A Year in Music on TikTok

·14 min read

Out of nowhere this summer, Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok, and I became a sought-after dinnertime commentator on U.S.-China relations. Suddenly, all of the silly memes and music I’d been monitoring acquired the sheen of geopolitical significance. What exactly, is the Renegade?, people wanted to know. Who is Charli D’Amelio? “You should be fielding calls from CNN,” a pen pal told me, fully serious. Once, it was once widely assumed that TikTok would vanish like Vine, but this year has reinforced the app’s endurance and cultural authority. No longer just the domain of shameless teenagers, it has slowly warmed the hearts of bored adult quarantiners, hot-shot celebrities, and even bookish arts critics, who’ve written scrupulous phenomenological reports about what they’ve seen. Music journalists became attuned to its standard rhythm: teenagers dance, a song goes viral. Rinse, lather, repeat.

TikTok can feel repetitive: many creators’ thirst for influence incentivizes them to dance to what’s already popular (ex: yet another Nicki Minaj feature) and chart-toppers like Travis Scott pay big influencers to guarantee another week’s stay in the Top 10. Still, after over a year of thumbing through the app—flipping the dial, catching stray snippets of melody—I’m still periodically surprised by the music it whirls into the spotlight. This includes songs dug up from past decades (Plustwo’s 1983 Italo disco classic “Melody”) and non-U.S. releases (Miki Matsubara’s Japanese city pop gem “Stay With Me”). In a mystery I haven’t cracked, not one but two songs by the smallish Orlando indie-pop band SALES have been at the center of viral trends, despite both seeming too subdued for meme-ification. Thanks to the strength and multiplicity of TikTok’s various subcultures—or the effectiveness of its algorithm at dangling just the right amount of spontaneity—the app still throws curveballs. Who could have anticipated the Caretaker challenge, where teenagers listen to a six-and-a-half-hour experimental album simulating dementia?

As I revisited the year on TikTok, I wanted to take inventory of a few delights and annoyances, along with some broad themes I haven’t covered yet. It’s not a comprehensive list, since everyone’s For You page varies, but it nonetheless reveals some of what kept people occupied in 2020.

Jason Derulo, Leave

The only time Jason Derulo has ever made me feel delight was in 2015, when he allegedly Humpty Dumptied down the stairs of the Met Gala. This is a man who uttered, “Wiggle wiggle wiggle,” and if that wasn’t heinous enough, followed it up with the raspy toots of a toy flute. On 2013’s “Talk Dirty,” he implied that people of different nationalities could be united by the universal language of booty: “Our conversations ain't long, but you know what is.” Sex has never seemed so unappealing.

Due to some back-room deal with the devil, Derulo managed to become TikTok’s No. 1 celebrity this year. He’s famous, I guess, for cajoling kids a decade or so younger than him to bust moves at his mansion, or mashing every dessert known to man into monster concoctions known as #millimeals. Derulo is also behind TikTok’s No. 1 song of 2020, “Savage Love (Laxed - Siren Beat),” whose beat he initially took without clearance from the New Zealand high schooler Jawsh 685. In April, the original “Laxed - Siren Beat” became the foundation for a trend in which people flaunt their native culture, often switching into traditional dress. As these things go, it was quickly co-opted by Straight TikTok for borderline pornographic dance moves; Derulo then sanitized “Laxed - Siren Beat” into an utterly jejune love song, slapped on an uncomfortable title, and released it in June. “Savage Love” eventually reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in October, after K-pop sensations BTS hopped on the remix (sure, why not?). This ordeal plays on the worst dynamics of TikTok: celebrities riding the coattails of already-viral songs, and hypersexual dancing triumphing over anything.

“You Should Have Mentioned Ayesha Erotica”

It seems like every half-baked “hyperpop” explainer I’ve seen on YouTube features at least one salty comment about the erasure of Ayesha Erotica from the genre’s history. I discovered the underground pop singer and producer via TikTok last year, after her smutty Christian-pop anthem “Vacation Bible School” kept reappearing on my For You page. In it, Erotica shakes off rejection from a former bible studies partner who once propositioned her for sex on AIM. “Well it’s fine because I’m a whore/And I sleep with guys just for fun and drugs,” she sings, infusing the robotic warble of Siri with the vacuous sass of Paris Hilton.

Erotica retired in 2018, after a doxxing incident. But her saucy, often scandalous quips — “my pussy tastes like Apple Jacks”— have become instant bait for daring TikTok creators who want to flaunt their exhibitionist streak; her invocations of Juicy Couture and UGG boots lure Y2K fetishists. The popularity of Erotica’s music, along with that of her BFF Slayyyter, seems to presage the Gen-Z reclamation of the bimbo, who is frivolously girlish and sex positive, always there for their “girls, gays, and theys.” (As Erotica hair-tosses in one popular TikTok audio, taken from her 2017 song “Yummy,” “I do it for the girls and the gays, that’s it.” ) While washed-up pop stars flock to TikTok to revive their dormant careers, and sometimes, the app prioritizes those who don’t necessarily want to be remembered.

