TikTok Sends Songs Up the Charts. But Can It Create Actual Pop Stars?
Audio is booming online as never before, but Clubhouse’s much-hyped pioneers and Spotify’s celebrity podcasters aren’t the only ones making noise. Creators of every variety are experimenting and finding audiences on platforms new and old.
Sound On is a series of nofilter articles on the coolest trends and innovators in the emerging audioscape. Watch this space for at least one new story every day this week.
In 2017, against the wishes of probably every musician and many fans of music, Jake Paul’s single “It’s Everyday Bro” skated onto the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 91. The song was not the work of a respected artist or charismatic new talent, but a cacophonous anthem for the now-disbanded content house, Team 10. The music video has over 279 million views on YouTube.
Paul, an ex-Viner, was a harbinger for many things we now rue about online culture. In this instance, it’s how the cult of internet personality often renders actual talent an afterthought. Four years later, adolescent stars best known for viral dances performed in their bathrooms are working with bonafide music producers, forming a cottage industry that, in 2021, may finally crack the mainstream code. The question for TikTok—a cultural juggernaut where Vine was a niche—is whether its stars are musical opportunists or innovators.
“It’s Everyday Bro” may now be forgotten, but the first TikTok hit made history. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was uploaded to Soundcloud, took off on the app, and charted on Billboard’s Hot Country Song chart in 2019—where it was quickly thrown off after it was deemed not “country” enough, prompting a conversation about race and music. Lil Nas X then recruited Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix that had a record-breaking run at the top of the main singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100. Lil Nas X earned six Grammy nods in 2020, winning Best Music Video and Pop Duo/Group Performance for the remix after performing it alongside BTS, Diplo, and Young Thug. The remix has over one billion streams on Spotify.
Lil Nas X’s rise was an anomaly at the time, the story of a previously unknown musician who courted a hot new app. TikTok has since become known for sending songs, new and old, up the charts. But only a handful of TikTok stars have seen snippets of their own songs go viral in what’s known on the app as a “sound.”
The 19-year-old former Sway House member Jaden Hossler, who performs emo-rap-inflected rock as jxdn, was an early breakout success: He released his first single “Comatose” in February 2020 to such success that Travis Barker signed him to his label, DTA Records, which will release jxdn’s debut album later this year.
Hossler has been influential in the broader TikToker music scene as well, co-writing “Still Softish,” a one-off diss track from Josh Richards that features Bryce Hall, and appearing on Nessa Barrett’s recent single, “La Di Die.” He also covered “drivers license,” the Olivia Rodrigo pop ballad currently in its eighth week atop Billboard’s global singles charts, which first took hold on TikTok and portends a new era of Gen Z dominance in pop.
As other TikTokkers have looked to launch their own “Comatose” or “drivers license,” established producers and songwriters have stepped up help create the music. LILHUDDY—18-year-old Chase Hudson, Hype House co-founder and ex-love interest of Charli D’Amelio—established a gothier version of Hossler’s sound with his debut single, “21st Century Vampire,” produced by industry pros who have worked with Maggie Rogers, Maroon 5, and Machine Gun Kelly. Nathaniel Motte and Sean Foreman of 3OH!3 produced and co-wrote Griffin Johnson’s own one-off for his diss track, “Convenient.”
“Convenient,” Johnson’s attempted takedown of his ex-girlfriend Dixie D’Amelio, has been streamed fewer than two million times on Spotify and never charted. But like “Still Softish,” the point was not to launch a serious music career. It was a way to amplify (and monetize) his answer to D’Amelio’s allegations that he cheated on her, and provide a soundtrack for further back-and-forths on TikTok.
If Jake Paul pioneered the music single as a content house promo, he and his brother Logan Paul helped launch the social media diss track phenomenon—after a feud of their own, in 2017 feud, which culminated with Logan responding to diss track from Jake by recruiting boy band Why Don't We to call out his younger brother for his failure to match his clothes.
The most recent well-known diss, Larray’s “Cancelled,” simply called out … everyone, from Bryce Hall and Nikita Dragun.
People stream these back and forths not for the music, but the creative clapbacks. TikTokkers like D’Amelio, who has released three singles and collaborated with major stars like Wiz Khalifa and Liam Payne, are striving for more conventional music fame. But as popular as these more “serious” songs may be among creators’ fanbases, they rarely chart alongside top artists. For a period this summer, it seemed like every other TikTok video was talking about D’Amelio’s debut single “Be Happy,” which has earned over 70 million streams on Spotify and has been used in over three million TikToks. Still, it failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100.
TikTok mints stars and hits, but those stars don’t necessarily get the hits. Still, to launch a TikTok smash, it helps to be savvy about the app. Olivia Rodrigo teased an acoustic snippet of “drivers license” on the app in December, and by the time the song officially dropped on January 8, reacting to the song itself became a trend. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and recently inspired a sketch on Saturday Night Live.
Rodrigo was a Disney TV star, not a TikTokker. But whether they achieve success on par with jxdn or Rodrigo (of, for that matter, Lil Nas X), at least one new TikTok music star will rise in 2021. An unverified tip to Deux Moi suggests Addison Rae is the next creator planning a foray into music. She’s soon to star in the movie in He’s All That, a sort of sequel to the 1999 hit She’s All That, and she’s already been assimilated into the Kardashian universe—an, of course, she’s got her 76 million TikTok followers. Can she sing? Hear for yourself in these vague snippets from an Instagram Live. You wouldn’t be the first: A four-minute YouTube video of that Live has almost 800,000 views.