Despite this, when The Smiths’ 1984 hit “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” began to play off a playlist I had created, my 10 and 12 year old sisters insisted to me that it was a “TikTok song.”
Horrified, I explained to them that this was written over forty years ago and I felt that anyone who knew The Smiths, could not agree with their categorization. The track is listed as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and upon its release, it was the band’s first top ten single.
In rebuttal, my siblings pulled up video after video of creators using audio of the song’s chorus in various ways. And it must be admitted that with over 155,000 posts using this audio, TikTok has given a second life to the song.
In this way, TikTok audios possess the power to introduce the past to an entirely new generation of listeners. MRC Data (a music-analytics company) recently conducted a study for TikTok that found 67% of people are more likely to seek out songs on music-streaming services after hearing them on TikTok. Consequently, this has caused the BillBoard Hot 100 to be almost exclusively defined by the songs trending on the app.
Knowing these facts, record labels and independent artists alike use TikTok as a promotional tool, relying on trends and challenges within the app to create interest in a song. Increasingly, labels even pay influencers to fabricate a new trend with clips of the song as a background to dances, lip syncs, written stories, and more.
However, the disturbing consequence of TikTok’s promotional powers is that the creative paths of artists have begun to be defined by TikTok, rather than by themselves. Not only do record labels hire influencers to use their music, they are increasingly working with consultants to make songs more “TikTokable.”
Because TikToks are typically just 15 seconds or less, users tend to gravitate towards the most dramatic or “catchy” aspects of the songs they use. It is often the case, too, as with “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, that users speed up or distort the audio. Thus, labels pressure their artists to create music for the purpose of making 15 seconds of the song go viral.
At the time of my familial debate, it seemed to me there was a significant difference between a song that is “used on TikTok” and a “TikTok Song.” Upon further inspection, however, it seems as though we may be transitioning to a time where that difference is obsolete.
While Adele was finishing up her critically acclaimed, record-breaking album 30, she too felt the change TikTok was producing in the music world. In a recent interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, she spoke on her management’s suggestion that she engineer her music toward the social media platform. When they told her that she needed to adhere to the app in order to “make sure these 14-year-olds knows who [she] is”, she was not on board. “Tik-a-Tok-a-Who?”, she asked them. “If everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making music for my generation?”
Not all artists are so immune to creating music for TikTok virality. Even if they aren’t being pressured directly by their record labels, many artists are influenced by the popularity of the app. Alternative artist UPSAHL spoke with Business Insider about the pressures of TikTok, stating that “Sometimes it’s so easy to be like, while you’re making a song, ‘Oh this moment sounds so cool for TikTok…I’ve had to get myself out of that practice and just write the song for me and for my fans.”
But not everyone is working to resist the forces of the app. TikTok sensation Tiagz has found his fame through the mastering of TikTok’s algorithm. He samples phrases or ideas that are already popular on the app and writes tracks around them.
However, sound is just sound to Tiagz. Context and history hardly matters if he can get enough influencers to dance to it. His songs are vacant, devoid of meaning or genuine feeling, purposeless beyond TikTok virality. His work is not that of artistic ingenuity, rather, he works to standardize creativity.
Though many take issue with his derivative formula, it works. Works so well that in doing this, Tiagz landed a deal with Epic Records (who also manage Mariah Carey and Camilla Cabello) and has generated millions of TikToks from users around the world and tens of millions of streams of his top tracks on Spotify and other streaming platforms. But his songs are created in the overt attempt to fabricate a trend.
It is because of songs like Tiagz’s, I think, that the term “TikTok Song” feels so derogatory towards an artist’s authenticity. When I think of a “TikTok Song”, I am referring to the mind-numbingly pointless sound bites engineered towards the goal of virality. It sometimes feels as though artists are entering the jingle business on TikTok, rather than pursuing authentic creation.
And Tiagz seems to prove that TikTok has made all music, all sound, accessible to everyone for any purpose, however honorable. Even old songs such as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” are cut up, distorted, and rearranged, stripped of original context and history. While TikTok may give new life to a song, it often seems, at least within the app, to be a vacant one. One wonders if artists who wish to be viewed as “authentic” are now wary of their songs gaining traction on the app and being labeled as “TikTok Songs.” It certainly seems that if Adele does not fear it, she wants no part in it.
However, the fact that many of the old songs are sought after and appreciated in their entirety on other streaming services once they are heard on TikTok, is undoubtedly a benefit of the app’s use of music. In addition, the good TikTok has brought about in the way of exposing the world to new artists and their genuine talent and creativity should not go unnoticed. Lil Nas X probably wouldn’t have a career if “Old Town Road” had not blown up, nor would Doja Cat be one of the most famous people in the world without the platform TikTok provided her.
Yet I hesitate to lean wholeheartedly into this new age of music where TikTok fuels careers, success, and massive profits. As the app holds such extreme power over the charts and labels, it is more important than ever to make note of our tendencies to standardize creativity and trade artistic pursuit for momentary fame.