“WET! WET!” barks a young woman’s voice over a blown-out trap beat, channeling the rage of a drill sergeant and the gurgling rasp of a chainsmoker. On camera, a recently divorced Miley Cyrus and her new boyfriend preen while lip syncing along in a bathroom. When the chorus hits, they each lift one hand in the air, place the other on their waist, and sway their hips goofily as the voice deadpans, “Stupid boy, think that I need him.”
Miley’s video, which has been liked 2.3 million times, is one of over 3 million TikToks set to Ashnikko’s “STUPID,” a venemous rap song animated by its snide dismissal of men, ghoulish theatrics, and Pornhub shoutouts. It soared to the top of Spotify’s Viral 50 chart last month, thanks in part to the hip-swaying dance challenge. Ashnikko, a turquoise-haired 23-year-old whose quirky anime aesthetic invites regular comparisons to the Japanese virtual pop star Hatsune Miku, then released a blood-smeared music video for “STUPID” in which she shows up at her ex-boyfriend’s door, taunts him for “fantasizing about the pussy power,” and then murders him with a hatchet. It hit a million views in 24 hours. A YouTube commenter joked that only 20 percent of those who watched were “normal people”—the rest were all TikTokkers.
Unlike its short-form video predecessor Vine, TikTok doesn’t encourage original content as much as endless imitation. Videos beget more, similar videos, usually set to the same song. Boasting more than 500 million global users, the app’s frantic churn of content—lip syncs, dance challenges, bizarro comedy skits—acts as a potent incubator for viral music hits. Exhibit A is Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which electrified teenagers as a TikTok meme before becoming the longest-running No. 1 smash of all time earlier this year.
What dominates the Billboard charts is not guaranteed attention in the platform’s freewheeling ecosystem. On TikTok, the music of traditional pop heavyweights like Miley, Ed Sheeran, and Taylor Swift often acts more as ambient noise than viral catnip; I’ve rarely come across their squeaky chart pop on my algorithm-curated recommendation feed. “Gen-Zs were getting tired of the pop you hear every single day,” explains Salina Johns, a 21-year-old TikTok creator with nearly 800,000 followers.
Now, major labels are scrambling to find their next TikTok star. Capitol offered Stunna Girl, the brash Sacramento rapper behind “Runway,” a million-dollar deal; Atlantic snatched Sueco the Child, the stoner behind the sleazy rap hit “fast.” Labels are currently trying to reverse-engineer hits based on their suitability for memes and hire marketers to devise viral trends to go with songs in an effort to systemize a TikTok sound.
When millions of TikToks are generated a day, and songs are snipped from every corner of the internet to meet that frenzy, tracing the anatomy of a TikTok hit can seem futile, like attempting to freeze pinballs in place. Scroll in the app for long enough, though, and you’ll notice patterns. Outrageous lyrics and blunt, boisterous beats. Nostalgic callbacks to cartoons and video games. Jarring croaks and shrieks. One TikTok meme based on recreating corny images in the style of the how-to website wikiHow is set to a manipulated version of “Walk” by the 21-year-old rapper Comethazine. When the track’s degraded drop hits, TikTok users jump-cut from wikiHow’s ridiculous illustrations to their exaggerated imitations of them.
The sound quality of “Walk” is deteriorated to an extreme, and plenty of TikTok audio sounds like it’s blaring from busted iPhone speakers, no doubt inspired by the raw energy and DIY ethos of SoundCloud rappers like XXXTentacion and Lil Pump. Examples of this crackly, bass-busting sound can be found everywhere, from Yung Spool’s clanking fuckboy anthem “WTF” to Jedwill and Peter Kuli’s snarky generational comeback “ok boomer.”
“People like distortion these days,” says Nashville rapper Lil Taco, 17, who bought the fried, 808-heavy beat for his TikTok hit “Sand Baebees 2” for $15 on YouTube. This homespun quality—the sense that something was created on the cheap in someone’s bedroom—can be crucial to a song’s appeal on TikTok. “People just go crazy to that shit, because it doesn’t sound professional,” adds Hooligan Chase, a fluffy-haired North Carolina rapper behind the TikTok hit “Asshole.” “The masses can relate to it because they feel like they can do it too, almost.”
To work with viral dance moves, the beat has to be loud, energetic, and visceral, as if a supernatural current is jolting the dancer awake. One of the most popular dance moves on TikTok is the Woah, where you ball your fists and swiftly move your arms in opposing circular motions, as if parking a car in reverse, and then roll into a freeze on the beat. One variation on the move drove HL Wave’s pixelated rap track “Gordon Ramsay” toward virality, leading to a video of the real Gordon Ramsay Woah-ing clumsily to the song alongside his 18-year-old daughter, Tilly. Meme-y tracks like “Gordan Ramsay” hinge on moments that act as micro EDM drops—points of peak intensity where the bass punches hard and tension is released—and witnessing Woahs that are perfectly timed to these drops can be as satisfying as watching an Olympic gymnast stick a difficult landing. Dancers will often layer their moves with juddering visuals that simulate an earthquake, to heighten the perceived intensity.
The drop is central to transformation TikToks, a popular style of video where users appear on camera looking a certain way before suddenly switching into a different look. In one example, a video producer from The Washington Post turns into Ned the Newshound, the newspaper’s lovable mascot. That TikTok is set to “Tunnel of Love” by Haroinfather, which samples the theme from the 1998 video game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Dreamy, enchanted-forest arpeggios lull you into a trance, and then the track drops abruptly, sliding into a suave, nonsensical rhyme: “OK like criss cross, applesauce, lil baby caress me.” Songs with these definitive shifts—including Six the Musical’s “Get Down,” which builds and builds until suddenly deflating into an a cappella ditty or CG5’s “Absolutely Anything,” a fan-made song for the video game Bendy and the Ink Machine that clicks like someone is assembling a machine gun—provide a precise point for transformations to occur, enhancing a video’s potential virality.
The Los Angeles rapper Savage Ga$p, who’s featured on “Tunnel of Love,” has another viral hit called “pumpkins scream in the dead of the night.” He recorded it last October and stuck with the Halloween theme while freestyling over muffled bells, stuttering hi-hats, and rumbling bass. Bits of internet culture are cleverly compressed in the lyrics: The TikTok excerpt includes an allusion to Mariah Carey’s “I don’t know her” meme and a shout-out to the Japanese anime Death Note, which attracted cosplayers to the song. Referencing popular video games and cartoons seems to be a convenient tactic to boost a song’s profile—Lil Nas X’s second single, “Panini,” is based on a character from the Cartoon Network series Chowder, and SPLASH DADDY’S hit “Wii TENNIS” is named after the popular Nintendo sports series.
But the most distinctive part of “pumpkins scream” is Savage Ga$p’s croaky delivery, which sound as if it’s coming from a whole different chamber of his throat. “You just hit the Juul and then you drink really hot coffee,” the 20-year-old tells me over the phone, explaining how to achieve the croak. Variants of this low-register growl appear in Sueco the Child’s “fast” and Hooligan Chase’s “Asshole,” along with Savage Ga$p’s string of follow-up singles. He laughs in agreement when I point out that many TikTok rappers sound like they’re half-dead: “That’s my specialty.”
“Pumpkins scream” and “Asshole” gathered momentum, in part, because of e-boys—chain-sporting, black nail polish-wearing, Timothée Chalamet-types who serve as a digital update of previous generations’ goth mopes. They film their TikToks in dark bedrooms lit by colored LED lights, where they pout, mimic choking themselves, and roll their eyes while tapping their temples. Their moves allude to sex, but are chaste enough to avoid serious alarm. Salina Johns—who parodies e-boy tropes so regularly on TikTok that she declared herself the “King e-boy”—points out that the e-boy performance can be ironic, but it’s still geared toward convincing other teenagers you’re hot. Coming out of an e-boy’s mouth, lip synched zombie croaks can signify masculinity, and the gasps lightly suggest BDSM. When Savage Ga$p posted his first TikTok introducing himself as the artist behind “pumpkins scream,” he inserted a nod to this cohort: “Pls stop choking each other to it.”
Over the phone, Hooligan Chase mentions that he usually raps in a higher register, but something about the mood conjured by “Asshole”’s distorted 808s led him to try a gruff snarl instead. “I was just not giving a fuck,” he shrugs. That cool, callous demeanor seeps into the track’s lyrics: “Baby I’m a bad boy, I might hurt you/I need a therapist, and a perc too.”
On the opposite end from smizing e-boys and their low growls are pugnacious female rappers and their ear-splitting screams. Alongside Ashnikko, there’s the always-indelicate BigKlit, who jolts with a full-throated yell in her TikTok hit “Liar”: “FUCK! You a pussy ass bitch!/Fuck you, your momma, and your kids!” In the music video, the freakish 26-year-old—who recently signed with Sony—chases a terrified man down the street and castrates a banana in between his legs, as if macheteing a dead body.
This insanity is precisely what’s alluring to mischievous teenagers, who film themselves mouthing along to “Liar” next to horrified parents—a recurring dynamic that marks the latest iteration of kids using rap music to freak out older generations. In “Runway,” another stomach-churner guaranteed to upset most people over 35, the Sacramento rapper Stunna Girl lets out a petulant shriek as if she’s a deranged Bratz doll: “BITCH, I look like I’m fresh off the runway, uh/Bitch, I go crazy, the dumb way, uh!”
Abrasive screeching from female rappers with don’t-bother-me attitudes often enables white TikTokkers to experiment with hyperbolized imitations of black artists. Lip syncers can mouth profanity or racialized slang without ever owning up to saying it, and once audio is uploaded on the platform, it is easily severed from its original source. (The “Runway” audio snippet conveniently ends before Stunna Girl drops the n-word.) What can result is a discomfiting ventriloquism on a platform where people of color are already pushing for greater visibility.
The popularity of this punkish rap involves an intricate mix of distancing and identification. Stunna Girl’s vocals are strange enough for her boast track to be used ironically; teenagers can lip sync to it in a full face of make-up to prove they’re hot while hiding their efforts by sticking their tongues out and rolling their eyes. But there’s also no question that women especially may find her confidence genuinely empowering.
At this point, brands are beginning to co-opt the brutish, self-assured style of popular female rappers for their own marketing campaigns. Elf Cosmetics commissioned a song called “Eyes Lips Face” that takes inspiration from tracks like Kash Doll’s “Ice Me Out” and soundtracks over 1.2 million TikToks. The growing encroachment of corporations like Walmart and Chipotle reinforces the possibility that TikTok could lose the whimsical spirit of the teenagers who drive it. But while brands have caught on to a formula, capturing the hearts and attention of teenagers may not be so simple. Devain Doolaramani, a college senior who manages a stable of popular TikTok influencer accounts and spends time each day brainstorming challenges to songs that artists and labels send him, says creating a hit is still at least 50 percent luck: “It’s so hard to tell, like, what these Gen-Z kids are into nowadays.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork