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What TikToks Broke the Algorithm in 2021?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Sylvanian Drama/TikTok, Khaby Lame/TikTok, Erika Kullberg/TikTok, @norightsforcishetmen/TikTok, and Charles Gross/TikTok

Try as they might, corporations and marketing agencies have yet to hack TikTok’s formula for virality (as they did with its late, great predecessor, Vine), and weirdos rose to the top of everyone’s “For You” page this year. Trends emerged faster than you can say “bing bong!” — born out of a combination of boredom, apocalypse anxiety, and relentless imagination — as creators made references to references, remixes of remixes, and Duets of Duets, finding originality in the familiar and cheese under the sauce. Sure, the best of the year on TikTok can be defined by numbers — likes, views, followers — but that would leave out the stuff that lit up our tired, weary brains and compelled us to send it to the group chat. We asked Vulture staffers which TikToks broke the Charli D’Amelio mold this year, and they gifted us the 15 creators, sounds, series, and videos below.

Sylvanian drama

I don’t know who they are, how old they are, or why they have a whole soap opera cast of Sylvanian Family dolls (Calico Critters in many regions), but @SylvanianDrama on TikTok has produced prestige drama with over 1.5 million followers tuning in. Their videos — like this recent hit set to “All Too Well (10-Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” — is emblematic of their twisty tales, in which innocent-looking woodland creatures deal with scandalous relationships and every scene has a jaw-dropping plot point. It’s the same exposition-less way children play pretend — by jumping to the action — but all grown up; these toys are dealing with mental illness, alcohol dependency, drugs, adultery, murder, and committing more acts of violence than most G.I. Joes see in their entire careers. Plus someone gets run over by a deus ex toy car at least once a TikTok, all set to an accompanying pop song. — Zoë Haylock

My Telepathic Mother

There’s a lot of, you know, acting going on on TikTok — a lot of people holding the camera and recording a bit then switching sides and recording a response. While it’s usually a setup and punch line or someone acting out a conversation, @themarycam of My Telepathic Mother has turned the format into an entire 60-episode series of 60-second videos. She plays every character in this story of a New Jersey mom who hits her head and ends up with the ability to read minds. Switching from weird wigs to hats, she fully commits not only to their distinct accents but also to their individual personalities. Each character holds the camera themselves and moves around the settings independently with zooms and voice-overs emphasizing telepathic thoughts. As streamers continue to think of the future of short-form mobile and social-media content (RIP Quibi), they need to be looking at creators like this who are reinventing the form. — Z.H.

Lil Nas X

There is absolutely no debate Lil Nas X made TikTok the platform it is today for promoting a viral song. But he updated the playbook with his “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” rollout, eventually creating a pole-dancing TikTok trend from the music video. All his videos have an unmatched self-awareness that we first got to witness when he “exposed” DMs from 6ix9ine after 6ix9ine made a homophobic joke at Lil Nas X’s expense. That TikTok has 6.9 millions likes — let alone views — and you know what’s playing in the background? “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” four weeks before its release. That was just his opening move. — Z.H.

The best Velma impersonator you’ll ever see

I never knew true art until I came across TikTok duo @kyleandtucker’s reenactment of Velma’s (played by Linda Cardellini) most critical scenes in Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Let me explain: They use a potato chip to portray a reptilian scale (and say “reptilian scale” in the Velma voice); they crawl, copying the moment when a klutzy Velma loses her glasses; they name-drop the infamous Jonathan Jacobo (legend!); and finally, wearing some sort of red jumpsuit, they bring to life the fake farts Velma’s latex bodysuit let out when she sat on a couch and yelled “Scooby” in a nasally tone. It’s full of Scooby gems that only true fans of the film will understand, and Pterodactyls are shook. PSA: Watch both the Tok and the movie ASAP. — Wolfgang Ruth

@norightsforcishetmen calls out Meghan Trainor

It only took nine seconds, but I’d like to report a murder. One of my favorite TikTokers right now, @norightsforcishetmen, posts hilarious and no-context videos that poke fun at catchphrases like “slay” and lifestyles like “girlbossing.” But what really housed it down boots was this November 24 clip in which Rilette delivers a warning so direct and crisp it feels like a punch: “Meghan Trainor! You know what the fuck you did. You have 24 hours to respond or you’re over.” Immediately, we were all gagged: What did Meghan Trainor do? Was it her stint on Fox’s The Four hosted by Fergie? Or maybe that tweet in which she so bravely revealed she and her husband have toilets right next to each other because they are — wait for it — “soulmates.” Honestly, reader, it very well could have been this year’s Christmas album. Whatever the many reasons, this TikTok is forever an artifact. — W.R.

Rocket Raccoon says “gay rights”

All culture has been acquired by the Walt Disney Company; therefore, all adults are Disney adults now. Sorry. Disney released the caption-reading voices of Chewbacca, Rocket Raccoon, C-3PO, and more to TikTok. And being official Disney tie-ins, the company wasn’t going to let you say “fuck.” It wasn’t even going to let you say “queer” because it thought people would use words like that to bully others — or because it’s potentially that scared of offending international audiences with genuine LGBTQ+ content. But never count out the cybergays. If you tell them Rocket Raccoon can’t reclaim the F-slur, they are going to make him do it. Hacking the Rocket Raccoon voice represents the best (ingenuity, queer kids finding community) and the worst (corporate tie-ins, automated censorship) the internet has to offer. — Bethy Squires

“Gorgeous, gorgeous girls love soup”

2021 was the year we finally decoupled the words we use to describe hotness from any physical attributes or aesthetic considerations. Being isolated from the rest of the world for more than a year broke open a lot of people’s conceptions of gender, attraction, and style. All the hits. I have a friend who, years ago, decided to assert he was the most beautiful man in the world. Finally, the rest of the world is on Hottest Man in the World Dylan’s level. I live next to a billboard that says “Hot Girls Have IBS.” Why? For whom? IBS sufferers? We already know we’re hot; we don’t need a billboard about it. What the “Gorgeous, gorgeous girls love soup” sound understands is being hot and being gorgeous mean nothing nowadays. Or perhaps everything. Soup girls are the most popular girls in the chicken coop because they say they are, dummy. — B.S.

