(wrote this is in February 2020, though it stands today with extended growth of TikTok as arbiter of music)
With the advent of TikTok, we have seen an influx of new content creators, memers, and influencers. The platform simplified the content creation process to a several minute ordeal. I argue it is currently the epicenter of popular culture in multiple pieces I’ll link at the bottom.
Most importantly, it is the primary funnel where Gen Z and assorted online groups are producing memes at accelerating rates (I’d wager we are reaching a peak of the adoption curve soon though).
Enter music, the content format of the app has users generate visuals to correspond with trending sound bites. The most popular sound bites are either humorous audio snippets or songs, typically paired with visual jokes/memes or dancing. The first portion of this theory relates to TikTok’s effect on viral music.
By pulling snippets of popular or potentially unknown songs and having users mass produce their own spinoff visual interpretations (in the form of memes or dancing), musicians are able to reap unbelievably large amounts of exposure (think billions when accounting for TikTok replays).
If one is to look at the Billboard Top 100 right now, almost every song within the top 25 has some variation of a TikTok dance or trend built around it. It is difficult to say whether these trends are emergent or intentionally constructed by the musicians, well actually it’s certainly easier to argue for natural emergence, but the second portion of this theory pertains to musicians crafting their music for the platform.
Much of the virality on the app has to do with TikTok creators sourcing sound bites out of their own ingenuity. They find a noteworthy moment in song and create a trend or dance around it. Though as the app has risen in popularity, this has begun to change.
First in the fact, that the music industry paired with Musical.ly (TikTok’s predecessor) and now TikTok quite some time ago, to allow their music to be streamed on the platform. Naturally, when Justin Bieber has a new song, Def Jam can nudge TikTok into putting it at the top of their available sound bites. This is just basic marketing stuff though, whenever a medium of music exposure comes about, you can imagine entities with vested interest in their musicians success will push to utilize it.
The more interesting portion of all of this is relatively unknown artists witnessing the importance of TikTok and beginning to craft their music for it. Some examples of this are people like Yung Gravy, bbno$, or Savage Ga$p (though there are countless musicians doing this now). Aspects of a song that might increase its likelihood of becoming a trend on TikTok are in-app references (such as the Woah, e-person culture, simping, or just general trending memes), extremely boosted bass, call and response, or generally absurd skits/preludes/high-pitched rapping.
The underlying premise is that your song must be memeable. If people can make edits and jokes to your music, you will get the much coveted TikTok exposure.
Like with SoundCloud and Spotify before, the medium is changing the qualities of the art.
I’d wager in terms of current hip-hop culture, we are in the era of TikTok Rap, or more widely Meme Rap (or Meme Music). Last example I’ll leave you with is Drake’s most song Toosie Slide, which contains direct instructions on how to do a TikTok dance for it, “It go right foot up, left foot slide.”
The wider point here is we are pushing beyond the cultural dominance of SoundCloud and entering an era of TikTok rappers. I argue the main feature that distinguishes the newest and most popular artists is a keen awareness of memes and trends. Beyond this, there are countless examples of creators of all walks dabbling in the realm of music creation often creating their own instances of Meme Rap (this genre definitely has existed long before, but I see it coming to a head in popular culture at the moment).
TL:DR We are in an era of Meme Rap / TikTok Rap. Awareness of meme culture and how to make one’s song memeable is a driving force for success at the moment.
https://medium.com/swlh/we-need-to-talk-about-tiktok-70f04eb0847f (TikTok Written Piece)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3pg9PszwGE (TikTok Video 1)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZHwULXIGzQ (TikTok Video 2)