The songs “Say So,” “Teenage Dirtbag,” and “Running Up That Hill” all have one trait in common — they are viral TikTok sounds. With over one billion active users, TikTok wields significant influence within popular culture — particularly music. TikTok’s ubiquitous nature makes it an ideal candidate for “blowing up songs,” but is this a benefit or a detriment to the art of music?
Sam Novak, a music marketing professional at Steve Levine Entertainment, said in an email, “I’d guess over half of the songs by artists that are on the top 10 charts now came from TikTok trends.”
Novak utilizes TikTok as a marketing technique daily to ensure artists signed with his company get exposure with younger demographics. By posting artists’ music on the platform and leaning into current industry trends, Novak generally finds success in increasing their listenership.
TikTok serves as a launchpad for popular music by churning out one viral hit after another, but it also shortens the lifespan of chart-topping songs and increases the likelihood of “one-hit wonders.”
As Radio DePaul manager and avid TikTok user Grace Golembiewski said by email, “I do feel like hit songs are coming out faster and fading sooner.” She provides the short-lived hit song “Unholy” by Sam Smith as an example. “Because it was so heavily played on TikTok, the song just seems old even though it only came out a couple months ago.”
With its compelling scrolling mechanism and quick videos designed for shrinking attention spans, TikTok popularizes songs at a rapid pace. The buzz around these songs dies just as quickly.
According to Novak, “Everything becomes oversaturated. Certain songs become overplayed and/or associated with almost cheesy dances to the point where they reach a hard decline once the trend dies out.”
Artists like Conkarah have faced this phenomenon; he experienced brief overnight success with one TikTok hit in 2022 before ultimately fading into the distance. Though the song “Banana” reached billions of streams, Conkarah’s name remains largely unknown and his subsequent singles have flopped. “Banana” was his first and only hit song, based on streams on Spotify.
After their “heyday,” viral songs often plummet in popularity, become synonymous with their TikTok trend counterparts, and see a drastic shift in cultural meaning. Golembiewski stresses how songs like Meghan Trainor’s “Made You Look” have become solely associated with particular moments in time on TikTok. “Made You Look” peaked at number sixteen on billboard charts in November 2022, but once 2023 hit, people across TikTok poked fun at the song for being “last year’s news.” This TikTok exemplifies that despite the track’s release in October 2022, it feels outdated due to its strong link to the platform.
Some believe this entanglement taints artists’ creative direction and stifles their potential. “The stigma behind a ‘TikTok song’ I feel is more negative than positive … at least in the Midwest,” Novak said. Others feel that a song’s virality actually enhances its impact and reputation. According to R&B artist Sophia Galaté, “Viral sounds become part of people’s regular livelihood memories.” By connecting real-life trends to certain songs, music becomes a more memorable, tangible experience.
TikTok also heavily dictates trends in music. As Novak highlights, “I think [elements in] viral sounds ultimately dictates the pendulum swing in popular music. If a high-pitched synth sound in a song ‘catches’ and becomes viral, artists and producers will follow.”
He describes the phenomenon as a “domino effect.” Musicians will continue to follow their idiosyncratic creative impulses to some extent, but pressures to produce the next viral hit significantly impact their relationship with music as a whole. The unrelenting push to follow current trends rather than establish new ones influences artists at every turn.
Musicians already struggle against restricting labels and managers, but adding the component of virality makes the struggle nearly impossible. Even Galaté says she feels like she subconsciously places creative boundaries on her music to align with what’s new and hip on social media. She also recognizes how money and power factor into decisions regarding what is “trendy” in music.
“Big labels can calculate campaigns and strategically plan to guarantee their artists go viral. Unfortunately, a lot of labels will now only sign artists if they’ve had viral TikTok moments,” Galaté said in an email.
Most popular music now features at least one lyric or section that feels as though it was tailor-made to become a viral sound. Musicians have a more difficult time saying no to working on projects predisposed to becoming viral and making the big bucks—even if the projects inherently go against their creative intuitions.
Though TikTok’s algorithm often determines trends in music, Galaté, Golembiewski and Novak think it also ironically provides artists with more opportunities for creative autonomy. The platform produces an accessible way for independent artists to share their music with the masses for free and quickly develop a fanbase.
According to Novak, “Anybody can be TikTok famous—even your average Joe.”
Golembiewski thoroughly enjoys discovering new artists through audio trends on the platform. She believes TikTok allows small artists to break into the music scene in an easier way. “Lesser-known artists can become popular quicker due to the exposure of a song on TikTok,” she said.
By providing a space for independent artists to connect with audiences, big labels become less necessary. Any song at any time can now have a moment to shine.
As Galaté says, “It really makes us want to give each song a chance.”
Header Illustration by Madeline Smith