Magdalena Bay’s Music Explainers

The dreamy L.A. pop duo Magdalena Bay experienced their first brush with TikTok fame this summer, when the tastebreaker @gluecosebaby—who brought smashes like Ashnikko’s “STUPID” and BigKlit’s “Liar” to TikTok—posted their airy mash-up of Charli XCX’s “forever” and Grimes’ “Oblivion.” When fans demanded they upload the mash-up to Spotify, they shared a wacky, ‘90s-inspired explainer clarifying why they couldn’t because of copyright regulations. After that TikTok proved surprisingly popular, they followed up with more videos shedding light on subjects like sync licensing and record deals. Their TikTok account—where they also investigate park mysteries, narrate their spam mail, and meditate on clone crazes—is delightfully consistent with their waggish humor and vaporwave/‘90s VHS-inspired aesthetic. It feels like a genuine outgrowth of their personality.

Flo Milli Shit!

Flo Milli is always cheeky, unbothered, and better than your sorry ass. The 20-year-old Alabama rapper first came to prominence with her 2019 single “Beef FloMix,” in which she flicks off haters like Cher Horowitz sighing “as if!” It first became a TikTok sensation, and then, entertainingly, the default music of fancams. Months later she followed up with “In the Party,” leading with a boast so vivid—“Dicks up when I step in the party”—that I know it better than my Social Security number.

Since then, Flo Milli has been on TikTok’s regular rotation, alongside other female rappers like Megan Thee Stallion, City Girls, and Doja Cat. A TikTok influencer I follow was so geeked for new music from her that he literally named his account @flomilliwhereisthealbum. (She noticed.) His lobbying campaign succeeded in July, when after much anticipation, she released her mixtape, the amazingly petty Ho,why is you here? (“Big top, small legs, bitch built like a wine glass (haha),” she disses a rival on “Like That Bitch.”) Fans include the woodland giant and lesbian icon Hozier, who was caught streaming “Like That Bitch” in August after a screenshot of his Spotify activity circulated on Twitter. Ho, why is you here? made it on several “best of” year-end lists, and Flo Milli has proved to be a true gem on a platform overwhelmed by musical mediocrity.

Stop Your Scrolling! You've Landed on “My Record Collection”

When Gary Hutner started a TikTok to share trivia about his collection of iconic ‘70s and ‘80s records, the former newspaper publisher and lifelong music fan decided he wouldn’t tell his kids until he hit 100 followers. He’s now at almost 50K. While he imagined his content would attract other record collectors his age, his main audience for information about Fleetwood Mac, The Cure, and Blondie is overwhelmingly Gen-Z. They’ve crowned him their “TikTok dad,” as he proudly relayed to me over the phone. Some adults still dismiss TikTok as solely “for the teens,” so it’s refreshing to see Hutner so open to bridging generational boundaries. Hutner says that he’s discovered new music from TikTok as well, including Molchat Doma and Soccer Mommy.

Male Manipulator Music

The “male manipulator” is the 2020 version of 2015’s “softboy,” famously defined as “emotionally intelligent but does nothing with this knowledge.” He’s sensitive and perceptive, but still a dick. In November, awareness of this archetype peaked when Twitter user @shortc1rcuit asked for examples of “male manipulator music,” citing red flags including “Radiohead, Slowdive, and the Smiths.” Cue thousands of quote tweets and memes, some calling the concept stupid, others questioning what sins Slowdive possibly committed.

I saw the “male manipulator music” meme months earlier, on TikTok, where it’s clearer the whole thing is tongue-in-cheek. “Pov: ur the male manipulator,” reads a popular TikTok from the 18-year-old creator Leah Forbes. Her video cycles through Spotify profiles for artists like the Gorillaz, Frank Ocean, and Mac DeMarco, and promotional materials for movies and TV shows like Fight Club and Bojack Horseman. Of course, you see a BoJack Horseman poster on the walls of Forbes’ bedroom; the Spotify screenshots point out that she’s “liked” 45 of DeMarco’s songs. (As Forbes clarified in the comments,“This was a self call out how did u guys miss that LOL.”) Synonyms for “male manipulator music” include “incelcore”; there is also “female manipulator music,” which seems to be mostly Lana Del Rey and Melanie Martinez. Last month, @seapunkhistorian merged two breeds of stereotypically annoying dudes—the Holden Caulfield-type brood and the substance-addicted wannabe Soundcloud rapper—in a highly amusing “male manipulator mash-up” featuring Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and Bladee’s “Be Nice to Me.” Dating a manipulator may be a one-time thing; but manipulator music is for eternity.

