The Sound of TikTok

Disrupting the industry one post at time 

Without music, TikTok is nothing. And without TikTok’s estimated 1 billion users, there’s a roster of artists that would be nothing without TikTok.

Starting life in US and Europe as, TikTok made its name as the place for teens to post videos of themselves dancing and lip-syncing, but has morphed into a quickly-growing social media powerhouse, spawning a genre of music all its own. Taking techniques and tropes from multiple music genres, the sound of TikTok is brash, unapologetic and totally Gen-Z.

What places music at the heart of every TikTok is the track listing, found at the bottom right of each video, making it easy to find the song that’s playing. Because at the core of Tiktok is repetition – where once the platform’s bread-and-butter was teens lip-syncing to the internet hit of the week, this has moved into dance challenges and endlessly repeatable memes. New formats pop up weekly and get copied and re-posted by millions of users.

Central to every dance, meme or trend is a song, and TikTok’s massive, super-engaged user base can guarantee soaring notoriety. Ashnikko’s “STUPID,” a rap song that animatedly hates on her inadequate boyfriend(s) jumped to the top of the Spotify Viral 50 chart in 2019 thanks to the dance challenge that accompanied it.

This formula has led to a sub-genre of music that has a defined the TikTok sound. Central to TikTok videos is a self-made, unpolished feel – you would never create a TikTok with a professional camera – and this is true of the soundtrack too. Borrowing heavily from the world of Soundcloud rap, this low-fi platform demands a low-fi sound, and that’s part of its appeal. Hooligan Chase, US rapper who made his name on TikTok commented in a Pitchfork interview that “The appeal is in that the masses feel like they can do this too”.

For some big tracks on TikTok, the version passed around by users is a departure from the official release. With rapper Comethazine’s TikTok hit Walk, there’s a HQ version that you’ll find on Spotify, but TikTok-ers have evolved themselves a new low-fi version that adds harsh, crackling reverb to the bassline. Although this is technically a degradation in quality, it sounds arguably better on a phone speaker. TikTok’ers lean into this, pairing the heavy, jarring base of the song with the ‘earthquake’ filter, which makes the frame shake wildly.

While TikTok is in some ways democratising mainstream music, it still uses many of the same stylistic features. Usually a song takes a trap or hip-hop beat, but with a blown-out bass that distorts and explodes the typical 808 sound. On top of this, music from TikTok borrows from many genres at once – a pop hook, an RnB bridge plus an EDM drop would not be out of the question. “Mixing urban with country, Latin with pop – people are taking more sonic risks. There’s no rules”, commented top songwriter Ben Kohn in a recent Guardian interview.

These features are focal points that Tiktok users can use to create content around. Using an EDM drop to highlight a moment of transformation in a video is popular, where an outfit might change from PJs to a party dress, or a car from a pick-up to a drop-top. The EDM base-drops commonly found in TikToks are a peak of intensity where tension is released, and sync perfectly with strong, punchy dance-moves (like the ‘Woah’) or are the perfect punchline to a joke, like in meme-y tracks like “Gordan Ramsay

Humour, and memes, play a big part of the success of a track. TikTok’ers love to create videos to Saweetie’s now mainstream hit, My Type, listing out their good qualities (tall, pretty, smart) to the sharp peaks in the chorus. Other tracks staple together different, disparate bits of internet culture in the lyrics, from references to Mariah Carey’s “I don’t know her” meme to shout-outs to cult Japanese anime Death Note.  SPLASH DADDY’S hit “Wii TENNIS” is named for the 00’s Nintendo sports game. Top of this tree is ‘OK BOOMER’, the song that became a catchphrase on the internet that has gone way beyond TikTok.

However, while a song may be used many millions of times, this doesn’t guarantee TikTok fame for the artists – as a platform, TikTok is definitely song-led, rather than artist-led. The big exception to this rule is Lil Nas X’s smash hit Old Town Road, which emerged from TikTok last year and went on to be the fastest song to go diamond in history. However, even this needed a sardonic stamp of approval from mainstream music – by way of a re-release featuring Billy Ray Cyrus – to be taken seriously and allowed on the Billboard Hot 100.

In a shift since this happened last summer, big labels are trawling TikTok to find their next star. Capitol offered Stunna Girl, the brash Sacramento rapper behind “Runway,” a million-dollar contract and Atlantic snapped up Sueco the Child, the rapper behind risque hit “fast.”

Other labels are PR’ing existing signings as top TikTok creators, pitching them as the sound of the next big dance challenge.

Now, even brands are beginning to copy the empowered, swaggering style of popular female rappers for their own marketing campaigns. American makeup brand Elf commissioned “Eyes Lips Face”, a track that draws on the typical TikTok sound – it currently soundtracks over 1.2 million videos on the platform.

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