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Of the 176 songs to surpass one billion views on TikTok last year, less than half of the top 10 were from artists who need no introduction. Drake’s “Tootsie Slide” took the crown at number one, followed by Cardi B’s “WAP,” featuring Megan Thee Stallion, and Billie Eilish’s “Therefore I Am.” Farther down the list: Popp Hunna’s “Adderall (Corvette Corvette)” and DJ Chose’s “Thick,” featuring BeatKing. While those last three names might not ring a bell, you’d likely recognize the dance moves their songs inspired (if not, almost any teenager could get you up to speed).
While social media’s democratizing effects are nothing new, the fact that Grammy winners and relative unknowns—and the TikTok creators who choreograph dances to tracks by both—are all mingling in the pop stratosphere feels like a particularly early-2020s phenomenon. After all, with just a 15-second clip, a creator can become a pop star (Addison Rae), a country-trap song can transform a lonesome teen into a global phenomenon (Lil Nas X), or a drop (pop!) of the knee into a low squat can turn a rising Houston rapper into a Warner Records signee (Erica Banks).
There are some constants between the songs that have taken o on the platform—catchy beat, dramatic transition, lyrics that lend themselves to interpretive dance moves—but there is no magic formula. Perhaps the most alluring aspect of the short-form content app is how attainable (and utterly random) viral fame can be. Take TikTok user Nathan Apodaca. Under normal circumstances, Cran-Raspberry juice, skateboarding, and Fleetwood Mac are an unexpected trio. But in Apodaca’s viral video, which captures him blissfully gliding along to “Dreams” while guzzling a bottle of Ocean Spray, it just works. When“Dreams” hit number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100last October, Fleetwood Mac’s first time on the chart since 1977, Stevie Nicks told CBS Sunday Morning, “This TikTok thing has kind of blown my mind. I’m happy about it because it seems to have made so many people happy.”
If Banks had any say in the matter, “Buss It” wouldn’t have been the track that introduced her to the world. While she was drawn to the beat—a sample of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” that fades into Banks repeating the titular call to action (i.e., twerk as low to the ground as possible)—she doesn’t think it's her best song. “As an artist, you’re very critical of yourself, and I felt like I could do better than that,” she says. But that’s the thing about TikTok: You don’t get to choose what goes viral; the creators do when they swarm a dance or song.
Banks released “Buss It” in June of 2020, hoping it might find a home at the club, but with COVID restrictions still in place, Club Quarantine would have to suffice. In January, TikTok user Erica Davila posted a clip of herself dancing to the song and challenging other users to “plz do this transition but all prettied up.” In the blink of an eye, social media timelines were flooded with other TikTok users doing a similar shimmy-and-dice-roll dance in their sloppiest quarantine getup before dipping into a low squat. When the beat changes, the same user would appear mid-twerk, but in full glam.
The way the “Buss It” challenge transcended the app—even trending on Twitter at one point—is a clear example of how TikTok has impacted the way we engage with and discover music. In an endless game of copycat, one creator comes up with a dance to a random song, others imitate it, and slowly but surely (though sometimes very quickly), the song starts showing up in lip-sync videos, makeup tutorials, and even the charts. TikTok has only grown during COVID-19, with nostalgia-fueled trends like re-creating childhood photos to the tune of Simple Plan’s “I’m Just a Kid” providing a security blanket in this period of confusion and fear. Another joyful antidote: some unintentional lyrical similarities between Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and the CDC’s social distancing guidelines. “Don’t show up, don’t come out,” Lipa sings on the song, which was all over TikTok at the start of quarantine.
In April of 2020, Brooklyn rapper Sleepy Hallow released “Deep End Freestyle,” a track that included a haunting—and initially uncredited—vocal loop. The song racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube, and many commenters wanted to know, Who was the mystery woman singing the catchy chorus? Eventually, the Los Angeles–based singer-songwriter Fousheé took to TikTok, uploading a clip of herself singing the song while strumming a guitar and captioning the post, “The irony of this is...I’m actually the original singer in this song...but nobody knows or believes me...and it’s legit making me go off the DEEP END.” By the time she released her own full-length version that July, Fousheé was fed up—but not over the lack of credit. “It was right after George Floyd, and I felt like it was the moment for me to speak up on behalf of Black [people],” she says. “[‘Deep End’] is an anthem for underdogs and finally getting all the things that you deserve.” On YouTube, the official video for Fousheé’s version of “Deep End” has over 12 million views.
On TikTok, timeliness rules: “It never takes us too long to come up with a routine,” says Zhané, who performs alongside her sister, Shayné, as TikTok’s NaeNae twins. Their most viral dance challenge to date, for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix” featuring Beyoncé, took about 45 minutes to choreograph. The 26-year-old Los Angeles–based identical twins have a knack for predicting what will go viral on TikTok, but Beyoncé’s nod to the app in the second verse—“Hips tik tok when I dance”—made the track a pretty safe bet. A week later, Megan uploaded a video of herself doing the NaeNae twins’ dance, and performed it again at YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” virtual event. The singer Doja Cat went further when she incorporated TikToker Haley Sharpe’s choreography into her video for “Say So,” even giving Sharpe a cameo near the end.
A big part of Isabel Quinteros Annous’s job as TikTok’s senior manager of music partnerships and artist relations is to give celebrities a crash course in the art of TikTok. Her current star pupil is singer-songwriter-dancer Jason Derulo, who reached out near the start of quarantine. “I spent two hours with him going through all the different features of the app, explaining why collaborating, community, and doing the trends is important. And he just took it to the next level,” she says. The more his fan base grew, the wilder his videos became, from bizarre cake recipes to pranks involving his girlfriend, influencer Jena Frumes. After leaving Warner Records in 2020 due to creative differences, Derulo found he could now do his music, his way. Hits like “Savage Love (Laxed-Siren Beat),” which surged on TikTok before reaching the number one position on Billboard’s Global 200 chart, followed. “A TikTok hit is just a great song,” says Derulo matter-of-factly. “A true hit is undeniable anywhere.
This article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ELLE.
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