Rico Does What She Wants

“Thank god, I don’t have to smack a bitch today,” Rico Nasty raged over heavy metal guitars on her 2018 breakout “Smack a Bitch.” The hot-headed Maryland rapper has stomped down doors for girls who relish in being harsh, troublesome, and otherwise unaccommodating. You can hear her rasp and rudeness in other TikTok music, the strident “WHAT!”s launching Ashnikko’s “STUPID” or the “Rugrats”-style shrieks of upstart ppcocaine. (Fitting, then, that ppcocaine was featured on the “Smack a Bitch” remix.) “Smack A Bitch” found its perfect complement in TikToks of women throwing tantrums in clown makeup; meanwhile, alternative Black girls with vibrant hair and septum piercings made a theme song out of Rico’s feature on Injury Reserve’s “Jawbreaker” (“You know that you are a Black girl, right?/Your hairs 'sposed to be sewed in, not spiked up.”) Personally, I’m addicted to fish-eye lens TikToks in which girls sneer, flip their middle finger, and kick the screen to Rico’s single “OHFR?” “I’ve been moving how I want, fuck how you feel,” she yells, exuding a defiance and autonomy that is impossible not to want for yourself.

Slow Down, Speed It Up

A strange remix shot up the Billboard Hot 100, after creators on TikTok started dancing and posing to it. It was “Roses'' by the Guyanese-American rapper SAINt JHN, which a Kazakh teenager named Imanbek had pitched and sped up, adding a bouncy bassline in the process. In June, the electronic musician Jaime Brooks of Default Genders tweeted about it, wondering: “Is this the first nightcore chart hit?”

Named after a Norwegian duo who sped-up trance and eurodance tracks, “nightcore” in the colloquial, watered-down sense refers to cover tracks that accelerate the source material by 10-30%, generating chipmunk-y vocals; on YouTube, the thumbnails are often anime-related images. Perhaps extending from their relative ubiquity on TikTok’s predecessor Musical.ly, nightcore audios have a strong presence on the app; so do their opposites, “daycore” or “anti-nightcore” remixes, in which tracks are slowed down for a heady, sluggish effect. Go another step further, and you have the highly controversial “slowed + reverb,” pejoratively referred to as “gentrified chopped and screwed.” Listening to all these manipulated tracks disrupts your perception of time: When I heard Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers’ 1980 song “Just the Two of Us” on the app, I was surprised to realize its speed hadn’t been altered, especially because some “Just the Two of Us” TikToks I’d seen had slowed down the visuals.

The presence of so many different remixing styles reaffirm the desire among teenagers to customize music to their own specific scenarios. One series on YouTube imagines songs from the perspective of someone crying inside a bathroom at a party, aligning with the ethos of TikTok’s “pov” videos, in which creators inhabit an alternative point of view. (For example, the perspective of the girl who finds you crying in the bathroom.) The remixes also affects artists’ own promotional strategies: Last year, after a slowed version of Lykke Li’s “sex money feelings die” boomed on the app, her label RCA released an official slowed version of the 2018 song. The remixes are a little lazy, and often too functional to be interesting, establishing TikTok as a base for cut-and-paste listening.

Ethan Fields’ Music Memes

The musician Ethan Fields first attracted my attention with his flashy series of mashups, in which he answers hypotheticals like “What if Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” Was Made by 100 gecs?” and “What if La Roux’s “Bulletproof” Was Made by Two Door Cinema Club?” But his greatest work is a set of highly sarcastic quarantine-themed jingles, each one catchy and great for office commiserating. “I worked for five minutes, so it’s time to take a break,” he sings chipperly in my favorite one. For those seeking more specialized music content, check out his crazy TikTok about shoegaze.

“If Addison Rae Listened to MF Doom”

It’s easy to knock dancing videos on TikTok, because what the genre usually evokes is shirtless white boys dice-rolling to Pop Smoke, himbos investing their collective brainpower into sexualizing the same five dance moves. In response to these peers, some TikTokers have created their own parody dances, woah-ing and ass-shaking to weird audios. Others have seen dance crazes as an opportunity to promote less conventional music. Following the mission to “normalize playing experimental rap in front of the hoes,” for example, a group of guys at North Carolina State University imagined what it’d look like if Addison Rae danced to MF DOOM, hip-swaying and nose scrunching to Madvillain’s “Raid.” Meanwhile, at their fans’ request, the rowdy friends behind @basementgang have vibed to soca, K-pop, and Bollywood music.

Even if creators’ enjoyment is masked behind an ironic—and sometimes sexist—premise, these videos ultimately confirm that dancing is fun for everyone. As seen with Doja Cat’s “Say So,” a good dance greatly enhances the listening experience: Now choreography is no longer just for major pop and hip-hop songs, but even modest bedroom pop numbers like Frances Forever’s “Space Girl.” (Thanks to a cute dance popular among indie girls and nonbinary people, it hit No. 2 on the Spotify Viral Chart in early December.) I’m personally fond of the self-proclaimed “dance captain of the sad girl club,” a ballet dancer named Claire, who serves up choreography for all your indie faves, like Mitski, Alvvays, and Courtney Barnett. Before the weather got cold, a few friends and I gathered in the park and learned her motions to Snail Mail’s “Pristine,” thinking about how nice it was to be outside, hang out together, and move our bodies.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork