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TikTok on the Historical Clock

To understand the effect TikTok is having on the way pop music is being written, it is worth looking at what a TikTok hit actually is—a more complicated proposition than it might appear. A song that becomes a hit on TikTok often finds subsequent chart success; if the artist is a relative unknown, major label interest is often quick to follow. But all this is happening after the fact of its initial virality—and it isn’t the artist that goes viral, nor even the song itself.

In 2017, two Texan college friends, Forrest Frank and Colin Padalecki formed a band. Wavy-haired, clean-shaven, pastel-sweatered, white-toothed, white-sneakered, white, and seeming to live in a never-ending jeans commercial, the duo decided to call themselves Surfaces—because, Padalecki told ECHO magazine, they wanted “a name that had levels to it.”

Their debut album, Surf, found decent streaming success—and, though it didn’t chart, landed them a deal with the label TenThousand Projects, who went on to release their 2019 follow-up, Where the Light Is. Despite its higher production value, their sophomore effort was received in much the same way as their first: getting a few million streams and spots on a few Spotify playlists but never breaking the charts.

That is until their label enlisted Flighthouse to help.

Flighthouse—a Gen Z-led creative studio based in LA—is one of many companies that specialise in working with artists to engineer, or attempt to engineer, TikTok virality. They work with labels and brands to, as their website somewhat dystopically puts it, “seamlessly weave purpose and content that amplifies and defines culture for our audience.”

That TikTok has come to define culture can hardly be doubted—nor can its effects on the pop music landscape. In the five years since its transformation from Musical.ly, its annual user base has grown. from 65 million to a billion. Of those billion, roughly two-thirds say they are likely to look up songs after they hear them. American rapper and singer Lil Nas X’s stratospheric rise on the back of his hit ‘Old Town Road’ might have seemed like a fluke in 2019. Now, though, in the wake of Olivia Rodrigo, Claire Rosenkranz, Glass Animals and countless others who have found chart success after first having hits on the platform, it reads clearly as a harbinger of an imminent shift in the pop landscape: TikTok was to become, in essence, the new radio.

‘Sunday Best’, the lead single from Where the Light Is, was initially released in January 2019 and did not chart. In February 2020, it was uploaded to TikTok by Flighthouse with a voice-over line added before the hook—“2019 rewind!”—followed by a tape sound effect. Flighthouse then paid popular TikTok influencers to record videos with the track, calling it the 2019 rewind challenge.

The trend caught on, and after the song was re-released for radio play at the start of March, it peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. As of writing, the track has over 760 million streams on Spotify.

This level of success is somewhat exceptional when it comes to engineered TikTok virality. To understand why, it’s worth looking at the differences between TikTok and its primary predecessor, radio. They differ in two key ways. Firstly, TikTok’s programming isn’t dictated by a DJ but by an algorithm, which is itself driven by audience engagement, and thus cannot be bought. Secondly, the products being shared on the platform are not songs themselves but short videos—TikToks—which include songs made by unpaid users (with the exception of the odd brand deal), working (mostly) for their own enjoyment.

The combination of these two factors makes TikTok virality, in a word, unpredictable—leading labels such as Sony to abandon their expensive attempts at engineering it in favour of a more reactive approach: encouraging artists to engage with TikTok trends that arise organically around their songs, and promoting them when they do. The extent to which companies, like Flighthouse, will learn to reliably engineer TikTok virality is hard to predict. This is partly because a lot of this stuff—deals of the ‘Sunday Best’ variety, for instance—just doesn’t get publicised, making it impossible to definitively tell which songs have money behind them (though one can always speculate). However, the critical mood seems to be cautiously optimistic that the platform’s user-driven nature will remain naturally resistant to most of these industry attempts at TikTok’s inception.

