Is the clock ticking on TikTok? While the video-sharing social platform has been enjoying a banner 2020—having become the most downloaded app in the world—it’s also the latest media entity to find itself in the crosshairs of Donald Trump’s bruised-ego rampage. Whether fueled by a personal vendetta or national security concerns linked to the app’s ties to China (also partially a personal vendetta, it should be said), Trump signed an executive order to ban TikTok from the U.S., unless its developer ByteDance can sell it to an American company by September 21. The broader implications of this executive order are wholly unnerving, but it’s also worth considering what a TikTok ban would mean for the music industry, which has rapidly adapted to the way the app can turn songs into viral sensations into money-making hits.
The earliest stateside version of TikTok was the Shangai-based Musical.ly, which was built off the more streamlined premise that users could upload videos of themselves lip syncing to audio clips of songs and dialogue, a smattering of simple editing tools at their disposal. As Musical.ly grew in popularity, particularly among younger users, the Beijing-based ByteDance saw an opportunity to bring its like-minded app, TikTok, to a global audience, so they bought out their competitor for nearly $1 billion, merging both under the TikTok moniker and consolidating user accounts in August 2018. As it proliferated among Gen Z users, TikTok became a destination not just for lip sync videos, but also shortform comedy, home videos, DIY projects, dances, challenges, and more, leading to the birth of viral trends and a new subsection of influencers. One of the app’s signature features—the ability to grab audio from an existing TikTok and use it for your own—has made it especially easy for song snippets to become memes in their own right. Case File No. 1: Lil Nas X, who used his internet savvy to create memes for his 2019 song “Old Town Road,” which inspired TikTok’s viral “Yeehaw Challenge,” eventually breaking through to mainstream radio and breaking records with a historic Billboard Hot 100 run.
Given that Lil Nas X’s hit single landed him a record deal, a couple of Grammys, and millions of fans, other artists and labels have been keen on following suit. As a wider audience (a.k.a. older folk) flocks to the app out of quarantine-induced boredom, TikTok’s become something of a testing ground for new pop songs, and an unlikely home for deep cuts and forgotten singles to find a second life. Money has power on TikTok, just like any social network, but you can’t necessarily buy “virality”—there’s no logic to what’s going to take hold with the app’s trend-setting user base. Artists like Drake will drop a new track with a corresponding dance, shamelessly positioned to spread like wildfire on the platform, while, other times, an original song from a decade-old animated movie will resurface from out of nowhere to soundtrack thousands of food-related TikToks (more on that one below). It’s that sort of unpredictable energy that can compel even the most casual user to spend hours swiping through the app, then humming the tune of a song they don’t even know the name of hours later.
If we’re in danger of losing TikTok (and let’s hope we’re not), then what follows should be a matter of historical record. In this Power Hour, we’ll highlight 60 minutes worth of songs and artists that have experienced TikTok notoriety in 2020, examining a eclectic mix of tracks that deserve a listen beyond the 15 seconds you’ve heard over and over again on the app. By no means comprehensive, this playlist provides a snapshot of a unique moment in social media—namely, one where most of us were stuck inside and had nothing better to do than learn the moves to the “Savage” dance.
Back in March, we declared “Bored In The House” the “unofficial anthem of self-isolation,” and, months later, it still firmly holds that title. Armed with nothing more than a reverberant floorboard, Detroit-based artist Curtis Roach instantly became the voice of a generation with his straightforward ode to ennui. Hitting just as the nationwide shelter-in-place order set in, the ditty exploded, with everyone from top TikToker Charli D’Amelio to Keke Palmer dancing along. Eventually, rapper Tyga called up Roach, and the pair expanded on the video with an official single, making Roach the poster child for musicians looking to turn their TikToks into hit songs.
The purveyor of “Hot Girl Summer,” Megan Thee Stallion didn’t need TikTok to become a household name. But it certainly didn’t hurt that “Savage” was unavoidable on the app mere days after its release, thanks to an original dance from choreographer Keara Wilson (seen animated in the video above). With Megan’s fiery flow and its minimalist beat, “Savage” was an instant classic, and that’s before Beyoncé eternalized it by hopping on the remix. The song united the two Houston-born powerhouses to benefit a hometown COVID-19 relief fund, giving Megan her first Billboard No. 1 hit, and name-checking TikTok in the process.
Like “Bored In The House,” “Supalonely” really struck a chord with TikTok users when most of them were suddenly siloed in their rooms, inspiring a dance of its own and providing a soundtrack to videos of at-home solo antics. But with an infectious melody and relatable, self-mocking lyrics (“I know I fucked up, I’m just a loser”), “Supalonely” feels like it was destined to catch on, regardless of the global pandemic. Its success on the app has been a boon for the careers of bedroom pop artists BENEE and Gus Dapperton, and has kept their single on a steady climb up the Billboard charts since late March.
If the chipper, chirping “Just Did A Bad Thing” sounds a little too sunshine-y to be serious, well, that’s by design. The creation of musician and video producer Bill Wurtz, the earworm is just one of many he’s unleashed on the internet, having already flooded Vine with mellifluous comedy bits and later blown minds on YouTube with the viral hit “History Of The World, I Guess.” Though “Just Did A Bad Thing” was initially uploaded to YouTube as a full song, the popularity of its opening seconds on TikTok felt like an inevitably for a social platform-conquering wunderkind like Wurtz.
