Creative Sensemaker #8

A man performing a high kick in a hall of mirrors.

The eighth instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a new cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Peter Hoskin Fri, Jul 17, 2020

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. This week, we’ve been simultaneously thinking about silly dances and serious geopolitics – and, yes, the two have overlapped.

To explain why, we’re going to have to talk about TikTok. The term ‘cultural phenomenon’ is generally bandied about too freely, but TikTok really is a cultural phenomenon. The social media app achieved the distinction of 315 million downloads in the first quarter of this year – the highest quarterly figure ever. And usage has only increased during the world’s collective lockdown.

TikTok is a cultural phenomenon in another sense not related to numbers, too: it is an exciting venue for popular culture. The idea of everyone becoming a film-maker – with their own cameras and means of distribution – has been around for decades. But TikTok somehow makes it feel true.

Thanks, in part, to lockdown, millions are now making short videos and uploading them to TikTok. Hundreds of thousands of those videos are terrible, but hundreds of thousands are also brilliant, funny, creative and irresistible. Homes have become movie sets. Kids have become comedians. And everyone – yes, everyone – has a silly dance in their repertoire. No wonder TikTok recently employed Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as its CEO earlier this year.

All good, right? Not quite. This is where the geopolitics comes in. TikTok is owned by a Chinese technology company called ByteDance – and Chinese technology companies are not looked on kindly by the Trump administration. Indeed, earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the US might follow India’s lead and ban various China-based apps, including TikTok.

Except it’s not just Donald Trump, nor the Republicans who are wary. The national committee of the Democratic Party has also warned its staff against using the app. At the very least, there are concerns about TikTok’s privacy settings, as there are about many social platforms’ software. Last month, for example, it was revealed that TikTok accessed its users’ clipboard content.

At worst, there are fears that TikTok and the Chinese state are rather too close to each other for comfort. This has resulted in some strange happenings over the past week: Amazon sent an email to its employees asking them to delete TikTok from their phones – then rescinded the message, saying that it was ‘sent in error’. The financial company Wells Fargo, meanwhile, implemented a total TikTok ban among its staff.

But ByteDance might be poised to respond. According to one of its investors speaking to The Information, some within the company are pushing for a greater focus on the domestic market in China. There’s even speculation that they may end up selling TikTok – at a valuation of more than $100 billion.

Yes, we’re back to numbers again, which is sadly inevitable. Behind this crazily endearing and endearingly crazy video platform is a mega corporation. And beyond that mega corporation there are privacy concerns and politicians. Still, there’s also the creativity of TikTok’s millions of users. Or, if you prefer to stay off your phone, there’s a lot of non-app-based culture out there, too. Here are some recommendations:
A book cover on a grey background.
A book cover on a grey background.

Saturday Lunch With The Brownings by Penelope Mortimer (Kindle)

Last year, in her Paris Review column, the critic Lucy Scholes wrote about Penelope Mortimer’s 1960 short-story collection entitled Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, advocating for it to be republished. This year, on 23 July, the fine folk at Daunt Books are bringing it back into print, with an introduction by Scholes herself. It’s a happy turn of events for a collection that is to some extent underpinned by unhappiness or, at least, a keen dissatisfaction with the constraints and conflicts of domestic life. 

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life Of The King Of Comics by Tom Scioli (Kindle)
The whole world knows about Stan Lee and his contribution to Marvel Comics. But fewer people know about the artist Jack Kirby, who did just as much – some might even say more – to establish Marvel in the first place. This new comic by Tom Scioli (a singular talent himself) does something to set the record straight. It helps that Kirby led quite the life, from a childhood on New York’s Lower East Side to the psychedelic outpourings of his adult imagination via Omaha Beach in 1944.

Jack Kirby Omnibuses
Or maybe just read some Kirby originals? Although he was integral to Marvel – co-creating Captain America, Black Panther, The Fantastic Four and many others – his real masterpieces came when he defected to DC Comics in the 1970s. Among them was his Fourth World saga, a tale of gods, monsters, and some very human pathologies. If you’d like to dive in, DC Comics has made it easy, collecting Kirby’s work in a series of hardback omnibuses that span his most creative years. Consider them monuments to 20th-century pop culture.

A view onto city rooftops from a window.

Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits (Blu-ray)
Bruce Lee has never been especially well-served on home video; too many subpar transfers and incomplete collections. But this boxset, released this week by Criterion, contains all of Lee’s major films, handsomely restored with a ton of supplemental material. In truth, the movies are patchier than their legend suggests, but Lee is always a marvel. Watching him fight is like watching Gene Kelly dance or Judy Garland sing – pure cinema.

WindowSwap (website)
Normally, we recommend movies and series to watch. But how about a website instead? It is, we should add, a very special website. With so many of us stuck at home in recent months, a couple of programmers decided to give us all a change of view – and the result was WindowSwap. It allows you to simply look out of someone else’s window, or upload footage from your own window if you’re feeling generous. This is tourism, 2020-style. 

A woman standing in a kitchen.
A collage of a man in denim with coloured blocks over him.

Lady Leshurr (YouTube)
Lady Leshurr is on the new series of the BBC One cooking show Celebrity MasterChef. Hang on. Lady Leshurr is on Celebrity MasterChef?! At least it’s an excuse to link to the south London rapper’s YouTube channel, where she’s been debuting fantastic tracks – with similarly fantastic, low-budget videos – for years. There are one or two recent lockdown-related numbers on there, but if you want to find out what Leshurr is all about, the fourth entry in her ‘Queen’s Speech’ series is the place to start. It sums up her music: inventive, unselfconscious and funny.

America by Sufjan Stevens (Spotify)
First, Bob Dylan released his long, sprawling ode to (or should that be dissection of?) the United States. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Sufjan Stevens did the same. His 12-minute-long America is the first single from his forthcoming album The Ascension and it’s a swirly sort of lament. ‘Don’t do to me what you did to America,’ he sings – on repeat.
A computer game still of a man standing in front of a vast landscape.

Ghost Of Tsushima (PlayStation 4)
We’re nearing the end of a console generation, which is another way of saying that the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are going to be replaced by whizzier models later this year. In that context, Ghost Of Tsushima almost feels like a recap of the current console generation. Big, open world? Check (feudal Japan). Artful graphics? Check. Lots of side quests? Check. Sneaking up behind people and stabbing them in the back? Also check.

But if that sounds too much like every other modern game, rest assured that Ghost Of Tsushima does contain a couple of revelations. The first is its soundtrack, which has spawned a brilliant remix EP with tracks from the likes of TOKiMONSTA and The Glitch Mob. The second is its ‘Kurosawa mode’ – a carefully tuned black-and-white mode that mimics the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, and even has the approval of the director’s estate.

Best wishes, 

Peter Hoskin
Culture Editor | Tortoise Media
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