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The Algorithm Killed the Radio Star
the lost generation of online songwriters, why tiktok songs sound Like That, and who gets to be a "real" musician
We’ve reached a cultural dark place when it comes to the relationship between music and the internet. For one reason or another, everyone seems dissatisfied with what happens when art gets churned through the algorithm. Millenials lament the bygones of a “better time” for music, cursing the kids and their artistic ignorance. Fans of previously obscure artists watch in horror as their favorite niche deep cut is relegated to background music for thousands of identical trend-based videos. “Real musicians” draw the line in the sand between themselves and the TikTok phonies. All the while, TikTok as a platform is making more money than ever. Labels are pushing short videos as marketing strategies, hoping that one of their artists can sit in the driver’s seat of a car, looking convincingly into the camera, such that the viewer goes, “hang on, I think they really did write the song of the summer!” When the only people having fun and making money are at the top, something isn’t working.
I have to admit that I have a horse in this race. As a former “TikTok singer-songwriter” who has been trying to shirk the label since people started using it, I’ve spent every minute of my young career wracking my brain about what it means to create music in our current economy, social and otherwise. With TikTok becoming a major player in the industry only in the last few years, the landscape is changing in ways that make it harder to survive as an independent musician, frustrating as a fan looking for new music, and disheartening as a person who used to genuinely enjoy posting my songs to the platform.
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There’s a Spotify-curated playlist called “big on the internet” that features, almost exclusively, what people might call “TikTok songs.” Included in the collection (which rotates constantly due to the fleeting nature of viral content) are songs by mainstream artists that are trending on the platform along with tracks by relatively unknown artists that were birthed through the platform itself. Although songs of both types get lumped together under the “TikTok song” moniker, there’s a great distinction between the two.
The first song on the “big on the internet” playlist at the time of writing this is “See You Again” by Tyler the Creator featuring Kali Uchis. The song comes from Tyler’s 2017 album Flower Boy, which was critically acclaimed and widely popular at the time of its release and has settled nicely into the canon of pop-rap in the last few years. I myself have considerable, fond memories of sitting in someone’s passenger seat in the backroads of North Carolina, probably high, singing along to the tracks as we ran the album top to bottom.
“See You Again”’s resurgence in 2023 is attributed mostly to a TikTok trend whereby the creator dubs themselves an “okokok” or “lalala” girl as the overlapping hook plays in the background. If these terms inspire confusion or nausea within you, you’re not alone. There’s another conversation to be had here about our incessant need to reproduce what my friend and brilliant writer Rayne Fisher-Quann has dubbed “micro-individuality,” and for further reading on this, I suggest her piece.
Without this trend, “See You Again” would have remained a well-known, well-loved song. Its second life on TikTok gave it a boost in the streaming algorithms and some new fans for Tyler the Creator, but it will not be his defining moment as an artist nor the most memorable part of that album’s cycle in the culture. Save for a corner of die-hard Tyler fans that bemoan the song’s internet success a la the tried and true method for individuation known as “I was a fan of this before it was cool,” Tyler’s catalog and reputation as a musician won’t be threatened by the song’s watered-down induction into online culture.
The second category of “TikTok songs” are those which were first introduced on the platform itself and skyrocketed to success by the TikTok algorithm. Top of mind at the time I’m writing is a song called “if i were a fish” by Corook and Olivia Barton, which since being posted a bit more than two weeks ago has racked up over 150 million views on TikTok. The song is now trending on the platform, has millions of streams on Spotify, and is favorably placed on the “big on the internet” playlist. In a matter of days since its upload to Spotify, “if i were a fish” became the most-streamed song for both artists, gaining them millions of monthly listeners and a considerable bump in social media following — oh, and a Rolling Stone article.
It’s safe to say that for both Corook and Barton, this song is Their Big Moment. Unlike Tyler the Creator, the success of “if i were a fish” has dramatically changed their career trajectories, expanding their audience and listenership exponentially in just a few weeks. The song is, undoubtedly, extremely charming and catchy. In the viral video, Corook and Barton sit across from each other, smiling almost into each other’s mouths, while singing about love, acceptance, and defying internet haters. One can easily imagine the recording phone gracefully perched on top of a stack of books or on the ledge of a window. It’s natural. It’s short. It’s hook-y. Its immediate and explosive success is unsurprising to anyone who understands the hallmarks of the “TikTok song.”
“I mean, I feel like it’s created a genre,” said singer-songwriter Olive Klug when I spoke to them over the phone. Olive was one of the first people I thought of when writing this piece. I became mutuals with them on TikTok where, like me, they began posting their songs in mid-2020. About the community at the time, Klug said “I feel like a lot of us were queer, a lot of us were around the same age, and I started chatting with people…it was never about, like, “Ugh I have to promote my music, I have to do this,” it was like, “this is my community.”
Forgotten in the sands of time is an era where TikTok was a novel way to promote one’s music. The use of the word “promote” here isn’t even right — most of us weren’t thinking of it that way, and the environment was one based mainly on collaboration and showcasing new material rather than redirecting clicks to a pre-save or streaming link. It was a time when you could get millions of views on 30-second original songs over and over again with minimal effort. Most of the popular musicians on the platform at the time didn’t have fancy setups or attention-grabbing jump cuts, and people gravitated towards the earnest, low-key nature of their videos. We weren’t sitting in cars telling you that we wrote the song of the summer (yet). We were just playing our tunes. Viewers liked getting a peek behind the curtain and feeling included in a new artist’s first big moments, and artists benefited greatly from the exposure and feedback.
“It was a cute community, especially since I’m from — not the middle of nowhere — but I’m from nowhere, and I never had music friends growing up,” says Ash Tuesday, a singer-songwriter and TikTok user, of the early era. We were making celebrities of each other, becoming genuine fans of new artists around our age. “It was a lot more niche,” Ash says. “Around that time is when I first met Rae (@tofusmell on TikTok) and really vibed with his stuff. It was cool to be, like, posting and him knowing me and commenting on my posts.”
Through our conversation, Klug and I both acquiesced that in addition to the community we’d found, the impetus for posting our music to the platform was the emotional highs of viral success and validation from people we didn’t know. Like me, music was never the Plan A for Klug, and the traction we gained on TikTok made us believe that an artistic career was possible.
To those of you who have only recently joined TikTok, or who only catch wind of its influence through headlines and tweets, it’s difficult to explain just how different of a platform it was in 2020. There was next to no “discourse.” There were no split-screen videos of Family Guy clips next to Subway Surfer gameplay overlayed with AI-generated audio of an r/AmITheAsshole submission. Charli D’Amelio was the only notable TikTok celebrity at the time, but there wasn’t much she could do with her fame at that point seeing as we were all stuck inside. People used the app frequently and loyally, but its influence had yet to invade every corner of our youth’s brain space. It was less cursed. This was not the age of industry titans like Charlie Puth and Taylor Swift using the platform to bump streams or promote their already wildly successful artist projects — before all that, there were unsigned kids sitting on their bedroom floors, mere months into a years-long pandemic, singing into the void. And the void sang back to us.
“It didn’t feel like there was any strategy. It felt like there was a stretch of time when I was, like, meeting wonderful new people and forging new friendships and feeling really connected to a community,” says Hana Bryanne, another former TikTok mutual, current singer-songwriter, and friend. “And after that, I feel like that kind of fell apart.”
It’s difficult to parse out when exactly a shift occurred, but major labels and established artists quickly caught on to the potential of TikTok. Marketing strategies began to emerge, and the “I just wrote this” charm of TikTok’s original musicians was adopted by those with money, influence, and resources. We were beginning to see a shift from celebrity-as-untouchable-idol to celebrity-as-girl-just-like-me. The initial draw of the TikTok musician is that they were normal and unpolished. As these natural quirks developed into marketing techniques for the industry, it became difficult to tell whether or not this was true. Now, when we see a video of someone showing a song they wrote to their best friend “for the first time,” we recognize it as a ploy. We know that, by the end of the video, we will be redirected to a pre-save or streaming link. We know that it is not about sharing, but promoting.
Also around this time is when a select few musicians who got their start on TikTok began to cross over into the mainstream. Artists like PinkPantheress and Lizzy McAlpine went from posting self-filmed snippets of their songs to performing on late-night television and at major music festivals. The kinetic energy of TikTok as a star-making platform was undeniable, which instantly transformed the way that musicians on the app began to relate to their art and the act of posting it.
“It’s not at all a grassroots, authentic thing anymore,” says Klug. “It’s something that huge corporations are getting involved in.” Since their initial success on TikTok, Klug has signed to a label. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to be part of a label without TikTok,” they say, “but at this point, my label people are like, “you need to post more TikToks.”
As the platform adapted, creating one of the most sophisticated algorithms we’ve ever seen, more users flocked to it and began seeking quicker content, more immediately gratifying content. Music and artistry in the TikTok economy become, simply, “content,” and if yours wasn’t entertaining or satisfying enough, users could scroll until they found someone’s that was.
“I quickly learned that you needed to have the short video with the text on the screen so it loops,” Bryanne said about the way her videos changed on TikTok. Sitting on your bathroom floor with a guitar wasn’t going to cut it anymore. The Big Guys had invaded our space and fundamentally changed it forever.
As an indie artist, there’s simply no competing with the funds and access granted to major labels and industry giants. You can’t rent a billboard on Sunset Boulevard or hire a big-name publicist to get your music in front of “the right people.” It’s just you and your imperfect, undone charm against the world, and when even that schtick gets taken over and bastardized by the corporate powers that be, things can seem hopeless. At a certain point, artists realized that if they were going to stay relevant on TikTok, they had to play by TikTok’s rules.
“I don’t know the art, because I rarely catch the algorithm, but there’s definitely an art to getting on the algorithm, which is really weird and, like, sci-fi, dystopian to me,” says Ash Tuesday. Every musician I spoke to for this piece could quickly identify what they thought makes an algorithm-friendly “TikTok song.” Although their descriptions varied slightly, every single person used the same word: gimmicky.
When the key to success is to hack an algorithm, artists are incentivized to become hacks themselves. I say this as a former hack.
I removed my most popular song from streaming services around a month ago. I left it up on Bandcamp for a week to donate the proceeds to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, before wiping it from my public music profiles. You can still find versions of it for free on places like YouTube and Soundcloud, all of which is fine with me. It’s not about revoking access for people who liked the song. It’s about preserving my integrity as an artist and finally being through with a song I never really liked in the first place.
The song is called “Porn Star Tits.” I posted it on TikTok sometime in the summer of 2020 in response to a comment asking for a song about “what it’s like to grow up as a girl,” and within hours it had racked up over a million views. The video was eventually removed as TikTok cracked down on censorship guidelines, but it reached about 10 million views before then. The song is clever and direct. It tells you exactly what it’s about in the first few lines. It’s easy to sing, easy to remember, easy to understand, digest, and scroll along with the melody still stuck in your head. I wrote the whole song in exactly nine minutes, knowing it would be a gateway to a recurring spot in the algorithm. I pulled off a trick — I wrote a gimmick.
By the time I was ready to compile my first EP, I had written hundreds of songs — hundreds I liked better than “Porn Star Tits” — but by then, the landscape had changed. I knew that my window of relevance was waning. My new songs were already getting fewer views than the old ones, and I knew that without “Porn Star Tits” on the track list, fewer people would think to check out the project. More than that, people would be angry.
Lizzy McAlpine saw her first viral moment with a clip from a song called “You Ruined the 1975.” After months of the clip circulating with no word from McAlpine about a future release, her comment sections were filled with fans, many angry or otherwise intense, questioning her about when they could stream it. “Every time someone posts about me not releasing the 1975 song, I get so many comments that are like “why won’t you release it?” “I don’t understand” “I’ll never forgive her for not releasing it,” it’s like, crazy shit,” McAlpine said in a recent video. “I don’t want to release something I don’t like…that feels inauthentic.”
