If nothing else, 2021’s meme game has been solid. The Yee-Yee-Ass Haircut meme has arguably been the most collective fun that the internet has has since Steamed Hams dominated conversation back in 2018. Musically though, there’s been a pretty solid obsession with Sea Shanties, the songs of fishermen, explorers, and all types of seamen.
To be fair this certainly isn’t the worst musical phase humanity has gone through. After all, we spent the first five years of the new millennium convincing ourselves nu-metal was good.
That being said what exactly is it about this current moment that has driven many people, whether it be ironically, genuinely, or post-ironically (genuinely, but with extra steps) to a genre of music that the majority of the non-seafaring world assumed has ran its course? This is a genre that most would consider dead, yet many have excitedly flocked to the genre, flooding their Spotify wrapped with it, and doing covers of sea shanty classics on Tiktok. For all intents and purposes, this is one hell of an anomaly.
If the meme had simply stopped with that video of David Coffin singing, it could have been written off as simply a novelty, but the enduring power of these songs force everyone to acknowledge that something about this culture has drawn us all collectively to these melodies.
Whether they be borrowed from the Anglo Saxon sailors from the age of exploration vowing to roll the old chariot along, the slaves aboard the boats trying to keep their spirits, or the emphatic rowdy voices that sang the Soran Bushi, these chants clearly provide something that the culture needs right now. It may not be needed in two months, but for the time being these shanties’ bellowing echo has completely captured the zeitgeist.
In many historical instances, these shanties were used to ensure that everyone on the ship was working in sync with one and other. In dull or depressing moments, they were there to provide some level of spirit, some levity, or simply enough spiteful energy to carry the sailors from one moment into the next.
Considering the context of being on a boat in the middle of ocean, that committed and resigned feeling is something that many modern workers must feel. Far too many are suddenly locked into jobs they very well would not otherwise take, finding ways to make ends meet between stimulus checks, finding no source enjoyment in their current life, and choosing to fixate on some distant day when they can scrape together the cash to roll down to old Maui. The working class has felt its collective trauma and in this present moment seem to be clinging to these songs as a proven dispensary of solace.
In 2021, still in the throws of a pandemic, we certainly could use the wind in our sails carrying us to shore in the form of nationalized healthcare and government subsidies instead of rowing our way across the ocean paycheck to paycheck, but until those days and nights come all we have are these songs to keep us distracted. As we each roll our boulder up an endless hill, as we stare out on that same horizon with the waves thrashing against our tired hulls, the loud and proud echoing cadence of our fellow shipmates is driving us forward.
While the day of solace may not be on any of our calendars, these shanties will be keeping us ready.