I have two guilty pleasures: kiwi flavored Hi-Chews (they taste like plastic, and I will absolutely eat an entire pack in ten minutes) and TikTok. Since downloading the app in July of last year, it has quickly turned from a post-ironic personal joke with myself to, what can be aptly described as, a genuine obsession. TikTok has become an integral part of my morning social media diet. They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I would argue that the 8 AM consumption of my For You page is even more crucial.
I realized just how brilliant TikTok was after a discovery that was equally shocking and delightful- a teenage girl, alone in her bedroom, acting out 15 seconds of pure melodrama to “I Can’t Handle Change” by Roar. My mind was blown. Roar defined my high school years as an angsty and severely over-emotional 16-year-old. Seeing a new generation of lovelorn teens sub-TikTok-ing their crushes from chemistry class to the same band I used to listen to while doodling hearts and initials into notebooks is kind of poetic. The teenage experience is universal, and TikTok captures it perfectly, all in under a minute.
There are now over 180,000 videos using the sound on the app. The way a song by a local band from Phoenix is able to become so pervasive on the app, reaching thousands of people all across the world, speaks to just how powerful TikTok is in shaping the music its users are listening to. Looking at artists like Lil Nas X, it would be remiss to act like this app hasn’t had a massive hand in shaping popular music since its merge with the Chinese lipsycing app, Douyin, in 2018. He uploaded his track, “Old Town Road” to the app in February of 2018 after reaching minimal success on other platforms. Within only weeks, the song had gained viral success on the app, becoming the longest-running number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 consecutive weeks. This song surpassed the likes of Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey. TikTok was the key. Clearly, this app is an invaluable tool for music promotion.
When looking at the format of the app, it’s easy to see how music can have such a viral spread in ways that other platforms do not allow for. The app was created with viral content in mind. Generally speaking, users are given two feeds to get content from: the “Following feed” and it’s main feed, the “For You” page. The For You page is a never ending stream of videos, picked through TikTok’s algortithm to match your personal interests. Over time with use, feeds turn from soul-crushingly beautiful teens dancing in mansions to videos of hairless cats and women who think that they are possessed by the ghost of Michael Jackson (though I am beginning to think that this experience may be less universal than originally believed). Videos on TikTok are all under a minute but often fit into fifteen seconds, making it incredibly easy to consume immense amounts of content in short periods of time. This feature is unique in that videos featured are not determined by the popularity of the creators on the app. Anybody can be a star on TikTok; there really is an equal opportunity for visibility on the app. It is not uncommon to see a video with hundreds of thousands of likes followed by a video with three. Creating content is both low risk and endlessly exhilarating with the elusive possibility of becoming viral. I surmise that this has a lot to do with the popularity of challenges, jokes, and trends of repeated content on the app. If everybody has a shot at making it big, why not join in, especially when the question of exactly what to make is already answered for you?
Music is integral to the culture of the app. TikTok has found a way to merge the features of its American predecessors: Musical.ly and Vine. Taking the quick and often absurdist humor prevalent on Vine and mixing it with Musical.ly’s ability to record videos including sounds uploaded to the app, TikTok’s unique form of musical memes were created. Music has a variety of functions within the, often replicated, content. Dance challenges use the music in more traditional ways while other creators utilize lyrics as punchlines or to emphasize the comedic effect of their video. This simple and easily adapted format prompts the spread of these sounds, giving them huge amounts of exposure to a vast and incredibly varied audience. Even on a subconscious level TikTok is planting earworms into your brain. Videos on the app loop endlessly and act upon the mere-exposure effect. The more repetition you are faced with, the more you like it. Familiarity breeds liking.
My tip for all musicians: make a TikTok and start using your music to make jokes or dance to or stare seductively at the camera. I promise I won’t judge. Who knows- maybe you will be featured on the next “Old Town Road” remix.
I adamantly believe that the people that pretend to hate TikTok are the people that thought it was cool to hate Justin Bieber in middle school. You know what? “Mistletoe” was a good song. TikTok is good, too. And you will probably download it.
Having grown up in the internet age, I have, admittedly, always reacted to the vilification of social media and the internet from people my age with annoyance. It seems like a waste of time to complain and yearn for a time when we weren’t connected digitally (I really implore you to remember an instance in your lifetime when that really was the case). Our lives are now totally integrated with the internet. The complete rejection of TikTok on the part of young adults is strange to me. Are we really at the age where we are no longer early adopters of technology?
Now, more than maybe ever before, the importance of human connection is evident. In my adolescence (I say at the ripe age of 22), the internet provided a place of belonging and solace when I didn’t feel like I could find that in my real life. As we grow into our adult selves and settle into genuine ideations of who we wished so badly to be at 16, we forget just how lonely our teenage years felt as some points. When I look at the content lambasted on Twitter for being “cringe”, I can only help but see young people utilizing the internet in the same way I used to. The desire to connect with others and fit in is just as universal as crying to Roar at 1 AM on a school night.
While we all spend our days locked inside of our homes in solitude, now is the perfect time to sacrifice your pride and give into the TikTok FOMO looming over you.