This is another thing that TikTok has transformed. Because the platform brings creators so close to their viewers, people no longer feel that they are an audience member watching from the sidelines — they feel that they are an investor who has bought stock. Especially if you built your platform by yourself from the beginning, fans feel that they have spent a long time investing with no returns. If and when you do catch a glimpse of fame, it becomes your duty to repay them with what they demand.
At the time of my EP’s release, I was 3,000 miles from home in a major city I could barely afford and about to drop out of college. I had gotten a glimpse of what it would be like to make music for a living, and I was terrified of seeing that reality fall out of view. I recorded “Porn Star Tits,” put it on the track list, and, just as I assumed, it became the number one thing tacked onto the end of my name. Eliza McLamb, TikTok singer-songwriter of the viral “Porn Star Tits.” To this day, there is no song I could play live that would get a better crowd response than “Porn Star Tits,” even though I don’t play it anymore.
“It is very hook-first. I have noticed that about my own songs that have done really well [on TikTok],” says Klug. “And even when I perform that, oftentimes people won’t really sing along with the chorus, but they’ll sing along with the first verse.” Even Steve Lacy is not free from the viral verse curse that brings a venue from ear-splitting singalong to dead silence within a matter of a few lines.
When I asked musicians about how TikTok changed their writing process, many discussed this idea of writing hook-first. “I just happened to write a song with a really catchy hook. And the video I had put up was genuinely all I had written at that point. I then had to go back and construct this song around it, which is something that I really don’t like to do,” said Bryanne. “Not every song with a great hook is a great song, but that doesn’t even really matter because on TikTok you’re not even really listening to the whole song.”
I had Trojan-horsed my audience with “Porn Star Tits,” hoping that an easily digestible, instantly gratifying song would lead people to my other work — that which requires more investment, and which I take more seriously. With the break-neck pace of our dwindling attention spans, the astronomic potential of a viral video, and an increasingly insidious algorithm, I worry that our modern songwriters are being pushed to do the same. As we have become an increasingly infantilized society, entertained by lights that flash the brightest and narratives that conclude in under 30 seconds, I worry that we are making baby music for babies.
Gone are the days when you used to decide if a song was for you — now the musicians tell you: “this is a song for hot girls with abandonment issues,” “this is a song for former gifted kids,” “this is a song for bad bitches.” It relieves you from even a moment’s discomfort or investigation, allowing you to quickly categorize yourself, the song, your likelihood of enjoyment, and the opportunity to assess the entire piece in a matter of moments. Why listen to an album to find your favorite song when you can find the best 30 seconds of the entire record on your TikTok For You Page? Why post your song if it doesn’t have a catchy first line? Why write it?
“It takes the art out of it, it really does. It makes it so cookie-cutter, so pop, but pop in its worst form. Where it’s not even creative, everything is sounding the same,” says Ash Tuesday. “But some people really do enjoy that and that’s great, I love that for them.”
I love that for them too, I guess. But also I don’t.
And it’s not about the merits of the individual songs. I couldn’t care less if you do or don’t personally enjoy the kinds of songs that blow up on TikTok. I don’t think your preference says anything inherent about you or your capacity to understand art. “TikTok songs” are not the forces ruining the world or destroying the sanctity of art — they exist as a consequence of such forces.
TikTok is seen as a way to promote your music “organically,” but that’s not the truth. To succeed on TikTok, you have to hack and gimmick and Trojan horse your way to algorithmic favor, fighting tooth and nail against the girl whose chorus is just that much catchier than yours, and two bars shorter. Record labels are now offloading their responsibility to support and grow their artists onto the artists themselves (an idea that Rayne expands on in this video). In every promotional TikTok I see for someone’s music, I sense an air of desperation — one that I certainly had every time I made a similar video.
