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Published: 28/Jan/2021 17:58 Updated: 28/Jan/2021 18:20by Georgina Smith
17-year-old Disney star Olivia Rodrigo became an overnight sensation with her power ballad ‘Drivers License’ after it went insanely viral on TikTok, smashing records and dominating music charts. But what does this reveal about the power that the TikTok community has in the music industry?
So-called ‘TikTok songs’ are a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Is a song charting because TikTok made it popular, or is it trending on TikTok because it’s charting? While in the past it was easier to tell, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred, as TikTok’s influence on the music industry becomes more apparent.
However, there’s no doubt that in the case of Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Drivers License’ was propelled towards success by the TikTok community. On its fourth day, the song broke the record for the most one-day streams for a non-holiday song on Spotify, and shot straight to number one on the Billboard charts. Rodrigo’s success is one of the clearest examples of TikTok’s power.
To understand why music is such a huge part of TikTok’s ecosystem, you just have to take a look at the app’s roots.
Chinese tech company Bytedance acquired what used to be known as Musical.ly in 2017, and in 2018 put in motion the rebrand to the now more widely known TikTok. Many were dubious about the business move, but it proved to be an incredibly successful one for the company.
Musical.ly was first and foremost a lip-syncing app, relying heavily on the use of popular songs as the basis for content creation. After their rebrand, that element stuck around, and to this day ‘Sounds’ are one of the app’s most important features.
Sounds facilitate discoverability, as they act as the anchor to which trends are attached, or as a reference point for people to find related content. Whether a song goes viral because it’s catchy, or because it happens to be attached to a mostly unrelated trend, TikTok has the power to increase its exposure ten-fold (and often more).
‘Drivers License’ and the drama surrounding its creation was a recipe for success. Olivia Rodrigo was on the TikTok community’s radar after the song she wrote for the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, ‘All I Want,’ went viral for its unexpectedly high quality.
Her new track has a similar charm – the powerful vocals combined with relatable lyrics make it the perfect song to play on repeat. Even better, fans began to theorize that the song was about none other than her Disney co-star Joshua Bassett, causing TikTok to become obsessed with the story that’s like a teen TV drama in and of itself.
The song splintered into countless trends: theory videos, physical transformations, intentionally bad covers, and everyone became invested in the story of this heartbroken teen.
And this isn’t even the first time this has happened. Rapper Lil Nas X experienced an even bigger rise to fame with his huge hit ‘Old Town Road’, thanks to it going viral on TikTok back in 2019.
Casting your eyes over the charts reveals that a huge chunk of the featured singles have been dubbed ‘TikTok songs’ thanks to their popularity on the app. It’s in this sense that TikTok is redefining the mainstream music scene.
Drivers License isn’t just ‘pretty successful for a TikTok song’ – it’s now an international hit. And for any artist looking to get eyes on their work, that type of virality is certainly appealing.
A string of established artists have been criticized for writing songs specifically to make them go viral on TikTok. Justin Bieber heavily promoted his song ‘Yummy’ via the app, receiving criticism from fans who felt the song was intentionally generic.
Drake’s song ‘Toosie Slide’ is another prime example of a song that was designed to go viral on TikTok, further evidence of mainstream artists turning their attention to the app.
There is an increasing concern among both TikTok users and non-users alike, that music will decline in authenticity as artists continue to chase the same viral fame as that Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X came across by chance.
They’ve seen how TikTok can boost streams and sales, and they want a piece of the action. But there’s no recipe to virality – especially not on TikTok.
Part of TikTok’s enormous power is its unpredictability. The app is known for its bizarrely accurate For You Page algorithm which serves as the main way users discover new content. While your feed can be influenced by the people you follow, it’s not entirely user-curated like other social media sites.
TikTok is one big blind spot for anyone who was planning on anticipating the next trend in the music industry. Who could have predicted that the app could revive a centuries-old genre with sea shanties?
‘Driver’s License’ is just one example of the promotional power of online communities. For better or for worse, the industry is adjusting itself to account for the unexpected, and unprecedented successes that can be induced by TikTok.