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It’s been a strange year for pop culture: Robert Pattinson cooked pasta in the microwave, Taylor Swift dropped not one but two surprise albums, and Paul Mescall’s chain became more famous than the Normal People star himself.
But nothing can top the weirdness of TikTok taking over the world. Admittedly, it makes a lot of sense on paper: the video-sharing social media platform has provided an imaginative escape and a global community to millions of teenagers across the world, stuck behind masks and within four walls.
But the reality of trends spawned by TikTok is rather more confusing. Six months ago, most of us had never heard the phrase “CEO of Twerking” and had no idea Charli D’Amelio and her family were so rich. Life was simpler. But this Christmas, there’s a bizarre new phenomenon unfolding in the Tokosphere for everyone to get their heads around.
"Heritage TikTok" is the delicate name the platform has designated for the official TikTok accounts of artists who once claimed enormous fame and fan followings but who are now – how can I put this? – dead. It all began with Prince, who’s entire catalogue arrived on the platform in a cloud of purple rain at the beginning of the summer.
Prince himself was infamously reluctant to put his work online – he pulled it from almost all platforms in 2015 – but his estate showed no such qualms and @prince.4.ever was born in June. Most of the videos he posts are clips from his raucously entertaining live gigs, but there have also been a few segments from interviews in which he spoke about racism, hashtagged to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is clearly designed to be more than just a music-sharing ploy: it’s a personal account.
𝕊𝕥𝕚𝕔𝕜 𝕨𝕚𝕥𝕙 𝕞𝕖 𝕓𝕒𝕓𝕪, 𝕀'𝕞 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝕘𝕦𝕪 𝕥𝕙𝕒𝕥 𝕪𝕠𝕦 𝕔𝕒𝕞𝕖 𝕚𝕟 𝕨𝕚𝕥𝕙... 🎲🥃 ##FrankSinatra
♬ Luck Be A Lady - Frank Sinatra
It might sound strange, but the success of the venture has proved its value, both to the Prince estate and TikTok’s brand. The former artist now has a modest but healthy number of followers, just shy of 200, 000, but the trickle of labels and estates that have followed in his sparkly footsteps is the real testament to the strategy’s success.
As well as Ol’ Blue Eyes, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, George Michael, and Elvis have all arrived on and developed sizable TikTok followings in the last few months. The style and atmosphere of the accounts vary wildly depending on the artist. Sinatra’s (101.8k followers) videos are tight, pared-down shots of the tuxedo’d charmer crooning his way through clips from classic hits including Fly Me To The Moon, Luck Be A Lady Tonight, and I’ve Got The World On A String.
Houston’s account, by contrast, is far more full on: montages of her greatest “looks” set to drag queen songs are interspersed with unapologetically promotional sequences for official merchandise, as well as the requisite concert and music video clips.
The most successful arrival was John Lennon’s. On what would have been the former Beatle’s 90th birthday, his estate launched the account via a hashtag challenge. His son, Sean Ono Lennon, released a call out to artists and fans: “Please upload a cover of your favorite John Lennon song on YouTube, Instagram or TikTok – and tag my dad – @johnlennon, #LENNON80 and #GIMMESOMETRUTH – to help celebrate his 80th birthday. We need his music and his message now more than ever!” Over the next few weeks, Lennon covers on TikTok racked up four billion views.
Who is behind the heritage phenomenon? According to TikTok, it’s driven by the labels, in collaboration with the estates they represent, rather than the video-sharing service itself.
Ole Obermann, Global Head of Music at the platform, said: “Record labels and artist teams recognise TikTok as one of the most powerful promotional tools in the business. TikTok is proven to work for new artists and music discovery and has driven some of the biggest hits of 2020, but is also now an important part of marketing and promoting older and most established acts and their music.
“This year we've been honoured to welcome iconic musical artists George Michael, John Lennon, Whitney Houston and Prince, as well as many others, to our platform. Their music is finding new fans and becoming the soundtrack to billions and billions of video creations. That’s really powerful, and we know more and more labels as well as artist controlling estates are looking at what TikTok can do for the musical catalogues they control.”
Other TikTok representatives pointed to the platform’s potential to skyrocket levels of interest in old music via creative new video work. Most famously, Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams topped the ITunes chart this year – a position it hasn’t held since 1977 – after it soundtracked a viral video of Nathan Apodaca (known on TikTok as @420doggface208) catching a ride on his skateboard on the back of a passing car while drinking from a huge bottle of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice. What makes TikTok different from more traditional music streaming platforms is that novelty is not always the most important determinant of popularity.
So are the kids stanning (that’s TikTok speak for obsession over, grandma) heritage artists? The short answer is yes.
“DEAR GOD KEEP ME ON FRANK SINATRA TIKTOK” gushed Hannah Montee, an influencer with 2.5 million followers, under a live performance clip of That’s Life.
Other Gen-Z users are enjoying drawing surprising comparisons between the stars of their own age group and these newly discovered golden oldies. “This like a Lil Peep song from the 60’s I love it” enthused one.
Some are struggling with the whole heritage concept. “Ain’t homie dead how he verified?” asked one reasonable fan. Certainly, the much sought after “blue tick”, verifying that this is the authentic account of whichever celebrity it claims to represent, next to the name of an artist long dead could be considered indelicate.
But in the week that TikTok signed a new – no doubt highly lucrative – deal with Sony music, cementing its status as a music sharing platform of the future, it's cheering to think that timeless bangers, whatever their vintage, will find an audience there. And if Frank Sinatra was here, he’d have just one thing to say: “You make me feel so young…”