A star by and for the internet, Doja Cat’s first bout of widespread fascination came when her goofy, lo-fi “Mooo!” was too damn catchy to just be a comedic lark. Since then, Doja’s work has gone viral again and again, with multiple tracks from her 2019 album Hot Pink making the rounds on TikTok, including the phenomenon “Say So,” which rode a wave of attention to the top of the Billboard charts. Still, it’s “Boss Bitch”—written for the killer Birds Of Prey soundtrack—that seems to have had the most consistent play on the app. With its bombastic beat and boastful lyrics, it’s been used to punctuate countless slo-mo glow-up videos.
Similarly braggadocios, “Stunnin’” can be heard on TikToks where users show off a range of creative outfits, typically around a theme (“What I’d wear if I were on Stranger Things, Gossip Girl,” and so on). A careful observer of Lil Nas X’s rise to stardom, the Nepal-born Curtis Waters created the song with “Old Town Road” in mind, crafting a catchy hit you can’t help but move to. As Waters told Rolling Stone, its success had record labels knocking at his door, but he remains adamantly independent, proving that platforms like TikTok can provide artists a path to success outside of the system.
Dreamy and wistful, “Death Bed”—from Canadian rapper Powfu—gets a lot of mileage out of its melodic chorus, sampled from singer-songwriter Beabadoobee’s 2017 single, “Coffee.” After it became ubiquitous on TikTok as a “sad boi” anthem, interest in the track had been piqued, and it was re-released with the added parenthetical in the title, capitalizing off the fact that users were searching for it with the lyrics they heard in the short videos. “Death Bed (Coffee For Your Head)” isn’t the first—and won’t be the last—song to change its title retroactively, as labels look to optimize their music for maximum search-ability.
Well into TikTok’s reign as a top music tastemaker, we’re beginning to hear new songs that sound, for better or worse, designed to become a smash on the app. In the “for better” column is 16-year-old musician Claire Rosinkranz’s “Backyard Boy,” a breezy bop that’s sweet, memorable, and incredibly easy to Google. With its playful lyrics about “turning the volume up on some good boy band tunes,” “Backyard Boy” is the perfect jam for Gen Z’s summer in quarantine, making the world feel bigger and brighter without ever having to leave the comfort of your own neighborhood.
On the other hand, sometimes, a song’s surge on TikTok can feel like a stroke of pure luck. Take, for example, “Prom Queen,” the title track of a five-song 2018 EP from Chicago indie rock mainstays Beach Bunny. In an interview with Paper Magazine, singer Lili Trifilio admitted to being initially nonplussed when she heard her song was blowing up on app she knew very little about: “I really did not put much thought into it until I saw that reflected in the Spotify [streams].” “Prom Queen’s” themes of defiant body positivity in the face of limiting beauty standards just happened to resonate with TikTokers, and suddenly Beach Bunny became a band with national attention.
The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is a cinematic ’80s pastiche that pretty much announces itself as a smash-hit the instant its intoxicating synth chords kick in over the drum-machine beat. As expected, the song spent a number of weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, its euphoric jolt of energy co-opted to promote Fortnite, WrestleMania, and even Super Bowl LIV. But Abel Tesfaye also has TikTok to thank: Users turned the song’s intro into a challenge of its own, a synchronized dance that hundreds of thousands of users couldn’t help but replicate. Inescapable on the app and the airwaves, “Blinding Lights” is considered The Weekend’s most successful single to date.
While star power may have propelled “Blinding Lights” to social-media omnipresence, the spread of 21-year-old Compton rapper Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” was fueled by an organic word-of-mouth as new fans became entranced by the track’s indisputable singularity. Ricch was no doubt a rapper on the rise when he released his debut studio album, Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, but single “The Box” is what broke him into the mainstream, his charismatic delivery weaving in an out of a repeated “eee err” onomatopoeia to addictive effect. That the song caught fire on TikTok, despite not having a signature dance or meme attached to it, is a testament to Ricch’s songwriting talent, and proof that you don’t need a gimmick to go viral.
The industry’s long history of misogyny has made it notoriously difficult for Black women in hip-hop to get a fair shake, but the democratization of music distribution across apps like TikTok has given rise to an exciting crop of new talent, each paving their own path forward. Among them is Mobile, Alabama-born Flo Milli, who recently released one of 2020’s most talked about EPs, the charming and incisive Ho, Why Is You Here? The mixtape was released by RCA Records, which then signed the rapper who had already made herself a star on social media. “Beef FloMix” is a standout, a ferocious freestyle that’s probably gone on to soundtrack more fancams than any other song.
TikTok has also introduced millions to Cookiee Kawaii and, by extension, the Jersey club scene from which she hails. The effervescent “Vibe,” with its unrelenting beat, is the perfect gateway into the regional sound, a high-energy subgenre of electronic/house music. Starting off with an appropriately dreamy vibe, the track builds from there, layering in bird calls, bed creaks, and the crack of a whip. Then Cookiee Kawaii warns, “you ain’t ready for this work,” before “Vibe” launches into its climactic thudding beat. Barely 90 seconds long, the song still provides plenty to dance to, plus it’s the perfect snack to keep you hungry for what’s next from Cookiee Kawaii.
