Sarah Morris/Getty Images for BET
Sarah Morris/Getty Images for BET
For the uninitiated, TikTok is a platform where users upload 15-second videos set to snippets of audio from the app's wildly expansive database, ranging from nonsensical noises to obscure anime clips. If you've never used the app, perhaps TikTok is easier to conceptualize in relation to other similar apps: as the second cousin of Snapchat, or the godchild of Vine. The collective history of these platforms is messy, and TikTok is the same — publicly, rapidly changing; the effects of its newness felt throughout pop culture and trickling down to the music industry. But as the year ends, and the app boasts 500 million monthly users, plus superstar guest appearances and artists who can credit the start of their careers singlehandedly to the platform, it is clear that TikTok in a class of its own.
Since its rise in popularity this year, the app, which has been owned by a Chinese media conglomerate since 2017, has been under scrutiny for a variety of concerns, including breaches of data privacy and facial recognition software research. Despite this, TikTok has persisted. Even Coldplay, who became one of the biggest music acts in the world pre-social media, has made a TikTok account. Pop stars and internet content creators alike have discovered that TikTok is just another way of cutting out the middleman: letting the listeners that know best decide what they want to hear most, without letting radio spins or late-night television performances dictate that for them.
The songs that generally do well on TikTok are trap-influenced pop songs with ear-catching choruses and a massive beat drop. But still, there's no science to what becomes popular on TikTok — the algorithm it uses to sort content on its homepage is randomized, with clips on each end of the popularity spectrum shuffled around and placed next to each other with no categorization. If a song catches on after being used to soundtrack comedy sketches or dance routines, the spread across the app is increased tenfold, rendering it inescapable in even the most disparate corners of the internet. Take, for example, the story of "Old Town Road": its record-breaking streak at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 started from a series of TikTok memes. The course that these songs chart is open-ended, with only the power of the internet to decide where they go.
As we dove deeper into the most interesting social media platform of the year, we came to a simple conclusion: some of these songs are more than their soundbites suggest. They expertly combine trendiness and musical finesse, effectively creating music that deserves a full listen. Let's step away from the endless scroll, and carve out a whole 15 minutes of time for these five songs.
Flo Milli, "Beef FloMix"
"Beef FloMix" (♬ YouTube) was introduced to me, through TikTok, by my 13-year-old sister. I showed her Tame Impala; she showed me one of my favorite rap songs of the year. The song is generally used in TikToks where the creator is showing off, flirting with the camera and doing a series of semi-literal dance moves that match the lyrics. Flo Milli, a 19-year-old from Mobile, Ala, proves herself an adept rapper in her first viral single, using pop culture references and her girly lilt to flex on us. "F*** the fame, all I want is them bands / if she keep on muggin', Imma steal her man," she lets us know without pause — and I believe her. Confidence is key! -- Zoë Jones
Ant Saunders, "Yellow Hearts"
Ant Saunders has three songs: "Miles Per Hour," which opens with a GPS voice that sounds like a drunk phone call; "Dial Tone," which opens with an actual phone call; and "Yellow Hearts" (♬ YouTube), which doesn't have any phone calls and is one of the biggest songs on TikTok. "Yellow Hearts" is pastel and saccharine, plasticky bedroom pop programmed with industry-grade lovesickness that indulgently alchemizes everything about the form into The One. Algorithmic perfection is never soulful but it sure is catchy.
Part of the critic's role is to identify a song's reason for being. TikTok does that work for you. "Yellow Hearts" is the soundtrack to someone cleaning their checkered Vans; just let TikTok user @crusty.vans show you. There is nothing left to do but accept a song like "Yellow Hearts" for what it is: a song that you'll be humming endlessly until the next viral hit pops off. -- Mano Sundaresan
DVBBS, "GOMF (feat. BRIDGE)"
In the instance of "GOMF" (♬ YouTube), the internet brought a song to TikTok — not the other way around. Twitter's resident goofball/dancer/comedian Casey Frey used it in a non-TikTok sketch. Canadian electronic duo DVBBS (pronounced "dubs") and R&B singer BRIDGE (pronounced "bridge") team up to create something sexy and slinky that shouldn't work on a platform that prioritizes obnoxious soundbites and catchy hooks. The sparse 808s, built around pulsing synths, crescendos into a chorus appropriate for a dark, club dance floor. When the beat drops, you instantly realize: a song from TikTok has no business being this damn good. -- Zoë Jones
Ashnikko, "STUPID (feat. Yung Baby Tate)"
Within the microgenre of snippet-ready TikTok music, there's a micro-microgenre of songs that are cleaned-up, packaged versions of overdriven breakup rap that dominated SoundCloud in, like, 2015. The best of the bunch is "STUPID" (♬ YouTube) by Ashnikko and Yung Baby Tate. Opening in the way every good TikTok song does, with a moment — in this case, a 15-second barrage of nuclear ad libs designed for insufferable lip-sync videos — it's cold and menacing ("I know you think about me in the shower / PornHub in your browser" is as ruthless as anything on this app) and approaches the ethos of a lot of that SoundCloud stuff. Just stay away from the TikToks, which do their absolute best to ruin the fun, one aspiring influencer at a time.-- Mano Sundaresan
Arizona Zervas, "Roxanne"
All for the 'Gram; b****** love the 'Gram. Wrong app, but Arizona Zervas' intention is clear right from the start: Let's make a party song about a girl who likes to party. That's it, that's the song. "Roxanne" (♬ YouTube) shares a song title with The Police and mines Post Malone's Auto-Tuned pop-rap for a sweetness that goes down easy, but the real trick is a hook that re-enters the scene, extra red cup in hand, every 30 seconds just making sure everyone's having a good time. The song has been used on hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos, often accompanied by cute choreography that sometimes (not always) features a mimed guitar strum. The virality led to a deal with Columbia Records — the label's first viral signing since Lil Nas X — and in early December, the song hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. You will, inevitably, hear "Roxanne" at a party, and maybe make your friends film a 15-second video. (Guitar strum optional.) -- Lars Gotrich