As a consumer, you’re getting to see how the sausage is made. As an artist, you’re constantly looking over at everyone else’s sausages to make sure your sausage looks good. And the instruction manual for making the sausage changes all the time, sometimes daily. And the instruction manual tells you that you need to make a sausage that looks like candy and you say “I don’t know how to do that, I just want to make a sausage that looks like sausage” and the instruction manual says “well, no one wants to eat sausage anymore, so you have to make them think that it’s candy” and then you make disgusting sausage candy that you hate and everyone else likes well enough for a day before forgetting all about it forever.
I left TikTok in the winter of 2021. I’ve come back on intermittently, for a few weeks at a time, usually to promote music. My numbers have absolutely tanked. My audience forgot about me. I don’t know or care enough about the trends to make successful promotional videos, and thinking about investing in it within this current landscape makes me want to hole away.
And yet, despite not interacting with the platform meaningfully in almost two years, in every article (the few!) that are written about me, TikTok is attached like a bum leg. “When I get called a TikTok artist I’m like damn… it’s so humbling. Putting TikTok in front of anything, it’s gonna stupefy it by like 3 points,” says Ash Tuesday. Sighing, she adds, “TikTok musician” is just not what I’m going for, and that is one of the biggest regrets I have about it.”
The problem is not with “TikTok musicians,” but the platform itself. TikTok has morphed into an alternate reality whose reward system is similar to the back half of the human brain — the part that knows how to fight, fly, freeze, and fuck. Doing well on the platform means inspiring anger (discourse), horniness (for many, teen girls doing anything, unfortunately), or gratifying simplicity (adult lullabies). As an artist, it’s becoming harder to stray from the pack, thereby risking obscurity — something that used to be coveted as an independent artist, but in an over-saturated market becomes a death sentence. “Sometimes gimmicks are necessary,” says Ash Tuesday. “It’s a weird, double-edged thing.”
This setup works best for the major labels, who no longer feel obligated to or responsible for growing their artists. It works for the big names in the industry who can pay influencers to use their sounds and get their songs trending. Everyone else gets the short end of the stick. Musicians have to put their focus on promotion over creation, fans are over-saturated and trained to expect instant gratification, and the music itself is getting simpler and simpler. It’s like how you can’t give a baby a whole grape. You have to cut it up so it doesn’t choke.
And the truth is that audiences are not babies and they resent being treated as such. Most musicians who come up solely through TikTok have a problem with fan retention. The role of the artist is not to bend to the will of the consumer — the best artists are able to innovate and recreate themselves over and over again in ways that fans could never predict. The best artists hold a necessary tension with their audience whereby the artist maintains creative control and the fan is given a license to choose how to engage. The best artists make moves that have the potential to be misunderstood, which is a crucial risk that TikTok artists cannot afford to make. To be misunderstood in the algorithm is to get passed over, scrolled by, and lost to the sea of content.
When artists are beholden to the performance of their videos on TikTok, they are unable to reach their full potential by design. They reproduce a version of a version of what has become algorithmically successful before them, all the time missing the train as the trends move forward at lightning speed. The formless beauty of creation becomes pigeonholed into whatever can be made and consumed in under a minute by a pacified viewer. Fundamentally, they are unable to create the most real version of their art. When I say this, I don’t mean that these songs or artists are invalid — I just wish I could see what they’d do if the algorithm wasn’t watching.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but fighting the attention economy isn’t something that can be done alone. It’s easy for me to say that I won’t promote my music on TikTok when I have another job that pays my bills. For people who need to live off of their art, playing the game is a necessary evil when it shouldn’t be.
Sometimes, when I’ve been staring at screens all week and I can feel my ass making a permanent indent in my couch, I’ll get up and go for a walk. I’ll listen to an album from top to bottom. I’ll listen to it again. I’ll find a favorite song and send it to a friend. I’ll make time to listen to my friends’ music and share their work. I’ll write down my favorite lyrics and make a collage. I’ll spend the whole day thinking about a bass riff on a deep cut of my favorite album. I’ll release myself from the need to be satisfied or fed or full. I’ll just listen.
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