One area where no speculation is required, however, is in the sound of the songs themselves: their composition, construction and production. When a communication platform as revolutionary as TikTok comes along, it is often discussed as representing a sudden overhaul of an apparently timeless, hitherto unchangeable status quo. But the technology with which popular music is distributed has never been fixed and has always determined the nature of that music itself.

Only a few years ago, much was made of streaming’s effect on the length of pop song intros. Endless curated Spotify playlists, combined with the power of shuffle and skip buttons, were creating an unprecedented need for instant gratification and listener retention. This led to more and more time being shaved off pop song intros each year—down from an average of 20 seconds in the ‘80s to five or less in the mid-2010s. Before streaming, album lengths used to be tied to the amount that could fit on a CD or cassette and, before that, vinyl, which had the unique effect of splitting albums into two distinct halves, or ‘sides’. Jazz standards, usually composed as variations on an archetypal chord progression (12-bar blues, rhythm changes), were circulated in Fake Books and learnt by heart by touring musicians across America. Without rehearsal, anyone could rock up and play a tune on the first go. Folk songs of epic length were written in short, memorable verses around drones, rhythmic ostinatos, or repetitive three-to-four chord patterns. This enabled people to transmit stories across generations and cultures, long before the advent of recording technologies—or rather, when the only recording technologies were memory and the occasional scrap of paper.

If someone were to ask, “What is pop music?” it’d be easy to respond by listing some common traits: catchy melodies, upbeat rhythms, and a verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. Such a definition might serve us day-to-day, but it largely misses the point. Any definition of pop music that bases itself on a laundry list of genre conventions will only ever be able to describe a particular manifestation of pop, not pop itself; you’d only need to go back a few decades, let alone centuries, for such a definition to become totally inapplicable.

Pop is pop because it’s popular, and when it isn’t anymore, that’s because pop has already changed.

Because of this, pop is perhaps the only genre that derives its identity not from within—through a set of historically-established conventions—but from without; function defining form, and not the other way around. This makes pop music more closely tied to the mode of its distribution than any other since its very definition as pop is determined by its ability to thrive in that mode. Whether we like it or not, understanding pop music today means having an awareness of TikTok’s role in shaping it.

To understand the effect TikTok is having on the way pop music is being written, it is worth looking at what a TikTok hit actually is—a more complicated proposition than it might appear. A song that becomes a hit on TikTok often finds subsequent chart success; if the artist is a relative unknown, major label interest is often quick to follow. But all this is happening after the fact of its initial virality—and it isn’t the artist that goes viral, nor even the song itself.

On TikTok, what really goes viral is the idea attached to the song, or more specifically to a 10 to 15-second snippet of it: a dance, a joke, a performance routine—something sharable, replicable and versatile enough to spawn any number of permutations throughout its lifecycle as a meme (a sentence which has truly made me feel like a forty-year-old to type). Songs that become TikTok hits will often have a sequential list for a hook (Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Savage’, 2020); a distinctive sound effect or moment of transition (Doja Cat’s ‘Kiss Me More’, 2021); or a lyric that works well out of context (Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, 2006)—something that will map well onto a joke or dance. None of these traits alone are enough to guarantee virality and are just as likely to prompt an old song’s revival as a new one’s success. But they are all in the toolboxes that songwriters, and companies like Flighthouse, use when trying to generate TikTok virality, resulting in their increasing prevalence in the pop charts.

At the end of the day, TikTok is no one thing. It is as exciting for its genuinely democratising effect on pop music as it is disheartening for its flattening one on composition; as liberating in its freedom of expression as it is concerning for the near-absolute power it places in the hands of a single conglomerate; massive in scale, yet made up mostly of 15-second videos filmed on phones in teenagers’ bedrooms; unprecedented and revolutionary, yet part of a process as old as pop music.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Three 2021

EDITION THREE 2022 AVAILABLE NOW!

‘After Hours’ will transport you to a land of dizzy dreams and astonishing nightmares... A land where the rules that structure our days are turned on their heads; where stressed students let loose and follow the pull of the moon.

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