The girl with the keyboards in her bathroom

Designer Myra Magdalen is a real one. And to some, a real scary one. Her keyboard-adorned bathroom has upset many. Her interesting takes on “get ready with me” videos have astonished others. But that’s what rocks about TikTok. It has a real Web 1.0 energy of “anything can happen.” Every single user gets to spelunk into a nasty little hole of niche content. What creators give you is a tiny snippet of their lives, not the whole novel. You have questions about the keyboards? Stay confused. Some people see no benefit in styling an outfit with what looks like the dolly to a mop bucket. We call those people “cowards,” and on TikTok, they are easier to ignore than on any other app. Make whatever content you want; the people who get it are gonna find it. And the people who don’t? May still relentlessly harass you. This is the internet after all. — B.S.

Khaby Lame

Khabane Lame, who goes by the handle @khaby.lame, is a Senegalese-born Italian TikToker. He amassed his following by Dueting unnecessarily complex internet hacks with the obvious answer. A guy cuts off his shirt when it gets caught in a car door; Lame shows him you can just open the car door instead. Each video ends with his palms outstretched, gesturing toward the straightforward solution. “It’s my face and my expressions which make people laugh,” Lame told the New York Times, saying his wordless reactions were a “global language.” The 21-year-old TikToker lost his factory job in March 2020 because of the pandemic and began posting videos to TikTok every day. Now with more than 123 million followers, Lame is the second-most-followed TikToker after D’Amelio. — Natalie Lin

Addison Rae becoming Gwyneth Paltrow

Celebrities who have bravely joined TikTok (read: been told to by their PR teams) get the benefit of a million new Gen-Z eyes on their content. For Gwyneth Paltrow, that means the youth is now familiar with the world of Goop. It also means Gwyneth Paltrow has had to swallow her pride and accept that she is going to be the punch line of a TikTok trend. My gaslight (Marvel), girlboss (Goop), and gatekeep (Ben Affleck tea) queen took a knee and said, “Let’s do it for the Tok.” And she did do that. In the very short clip, Addison Rae pops up in a pair of blue-light glasses — probably available for sale on right now — and says, “Don’t be surprised if one day I just …” as the screen starts to swirl, revealing a smiling Paltrow wearing the same pair of blue-light glasses and saying, “Hi, I’m Addison Rae!” The joke is supposed to be Rae will one day turn into Paltrow or someone Paltrow-adjacent, which is a completely illogical claim for many reasons! But whatever. This TikTok did what it needed to do: It got millions of views and bridged a wide gap between Hollywood royalty (Paltrow) and Gen-Z “It” girls (Rae). However, I argue that the only good version of this TikTok joke is if Succession’s Greg did it and turned into Tom Wambsgans because boo souls. — Morgan Baila

Meet the @theslappablejerk

Hey, Sara … if you want to throw your phone across the room because — Oh my God — someone captured exactly what it feels like to be cornered by the “nice guy” at work, check out @theslappablejerk. As his name states, this creator makes original characters based on the worst people in your life: creepy boomers with 20-year-old girlfriends, “nice guys,” and anyone who has probably annoyed you. On his YouTube channel, @theslappablejerk reveals origin stories for all of his cringe characters if you dare to learn more about them. His Toks remind us that, well, some experiences are unfortunately universal. — Alejandra Gularte

Lifehacks with Erika Kullberg

(Shh, she doesn’t know I know this hack.) Lawyer Erika Kullberg describes herself as someone who “reads the fine print so you don’t have to,” sharing tips on how to save money while shopping at Costco to getting free upgrades on flights. While I will never be brave enough to ask a retail worker for free stuff, I’m a fan of all the parodies inspired by her channel. — A.G.

Let’s talk about it: Charles Gross

Let’s talk about it: YouTuber turned TikToker Charles Gross discusses luxury fashion in an ASMR-like tone that is informative and comforting even to those who might not spend thousands on accessories. He has explained luxury drama like the Chanel Advent calendar and authenticating high-end purses. — A.G.

The Fran Drescher of TikTok

She’s fashionable, she’s funny, she’s body-positive, she’s the Nanny! Marielle Greguski posted many fashion videos, but her The Nanny–inspired outfit series was creative, insightful, and downright fashionable. She shows that anyone can be as stylish as Fran Drescher regardless of their body type. — A.G.

Michelin-star demon chef

To me, a non-TikToker, the platform seems less about finding #relatablecontent and more about seeing things that are fun or novel in some way. Maybe the demon chef was meant to be silly and fun — but when I first saw them on Twitter, I felt seen. That was around a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and thus about a year into my ritual of crawling out of my room, half alive, to struggle to fry my own silly little eggs amid the mess of the world, much like the demon chef. But that’s not the only way to enjoy the video. You could be horrified by anything from the demon chef’s mask to their screams. You could be fascinated by how the demon chef fried an egg with those grabby things for hands. (Just watch some of their other cooking videos — the wonder doesn’t wear off!) You could be baffled that this was the sort of the stuff breaking through on the internet in 2021. But don’t lie: The demon chef made you feel something too. — Justin Curto

What TikToks Broke the Algorithm in 2021?