TikTok is Selling Music Lovers the Illusion of Choice


Medha Upadhyay

If you care about pop music, you’ve probably heard Ariana Grande’s smash hit “Positions” by now. The album surged to the top of charts after its release, aided in no small part by the abundance of TikTok trends based on the album. With multiple trends centered around the songs “Positions,” “34+35,” and “pov,” the social media frenzy means that anyone who has been on the internet since the album was released has had these tracks drilled into their head.

TikTok has established itself as a breeding ground for a whole new type of social media content, one that relies heavily on music. But rather than finding “new” music on TikTok, we’re just being fed the same thing over and over again until our brain starts to tell us that it might not sound so terrible after all. TikTok doesn’t make good music famous; it makes certain types of music famous. 

TikTok music leans heavily into a few niche categories. Aside from songs that are good for dancing, one such category is songs with catchy lyrics. These songs are very useful as the soundtrack for the short stories common on TikTok. For example, the lines “for all of my pretty, and all of my ugly too” from Grande’s “pov” were commonly used for people to show themselves looking — you guessed it — pretty and ugly. Songs with fun beat drops have also found a place on TikTok. The beat drop in songs like “Candy,” “ily” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” are commonly used as a soundtrack to short stories or compilations. 

Inherently, TikTok has served to severely narrow the scope of songs that can become popular; if your song doesn’t fit into one of these categories, good luck getting anyone to listen to it. On the flip side, if your song does fit into one of these categories, you’ve suddenly and exponentially increased the odds of it becoming mainstream.   

When a song goes viral, it’s suddenly being blasted into people’s ears every time they visit TikTok. And this serves to create the impression that millions of people are obsessed with the song, and it must, therefore, be good. 

This is a tantalizing shortcut to fame and therefore money that is understandably difficult for artists to ignore. Though there will always be artists who prioritize fame over art, TikTok’s rigid “genres” are incredibly tempting for singers, who are always at the risk of being left behind when the tide turns. 

When artists start prioritizing fame over art, we all suffer. By curating simple trends, TikTok has effectively made it harder for different types of music to rise up by incentivizing artists to make their music fit into boxes. So despite our best intentions, TikTok has turned into a playground for record labels to pump out formulaic music designed to go viral — and it’s working. From Billie Eilish’s “Therefore I Am” to Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” to Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love,” mainstream artists are all rushing to get a piece of the TikTok pie by adding quirky lyrics and beat drops and planning elaborate dances for fans to copy.

But does popularity really equal merit? Just because a song happens to fit into one of these categories, is it something that I should actually listen to? Must I hear the same three songs every time I turn on my phone? The whole reason that the internet is touted as an equalizer is that it gives the listener a choice. We are no longer bound to the singers that record labels choose. And yet, it feels like we’re somehow going backwards in terms of diversity as far as music is concerned. Am I really supposed to believe that a song is good just because it lends itself well to dice rolling? It can be said that this trend is isolated to TikTok, but it’s tough to be an isolated trend when TikTok has more than 1,000,000,000 users across 150 countries. 

With more and more people turning to social media for entertainment, TikTok stands poised to seriously change the way that we consume content, especially music. As music grows more commercialized, it becomes more and more packaged with the sole purpose of increasing profits. In the past, a large chunk of the power rested in the hands of music industry professionals. Now, social media is increasingly snatching at their clout. 

Rather than being at the mercy of corporate producers, we’re now letting trends and algorithms determine what we listen to. Though letting any “higher ups” dictate the flow of art is questionable, it can be argued that taking the reigns of music from professional musicians and handing it to social media influencers is a bit of a downgrade. 

But then again, what do I know? At the end of the day, TikTok is supposed to be a fun platform for people to share their creativity. Just make sure it isn’t your one-stop shop for new music.

Art by Andrew Diep for the UC San Diego Guardian