Improbably, one of the most heard songs on TikTok is “Le Festin,” a cut from the Ratatouille soundtrack written by composer Michael Giacchino and sung by French musician Camille. Highlighting both the absurdity and excellent Pixar taste of the TikTok community, multiple versions of the song have been uploaded to the platform to score a variety of food-centric videos, many of them self-owning cooking fails that not even Remy’s rat family would touch. “Le Festin’s” unlikely second life as a tongue-in-cheek ode to culinary malpractice underlines one of the animated masterpiece’s key themes: that great art[ists] can come from anywhere.
Another song taken completely out of its original context for the sake of a TikTok bit is “In This Shirt,” a haunting single from baroque pop act The Irrepressibles. Swiping through the app, “In This Shirt” always stands out; its swelling strings and ghostly proclamation of “I am lost” sound nothing like the hyperactive tunes that so often inundate the video feed. The song’s sheer melodrama is often the butt of a TikTok joke, but there’s an undeniable beauty in “In This Shirt’s” earnest story of queer heartbreak. Notably, the song’s crossover appeal is nothing new, with electronic acts like Röyksopp and Hercules & Love Affair having put their spin on it for a remix album.
Much of the time, the key to a good TikTok is to find a song with the precise lyrics to make your point. That’s been the case for Marina’s (formerly Marina And The Diamonds) “Primadonna,” a spunky millennial take on the “Material Girl” archetype that’s already made a few rounds on the app. The refrain “Going up, going down (down, down) / Anything for the crown (crown, crown)” has proven handy in illustrating the things TikTokers will do for more followers, while a down-pitched version of the line, “I really don’t know why it’s such a big deal though” has been employed by users to bluntly dismiss their haters.
Back in 2014, the indie-pop duo SALES was named “One To Watch” by music aggregator The Hype Machine based off the strength of early singles “Renee” and “Chinese New Year.” Although SALES struggled to generate much buzz at the time, six years later they’ve stumbled upon a rapidly ballooning fan base that discovered them solely through TikTok. It was “the slowest burn in history” singer Lauren Morgan told Consequence Of Sound. The plucky “Chinese New Year” birthed a simple dance craze of its own, and now duo’s debut single “Renee” is having its long-delayed moment in the sun as well.
Another case of belated (but warmly welcomed) affection for a song occurred when bedroom-pop queen Melanie Martinez’s 2015 track “Play Date” suddenly skyrocketed in Spotify streams, spurred by—what else—a TikTok meme. The music-box chimes and swooning melody make the perfect cue for thirsty videos of adoration, essentially the horny version of a fancam. A former contestant of The Voice back in 2012, the savvy Martinez knows that this kind attention isn’t easy to come by, telling Idolator she hopes “to continue to expand the song’s reach,” with plans to release an official complimentary music video in the near future.
The preternaturally gifted spawn of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, Willow made her musical debut in 2010 with “Whip My Hair,” the kind of fun but repetitive pop song you might expect to hear from a 10-year-old. Five years later, her album Ardipithecus was knocked for its obtuseness, but it did include one hidden gem: The catchy, grown-up “Wait A Minute!” Another five years later, and the funky deep cut is finally getting the attention it deserves, punctuating a moment of delayed realization in comedic TikToks, and inspiring another loose dance trend that looks an awful like the inflated “tube men” that flail in the wind outside of used car lots.
The music of Ariana Grande isn’t necessarily hurting for internet attention, but, by chasing Sweetener with the thrilling Thank U, Next less than five months later, some of the former album’s non-singles didn’t quite get the breathin’ room they deserved. Once again, the TikTok community swooped in to save the day to give the playful, steel drum-enhanced “Successful” its due. With its frankly swaggering lyrics, this ode to working women is a natural fit for the app with TikTokers adding in their own self-effacing spin: After gloating over the chorus, the audio briefly pauses to ask, “but what about…?” before jumping back to Grande’s breathy, “I’m so successful!” Confident yet concessive, it’s the perfect encapsulation of the app’s shameless sense of humor.
Clocking in just short of an hour, The A.V. Club cedes our remaining Power Hour seconds to perhaps TikTok’s most inexplicable hit: “Mi Pan.” The mystery of its origins was a big part of its initial allure, but, by the time animated, bipedal llamas and distorted Sims were dancing to it, “Mi Pan” was an undeniable earworm and a viral sensation. Decidedly not about bread (some users believed the cartoonish voice was singing in Spanish), it’s actually a pitched-up version of a cover of a Russian commercial jingle for Kellogg’s Miel Pops, also known as Honey Loops. For a better explainer of the tune, musician @chernaya.princessa—the voice of the of TikTok’s original Miel Pops jingle cover—detailed its journey, which culminates in a funky Charlie Puth remix. Captivating, unforgettable, and utterly strange, this left-field bop may just be the song of the summer, if not the song of 2020.