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TikTok, Youth Culture, and Music

By Julia Quynh

Photo by Spotify

How do you find new music to listen to? For many of the teens I interviewed, the answer isn’t a traditional music streaming app at all -- it’s the video-sharing platform TikTok. The app offers an endless scroll of digestible videos. “There’s always something to laugh about, so you don’t have to worry about your real-life struggles,” adds Adrian Liewfatt, a second-year Literature student. The app has blown up over the past few months, with its influence extending to other content teens consume, most notably music.

TikTok is something of a Frankenstein’s monster. On the one hand, it features an enormous amount of lip-sync content, drawing comparisons to the often besmirched Musically. But its short and spontaneous seeming videos also bring out nostalgia for the much-revered Vine. Both predecessors influenced pop culture, everywhere from memes to the music industry, and Tiktok follows eagerly in their footsteps.

“It’s THE platform embodying content creation and our generation’s problem with having a short attention span,” says Annie Nguyen, a second-year student in Law, Society and Justice. TikTok’s algorithm on the For-You Page creates a series of never-ending videos specially curated to the user’s likes and interests, contributing to the addictiveness of the application. “It’s addictive for me, because of how my For-You Page constantly shows me new, and different videos every day,” asserts Kitty Ngo, a second-year Economics student in Concordia University.

Because these videos are usually backed by snippets of music, the app also promotes generally unknown songs to its young audience. “There’s also a bunch of new ear-catching songs I get to hear every day for me to discover,” adds Ngo.

TikTok has also allowed numerous artists to find a broader audience. Ariel Ang, a student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore, is a huge fan of watching Tiktok to de-stress from the pressures of school. She says that she discovered a wide variety of songs through TikTok. Anson Seabra’s “Welcome to Wonderland”, for example, was released in 2018, but recently began flourishing in the charts after several TikToks with the song in the background went viral. “I had never heard of him before, but now his songs are in all of my playlists, and streamed by millions of people!” Ang says.

Doja Cat’s single “Say So” is another of many examples of the sudden virality the app offers. Released in November 2019, it only blew up months later after a TikTok user, Haley Sharpe (@yodelinghaley), created a dance video with a series of easy-to-follow dance moves. The dance challenge went viral on TikTok, with 18.8 million videos recreated with her song in the background as of the writing of this article. The dance moves became so popular that they even ended up in Doja Cat’s official music video, with Sharpe herself starring.

TikTok has also become a method for musicians to promote their music, hoping to be the next viral smash. Artists flock to TikTok to create dance challenges, like Cardi B’s song featuring Megan Thee Stallion “WAP” or BTS’ “Dynamite”. Both topped the music charts, but they also racked up millions of videos from TikTok users.

Traditional chart-toppers like Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift appear alongside fast-paced viral hits like “STUPID” by Ashnikko, or songs that are easy to lipsync or dance along to, like BENEE’s “Supalonely”. However, the question remains: do musicians sacrifice their musicality to produce songs that would potentially go viral on TikTok?

Viral TikTok songs lean towards quotable lyrics and danceable rhythms. In addition, Tiktok’s longest clips are only a minute. A killer chorus sometimes compensates heavily for an otherwise weak song. Popstars may be used to following formulas, but TikTok offers a new formula for a wider range of musicians. “An artist would follow what their musicality led them to,” Nguyen quips. “Whereas an entrepreneur musician would simply follow what would work the best for the charts, or TikTok.”

As for the fans, there’s not much to do besides keep one eye on your phone and the other on the charts -- with both ears listening, of course.


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