An Ode to “Electric Circus,” The Original Tiktok

In the basement of a home in suburban Winnipeg, Bradford How and his high school chums would spend their Friday nights partying while watching Electric Circus, longing to be a part of Toronto’s vibrant nightlife.

A television show that aired on MuchMusic and various Chum television networks from 1988 to 2003, Electric Circus offered a simple concept to viewers like How: open the ground-level windows of their Queen Street West television studio, fill the space with lively dancers, play the best dance music, and film what ensued.

“The dancers, clothes and music were outside of my usual suburban Winnipeg experience, and it was fun to have a window into that,” says How, who went on to become a MuchMusic video jockey (VJ) from 2000 to 2003.

How’s lived experience with Electric Circus is not far removed from the many young people who presently sit at home, browsing TikTok and learning dances to chart-topping songs to pass time while under quarantine. In the era of TikTok’s renaissance, Rainbow Sun Francks — another ex-MuchMusic VJ — believes the show should be remembered for setting the precedent of TikTok’s “voyeuristic” coolness.

“It was unlike anything else on television. The internet wasn’t social media yet. There wasn’t anything like it,” says Francks, who hosted Electric Circus from 2000 to 2003 and presently stars in Hulu’s High Fidelity. “You had all the hot club music on a Friday night for anyone who didn’t get to go out.

“It’s the same thing we love about social media. You got to see people letting loose … lots of beautiful people doing their thing,” Francks says. “It was something no one else in Canada had. Everywhere is allowed to be cool now because of the internet. Everyone is allowed to dress the same and have style because of the internet.”

At its peak, Francks describes Electric Circus as a “magical show with crazy energy” and “unlike anything else on television.” Celebrities like Britney Spears, Daft Punk, P!nk, *NSYNC and Kylie Monogue all made appearances on the show.

“Canada is so large and spread out, with so many places not near cities, but they had cable to take them there. You could see the big city, all the styles, hot people and what’s happening,” Francks says. “It really was electricity in there.” And songs that sparked a good time on the dancefloors of EC eventually would be curated onto the yearly Much Dance CD compilations, the then-equivalent to choice placement in a high-traffic Spotify playlist in 2020.

“I’m so sad kids of this generation don’t understand what television was like before the internet,” says Francks. “You’d be waiting all week for something like that to come on.”

While the platforms have changed, one thing has not — people have seemingly always enjoyed watching others dance to popular music from the comfort of their own home. How believes it’s good for our health.

“I think we choose our media by trying to find our people or community,” How explains. “If our interests and priorities overlap here, we might ask ourselves ‘What else do we have in common?’ On Electric Circus, I saw community, dance, self expression, and fun. To me, those ideas are aspirational.”

There’s certainly a positive, communal aspect of watching young, beautiful people have the time of their lives through a screen, but Francks also feels viewers “project themselves into places.”

“That’s why we watch porn and music videos, or praise celebrities who do things we would normally think are so classless and horrible if our friends did them,” says Francks. “We like to watch things that are outside of our comfort zone, or deeply within it.”

Viewers and listeners can no longer be told what to like by labels and tastemakers to the same extent as decades ago. Music recorded in someone’s basement on a smart phone is now generally afforded the same opportunities as big-budget music on the radio, because “everyone has a shot to be heard,” says Francks.

For example, BENEE, a self-professed “bedroom songstress” from New Zealand, released her ‘STELLA & STEVE’ EP on Republic Records on Nov. 15, 2019, but only recently began to acquire serious notoriety for “Supalonely,” an upbeat pop hit used in many TikTok clips. At press time, the song holds over 111 million streams and sits at #25 on Spotify Canada’s Top 50 chart. Meanwhile, established superstar Drake appears to be effortfully seeking the same sort of clout. He released “Toosie Slide” on April 3, a song that unapologetically panders to the trends of TikTok with instructional dance lyrics (“Right foot up, left foot, slide / Left foot up, right foot, slide / Basically, I’m sayin’ either way, we ’bout to slide”) to a melody that borders on nursery rhyme simplicity.

“I love Drake, but that song is weird,” says Francks. “It’s not rap to me. That song caters to the trends and masses. I never thought I’d see him do a little dance in his living room to a song that sounds like a lullaby.” The song presently sits at #1 on Spotify Canada’s Top 50 chart with over 77 million streams. Francks feels the pressure on major artists for a TikTok hit “holds the same weight” as chasing a hit on MuchMusic nearly two decades ago. “If Cardi B puts out a song, it’s surely going to be a TikTok monster with a dance for it.”

With live music and dance club culture at an uncertain stand-still, How sees TikTok’s infrastructure as a moderate remedy for sharing responses to popular music. “It’s exciting to see the ways people are using TikTok to get music out and to creatively collaborate in this unusual time,” How says. “Thankfully, the internet makes that easier than ever.”

Still, How looks forward to the eventual return of real, in-person human interaction.

“Art will be made,” he says. “Culture will reflect our circumstances. How we interact and relate with it is the question we will have to wait to answer.”

So until we are one day allowed to step back into our favourite bar to dance with our friends, we must keep to our screens — much like How and his friends did when watching Electric Circus in their teenage years — to watch the coolest people groove out to the next big dance hit.

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