By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The Times - Source
While many pop culture trends typically escape the notice of older generations, you currently are hard-pressed to find someone of any age unfamiliar with TikTok. The hottest social media platform right now was the most downloaded app of 2021 and is home to a whopping 800 million monthly users. From the ‘whipped coffee’ fad of early quarantine to the recent ‘West Elm Caleb’ firestorm, TikTok is undoubtedly a colossal influence on popular culture and on what is ‘hot’ right now. But, since its first appearance on the app store in September 2016, TikTok has proven to not only have a hand in current trends, but also in many creators’ ability to be professionally recognized. Once upon a time, the platform was dismissed as a sequel to the unsuccessful lip-sync
app Musical.ly. Now, it’s difficult to deny the truth: TikTok has become one of pop culture’s most prominent dictators.
If you look at Taylor Swift’s Spotify, her fourth-most streamed song is currently “Enchanted”. It’s one of her more epic ballads — an almost six-minute song about a breathlessly magical first encounter — but, unlike the other songs in Swift’s top five most played, it was released over ten years ago. This Speak Now track’s comeback was driven entirely by its feverish rise in popularity on TikTok as thousands of people started using the song’s bridge as a sound in their videos. In the first week of November, the song’s streams spiked by a stunning 228%, and, by the next, it had hit a million listens and appeared on Spotify’s Top 10 Songs in the United States playlist.
This isn’t the only visible dent TikTok has left on the music world. As millions of TikTok users run to Spotify or Apple Music to stream the most inescapable sounds on their For You Page, songs that are popular on TikTok can be fairly predicted to chart on the Billboard 100 within the week. The music industry has not only recognized this impact, but has largely chosen to engage with it, establishing a relationship that goes two ways; influencers on the app can score thousands of dollars from music marketers for sampling certain artists’ tracks in their content.
Former Disney Channel star Olivia Rodrigo was able to jump start her music career by sharing her song “drivers license” on the platform, which quickly went viral and set the stage for her Grammy-nominated album Sour. TikTok has essentially evolved from middle-school lip sync challenges to a powerful tool that music labels can use to carefully promote their own talents and purposely kickstart careers.
This widespread commercialization of TikTok doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no hope for content coming from more independent places. While a TikTok feed is largely designed by an AI system that learns from a user’s interactions and streamlines content toward their interests, this means that users have potential to see content from anywhere in the world, and any talent with a smartphone has potential to attract notice.
In 2019, an unknown teen rapper from Atlanta going by Lil Nas X uploaded his song "Old Town Road" to TikTok. After the song’s audio became a meme in which people unexpectedly turned into a cowboy when the rap portion started, "Old Town Road" took Lil Nas X from total obscurity to the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Megan Thee Stallion has likewise gone on record identifying social media as one of the biggest methods she utilized to become established as an artist, and TikTok in particular helped explode her singles "WAP" and "Savage" into hugely viral phenomena. After a year of time consistently in the TikTok spotlight, Megan Thee Stallion was nominated four times at the 2021 Grammys and walked away with wins for the year’s Best New Artist and Best Rap Song, all only a few years after being just a Texas college student posting the occasional freestyle rap on her Instagram.
The nominees for this year’s upcoming Grammys tell a similar story. The major nomination categories are hugely dominated by artists that have achieved TikTok virality, a presence that has expanded every year since the platform’s release on the app store.
Much of TikTok’s power is drawn from its unconventional approach to social media. Unlike Twitter or Instagram, TikTok isn’t built to just wait for the next trend to come around, it instead uses its unique algorithm to mechanically build a map of a user’s interests, and the resulting For You Pages can be stitched together with content from literally any corner of the internet. Because this approach creates a virtual stage where anyone with the familiar neon-splashed logo on their home screen can achieve fame, it’s true that it has been extensively used by big businesses and powerful music labels to feed their own trends directly into the pop culture sphere. But, it can also be life-changing for small artists looking to start their careers independently or even just wanting to share their work with the world.
Whether ultimately good or bad, TikTok’s power in 2022 is impossible to deny. The algorithm doesn’t just reflect current trends but imposes them, blowing up fads as rapidly as it throws them away and connecting the world in a way that the rigid structures of Facebook and Snapchat never quite succeeded in.
TikTok is not just another aspect of pop culture anymore; in many ways, it has become it. As for what its influence means for the future of art and culture as a whole, that remains to be seen. For now, though, might as well just open up your For You Page and enjoy the ride.