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Inside My Hourslong Quest to Understand One (1) TikTok Meme

My quest began with a simple mandate: do a little recon on TikTok, the social network that’s a hybrid of lip syncing videos and Vine. TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance and hugely popular among kids and teens, many of whom joined when it was a separate lip syncing app called that got absorbed into TikTok last August. A big turning point in its American popularity occurred when Jimmy Fallon challenged others to join him in taking videos of themselves rolling around like tumbleweed. Now it hosts content like an NBC employee trying and failing to pull apart a pineapple, a clip that has garnered likes from 5,900 people whom I do not remotely understand.

I quickly learned that TikTok, like the TARDIS or this grill, is very different when viewed from the outside than it is on the inside for its active users. The lion’s share of TikTok posters are having earnest, goofy fun creating mini-music videos or setting up elaborate gummy bear Adele concerts (see below). There is a lot of 14-year-old girls striving to share a piece of their souls in the form of deeply unironic Taylor Swift lip syncs, which as far as I am concerned is a very common human impulse.

But TikTok also fosters a thriving secondary market of curators who collect short videos and create compilations that they then publish on YouTube or Instagram. These videos are not tributes to all the 14-year-olds who feel as if Taylor wrote “You Belong With Me” just for them. They’re often called “cringe compilations” or – and this is almost too on the nose – “ironic memes compilations.” These 10- to 15-minute videos exist to mock the original TikTok posters, especially girls. And they regularly rack up tens of thousands of views.

Which brings me to “I’m Already Tracer.” One of the articles I read embedded this three-minute YouTube video (embedded at the top of this post) of girls lip syncing to the same 14-second clip of a song over and over. I watched the entire thing, enthralled – all 12 iterations of the same meme – because I simply could not comprehend what I was looking at. At this point I had no choice but to spend the next hour researching this meme specifically, even though it had nothing to do with my professional goals. I understand that kids even 10 years younger than I will have a different cultural vocabulary. But I wanted to find out if I could dive deep enough to understand the joke as well as any native. My success was…limited.

Here’s what I figured out, from the beginning. The audio clip comes from “No Mercy,” a song by a band called The Living Tombstone. It’s about the woes of playing Overwatch with a team where no one wants to take on the unglamorous role of playing a support character. The much-excerpted moment is a dialogue between a male and female gamer, where the guy ponders which character he should play as, and the girl repeatedly rebuffs him by informing him she’s already selected his chosen character. It’s clearly a joke, because obviously the girl can only select one character.

So far I’m on board. My Millennial brain can carry me this far. I even know what “nerf” means.

OK, step two. Lots and lots of girls on TikTok choose to lip sync to this section of the song. It’s goofy, it’s cute, and it’s about a girl gamer sending up a guy gamer in a nonsensical but amusing way. The girls are having fun playing the character of the girl in the song, recording themselves with prop controllers and even, in one notable case, in full Overwatch cosplay. Silly and harmless.

Step three is where TikTok’s “duet” feature comes in. This is basically the video form of a quote retweet on Twitter. Someone records their own video that plays next to someone else’s video, layering their own audio track on to the original audio track. The “duet” name clearly communicates the intended use for the feature, but of course, it’s also a very handy tool for mockery (much like quote tweets). And boys – it’s always boys – love to mock the girls lip syncing “I’m already Tracer.”

Dudes gatekeeping women and girls from achieving the status of “true” gamers is basically an ancient tradition, so this doesn’t particularly surprise me. As far as I can tell, this is a full accounting of the girls’ crimes:

  • The controller they’re holding isn’t lit up, indicating that it is turned off
  • The controller is for an older console (e.g. PS3) that doesn’t support Overwatch
  • Maybe they’re pressing buttons too much while lip syncing, and this compromises verisimilitude? This is my best guess, because otherwise I can’t figure out what some of these girls are doing “wrong.”

This is as best as I can decipher, but maybe as someone of the female persuasion there is a secret gamer shibboleth the girls are failing to articulate. To reprimand the girls, the boys create duet videos where they hold up signs reading “TURN YOUR CONTROLLER ON,” or strap two DualShock 4s to their ears while pantomiming pressing buttons on a pair of headphones, or (I’ll admit this one made me chuckle) holding a live duck while wiggling their fingers as if frantically pressing buttons.

Of course, the original material is just girls goofing off and lip syncing to silly song lyrics. (Please refer back to the mystery of how the singer is playing as multiple characters at once.) I don’t know why the guys are demanding hard credentials that these girls are “real” gamers.

No, actually, of course I do. Because there are three more “crimes” the girls are committing:

  • Encroaching on boys’ “space” by playing video games and acting as if they are knowledgeable about those games, or maybe even actually being knowledgeable about those games. (See: the D.Va cosplayer.)
  • Trying too hard to look good. If you’re pretty or know how to apply winged eyeliner, you can’t possibly also be a “real gamer,” and therefore you have no right to lip sync to this joke song, I guess?
  • Not trying at all to look good. If you’re a girl making an “ugly” facial expression or being funny rather than pretty, you clearly have no right to put your face online.

This still leaves me a little perplexed. Are garden-variety misogyny and gaming gatekeeper resentment the only propulsive forces behind all these satire duets? To verify I wasn’t missing anything, I texted two of the exactly three teenagers I know: my little brother and sister. My 16-year-old sister stonewalled me in silence, guarding the secrets of her generation. My 18-year-old brother, who is already too old for TikTok but young enough for TikTok’s secondary meme market, could only share my own theory that it was bored, resentful boys making fun of “fake gamer girls.”

Honestly, I was hoping that my research would unlock more. I kept thinking that if I just fell further down the rabbit hole, there would be more there there. There would be some secret inside joke that I simply didn’t understand, the meme equivalent of those high-pitched tones only teenagers can hear. But disdain for girls who aren’t performing femininity “correctly” is a song we all already know well.

Of course, the joke is on the boys. The girls are having fun and expressing themselves. And the boys? They’re spiraling into endless duets of cynicism and ironic remove from the girls’ earnest joy. Plus, they never get to play Tracer.

Published inContent StrategyCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2023