something I’d done before. It’s something I had always admired that other people did, but not something I thought I would be able to do.”
In learning to create this type of content, Kaur has also developed a unique style that highlights her ability to build aesthetics and redefine the boundaries of modern creative demonstration.
“[It] has given me one more way to express myself,” Kaur said.
The same is true for Sebastian Aguilar (@sebbylyfe), a junior with 10 thousand followers who considers himself a genreless content creator on TikTok. Self-expression is the primary driving force behind his content, which remains fluid based on his own interests.
“I don’t put myself in a single section of entertainment, I do it more for myself,” Aguilar said. “A lot of my personality comes through the videos that I make, and so I just like expressing myself with other people on the internet. I think a big part of that came because of the pandemic: I didn’t get to share my personality with people in person anymore, and being the extrovert that I am, I found that TikTok could be that platform to give me that opportunity.”
Aguilar also said he feels that TikTok has provided young people with a newfound sense of community, one that remains unparalleled by most platforms.
“One of the big benefits to TikTok is that you can have an interest that you think nobody else is interested in, but you do find somebody who shares that similar passion,” Aguilar said. “One of the larger projects that I’m working on is to do a collaboration cross-country.”
And for others, like SIS and Kogod School of Business senior Paul Sutton (@paulblartgoestoschool), TikTok creation opened them up to being entertainers. Sutton began using the app as a way to share videos from his work as a park ranger during the pandemic.
“I was never really an entertainer before this,” Sutton said. “I was a park ranger, and that was my job during the summer when I was at home during the pandemic. So if the pandemic didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have had that job, and I wouldn’t have made the TikTok.”
At AU, Sutton is the president of the club soccer team and a member of a professional business fraternity. Following the end of his stint as a park ranger, Sutton now remains relatively popular among the nature fan community.
“After I ran out of park material, I just started posting more stuff about me,” Sutton said. “Which was kind of nice because I learned to be able to show myself through the app instead of just showing my park life.”
For now, all genres of live performance are slowly beginning to trickle back to the foreground. But TikTok creators — as well as the viewers that fuel the ongoing popularity of the app — seem set on solidifying the app’s spot as a vivacious and valid form of modern entertainment.