Posted on May 5, 2022 in Technology

TikTok and New Radio Pop

Choruses, generally, are catchy. When you only hear a song once, the chorus may be the only thing you remember about it. Songs can be written as mostly chorus and still turn out good – Dua Lipa and Elton John remixed a couple of already-good songs into a chart-topper using mainly the choruses. Songs can be written with extremely limited choruses, too – early 21 Pilots didn’t feature a ton of chorus and the hardcore fans still love them, even though those songs didn’t really hit the car radio.

However, there’s a growing trend of TikTok noise where the song is written for a really catchy, easy-to-snip chorus, and the rest of the song is just kind of neglected.

Songs made for TikTok don’t sound like the normal pop or indie stuff that comes across the radio and Spotify’s curated playlists, no matter the size of the band or musician. They’re designed for soundbites of a minute, maybe less, and the integrity of the song itself changes when you’re not really meant to listen to the whole thing.

Cultural Relevance

TAFKAP (Prince) famously wrote “Party Like It’s 1999”. This song still hits. It’s a classic. It taps on fears about the end of the world, most literally that the turn of the millennium would end the world. It was also made by an artist with a well-established career and published on an album full of unique hits. Making songs about current events isn’t difficult, but it requires a certain amount of finesse for the song to come out well, and a certain amount of timing for it to be Grammy-levels of successful.

You see this end-of-the-world song across eras – Matt Maltese covers the topic in “As the World Caves In”, a song about nuclear annihilation, and Lord Huron in “Until the Night Turns” by unknown means. And yet, “Party like it’s 1999” stands out among these because it did everything it needed to.It struck a chord with people listening to all of these doomsday predictions about the turn of the millennium, which was supposed to be a good time. Humanity made it to 2000, yay! Right? The Cold War has passed, right? So why is everyone flipping out?!

COVID, a Defining Cultural Moment

The first songs to come out about Covid did hit – “F*ck 2020” by Avenue Beat was musically interesting and clearly came from the heart, capturing the bedroom pop vibe that so many radio hits just don’t have. There was a lot of buildup to the year because of the repeating 20’s, and after the mess of the 2016-2020 presidency, it was supposed to be a brand new start. Instead, we got Covid. Yes. Screw 2020, that was supposed to be our year. Covid made her life go off the rails – she’s singing about herself first and foremost, and how she feels about that stolen year. The music is easy to sing along to and the moment it represents is clear. I had never heard anything by Avenue Beat before, and I first heard the song on TikTok, but the song itself is a complete thought about an era of American life from an artist who put the work in to make more than a snip. It’s coherent.

And then we got “Mad at 2020” by Salem Ilese, a reference/parody to her other song “Mad at Disney”, which some call her breakout hit on TikTok. (They have identical beats, and this is on purpose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it). Alright – strike while the iron is hot and save yourself the effort of writing a new beat, whatever, other artists have done worse with songs that weren’t even theirs. Whatever. It’s not exactly musical genius, but what pop is? Especially TikTok pop?

She then released a second song, “2022”, which starts with “I’m Twenty-Twenty-Done”, a pun off of 2021. While these songs are aiming at a cultural moment, they don’t really strike it the same way Avenue Beats did. Both of Salem Ilese’s songs about the pandemic era are weirdly generic – she lists a bunch of things that happened in both songs, but never goes into detail about it or how it makes her feel. The song is just sort of there, and you listen to it if you like her or ignore it if you don’t. But it doesn’t have to be that way – Bo Burnham’s song “That Funny Feeling” from his special Inside saw a lot of use on TikTok even with his inclusion of his own emotion. And so did “F*ck 2020”!

Many of Salem’s songs lack the emotion needed to make them real, to make them hit. That’s either the result of rushing songs out as soon as all the rhymes fit, or intentionally done to squeeze the maximum amount of possible uses out of the material. You can make a trend to the lyrics “I think we’ve had enough/ Of breakdowns every month /Pandemic season 3 /With Omicron cast as the lead” and have it be funny, sad, quirky, or anything else, but “F*ck 2020” trends were almost always bitter disappointment at how poorly the year went. The same goes for the Bo Burnham and Matt Maltese songs – the cost of writing with real emotion is that the real emotion can’t be spun in every direction. The cost of making your songs for TikTok is that the songs have to be usable first and musically interesting second, a distinction you can hear in any number of songs that an artist tried to blow up on TikTok.

 That’s not to say this is necessarily a failure on Salem’s part. She has made herself a good career out of doing this, and if you define success = money and recognition, then by golly has she succeeded. The now-famous meme about the PS5 came from her indirectly, and she is objectively a talented singer, but the music she’s singing is deliberately made to be background music, something you’d hear in a movie as exposition instead of something you’d listen to.

Managing It To Hit The Radio

Salem did do one thing right on TikTok, and that was to not beg for views. Like I said earlier, she’s pleasant to listen to even if the music itself lacks weight. Begging for views or complaining that your content doesn’t have enough views is a surefire way to get everyone to hate or ignore you. I watched this tank someone’s account before it even got off the ground, although for the life of me I can’t remember who the artist was outside of her spinning upside down in a bed in the TikTok video, and that she looked like a Billie Eilish type with blue hair instead of green.

However, if you beg for views in an encouraging or groveling way, you may be able to get them. The artist of “ABCDEFU” got a big boost from TikTok in this way. The artist was confident, and talked about TikTok as a platform of kids who could do great things together if they worked at it – together. (This mentality famously fueled Dashcon, a failed Tumblr convention). This includes streaming her song together and purchasing it on iTunes together. “ABCDEFU” has a great chorus. It’s immediately recognizable, the feeling is easy to identify, and the singer herself sounds somewhat similar to Dua Lipa. However, the song got so much support because it was easy to use for TikToks, which then boosts its recognizability on other platforms. Every cut of the song I have ever heard naturally on the FYP came from the chorus.

The Snip-Song

Hearing the chorus so often makes sense. The actual meat of “ABCDEFU” is mostly chorus. You look at the lyrics, the chorus repeats four times, the interludes only happen twice. I think there’s more than double the chorus when you include total lines. That’s because this song was made off of TikTok memeability – it’s a 40-ish second segment repeating over and over crammed into 3ish minutes. If it had been made before the invention of TikTok, it’d be a two-minute 30-second song and it’d have something happen in the second half. Instead, it’s all about that chorus, first and second. That’s it’s best, most recognizable feature. That’s why people shared it, that’s why people made trends out of it and response songs to it using a pitched-down version of the chorus melody. This is exactly the perfect song to showcase what kind of song a song has to be to blow up on TikTok before it goes anywhere else. All chorus, predictable enough that adding it to a playlist wouldn’t be tossing a head of garlic into a smoothie, and generally easy to vibe to and share. Anything else a little niche or weird, like 100 GECs or other niche bands, have had a surge in popularity thanks to TikTok but haven’t hit the radio as a result.

The opposite issue comes into play too when the songs are made free of TikTok’s influence! Users hear a song they like a lot, go to play it on Youtube or Spotify, and then discover the song sounds wildly different than the snip that was used online. It can be so jarring that the listener may think they’re not at the right song. Mother Mother’s “Wrecking Ball”, for instance, has a segment in a major key where the rest of the song is in a minor key. The one major key segment got really popular on TikTok, and the rest of the song was rarely heard.

Or, take the singer Mitski – for all the depth and lyrical intricacies that go into her songs, the small snips heard the most often on TikTok give some people an odd impression of what she’s actually singing about, turning an incredibly complicated relationship with being mixed race and womanhood into easily-compressed ‘sad girl music’. This happens to a lot of artists, yes, and it happened before TikTok (Fortunate Son, for example) but TikTok speeds up the process because nobody wants to make three minutes of content to a song anyway, so 30-second bites are all you get unless you take the time to actually look the song up before you add it to your playlist.  

Pop has always been a place where fluff music could make it – now it has TikTok to throw some new artists into the mix.