Say What? Say So! How TikTok Has Revolutionized Music Streaming Culture

TikTok: love it or hate it, you can’t help but admit that it’s been an expanding social media outlet and dominated pop culture. If you hate it, I understand; I was once there too. But one day, I decided it was time to investigate how trends and music circulates on this controversial app. Because of the nature and design of the app, music plays a significant role in the content being created and ergo has shot quite a few artists to greater renown. But truly, at what cost?

Even if you don’t have the TikTok app, you’ve probably noticed that TikTok has a different format than similar apps such as Vine in the general style, ability to edit, and algorithm for how TikToks go viral. Generally with social media, content comes from the people you follow. However, the “For You” page on TikTok makes it so essentially anyone can go viral, regardless of how many followers you have when the TikTok is made. The algorithm is set up so the more people interact with your TikTok, the more people will see your TikTok on their “For You” page. Given that a large niche of TikTok, perhaps the biggest one, revolves around lip-syncing “thirst trap” videos and user-friendly, en vogue dances, this, of course, changes the way the music is becoming popular. Once a particular song has gained traction, users can continue to use that audio and make it into a trend.

Straight off the bat, when going onto the app it’s very clear that the original monarch of TikTok music was Doja Cat. From “Say So” to “Candy”, “Boss Bitch” to “Juicy,” and “Like That” to several more, Doja Cat’s music has proven to be a TikTok staple. Although Doja Cat did not rise to popularity because of TikTok, the app has sealed her popularity and spread her name even further. The most pertinent example of this is the dance to “Say So”. Almost everyone knows of this dance—but not even just that, almost everyone knows how to do this dance. This dance shines above the rest because of its simplicity. It doesn’t take long to learn this one, because the moves to it are easy. Doja Cat even featured the creator of this choreography in her music video, signifying the importance of TikTok to the release of this song. Overall, TikTok has impacted Doja Cat’s presence and brand as a musician and made her music more widespread and known. Over time, Doja Cat has lost popularity on the app because of the tendency for trends to rapidly come and go, but she is undoubtedly where it all began.

TikTok also plays a unique role in impacting the music industry, as almost any song can go viral. TikTok provides a platform that uplifts and quickly spreads smaller artists and musicians across many genres, including; rap, pop, soft rock, electronic, even riot grrrl-reminiscent music and so much more. For instance, the songs “Chinese New Year” and “Renee” by SALES rose to popularity very quickly on the app early last year and especially into the summer, inevitably raising it to almost 70 million streams on Spotify and giving the indie-pop duo a spike in their fanbase and listeners. Some other examples of smaller or various songs rising in popularity due to TikTok trends include “I Can’t Handle Change” by the art-pop band Roar, the lo-fi beats classic “I’m Sorry” by Swell ft. Shiloh, “Buttercup” by Jack Stauber, “Wait a Minute!” by alternative R&B artist WILLOW, and many more. There’s also some riot grrrl-esque music like “I’m Yer Dad” by the former alternative “scream-pop” band GRLwood from Kentucky that has found its way circulating around the app, and “Cool Schmool” by the influential band Bratmobile, as well.

Another interesting result of the way TikTok circulates music came from the circulation of Mac Demarco’s “Chamber of Reflection.” The instrumental of this track comes directly from the 1975 track “”ザ・ワードⅡ / セキトウ・シゲオ (The Word II)” by the Japanese artist Shigeo Sekito—with some controversy. Some call it a sample or a cover, many consider it stolen, but for the first time in pop culture, the original song by Sekito is going viral rather than just Mac Demarco’s version. Sekito’s song has not gained much recognition until users on the app have started using it as a trend in their videos. Other examples of songs I noticed as I explored the depths of the app include “Six Forty Seven” by Instupendo, “Before the World Was Big” by Girlpool, and “судно” by the Russian post-punk/new wave group Molchat Doma.

On top of uplifting artists within various genres, TikTok has also elevated an entire genre of music. For the last few months, the hyperpop duo 100 gecs has been gaining popularity. Their large following was sealed by becoming popular on TikTok. They don’t have just one viral song, but their entire album 1000 gecs has found its way into dances, memes, and more. The era of 100 gecs has induced a movement and given rise to other hyperpop music groups and songs, such as “NEVER MET!” by Cmten and “Pressure” by Yungster Jack.

With every multi-billion dollar social networking platform, there are inevitable problems. Unfortunately, while TikTok does popularize smaller artists or encourage the spread of musicians and songs in general, it does frequently lead to music being stolen or circulated without giving credit to the original musicians. Music can be utilized in the app by selecting a song from the archive that TikTok offers when editing. The list of songs that are already on TikTok is relatively bare-boned. However, users have seemingly found a way to get around this by editing their videos in another app such as iMovie, use any music of their choice, and then upload it to TikTok. In a sense, the app is poorly designed to ensure artists always receive recognition.

Another one of the biggest ramifications of the nature and format of TikTok is that it now maintains a mighty and dominant ability to potentially “ruin” songs. Traditionally, songs get ruined from being overplayed on the radio, or even in memes, but TikTok takes this to a whole new level—another dimension, even. While on one hand, it is a great way to uplift music across all genres and smaller artists, it can overplay songs relatively quickly, and especially impact older songs. One of the ways this happens with older songs is when people create remixes or mashups to make them more meme-friendly. The most common one I’ve seen is the mashup of “Chanel” by Frank Ocean with “American Boy” by Estelle. Frankly, a year ago, or maybe even just a few months ago, this is a combination of songs that I never thought I would hear. After my short period of time on the app to conduct my research, I personally cannot listen to “Chanel” anymore without hearing “American Boy” in my head. I’ve also seen quite a few videos on there of a mashup between “Numb” by Linkin Park and “We Like to Party” by Vengaboys. There are other ways old songs are altered to be suitable for a TikTok that I’ve seen, such as changing pitch or speed. An example of this includes a slowed version of “Do I Wanna Know?” by Arctic Monkeys. Over time, it becomes impossible to separate the song from TikTok, forever connecting it to the title: A “TikTok Song.” It’s impossible to escape the name once your song is noted as a “TikTok Song,” and this makes it challenging to ever listen to the song the same again.

On the flip side, TikTok also has a knack for reviving old songs in a way that stirs a wonderful nostalgia. Some examples of songs that I’ve found to be revived by becoming popular on TikTok include: “The Less I Know the Better” and “Let it Happen” by Tame Impala, “Crimewave” by Crystal Castles, and a couple of Mac Demarco songs including “Freaking Out the Neighborhood” and “My Woman.” Even some of the songs listed prior that circulated and gained popularity from TikTok certainly hold a place of nostalgia for many people, like Roar’s track “I Can’t Handle Change” which holds a place in the hearts of experimental pop fans of early last decade. There was also a complete revival of Grimes’ 2011 track “Oblivion.” There has been a massive trend of people dancing to Lily Allen’s wonderful 2006 song “Smile.” Finally, there have been TikToks that include “Killing Me Softly” by Lauryn Hill as of late.

All in all, while TikTok took the liberty of taking some songs and absolutely ravaging it so it can no longer be a song outside of a meme setting, it also has reminded its audience about forgotten bangers that we can all cherish once more.  Overall, it’s hard to say whether TikTok has a net positive or net negative impact on the way music is spreading and popularizing, but it’s impossible to refute that it has changed the game when it comes to viral trends and tunes.

Maya Avendano is a .WAV staff member, she wrote the article. Mia Giacinto is a .WAV staff member, she made the cover art.