How TikTok Has Changed What Fans Expect From Pop Stars

In a June TikTok, Halsey is sitting on the couch, her gaze crossed between an eye-roll and a daydream. She’s nodding along to a song, biting her lip in tired frustration. The song is called “So Good,” and at the time of filming, Halsey’s record label won’t let her release it — unless she starts a viral moment. “Everything is marketing. And they are doing this to every artist these days,” white text reads overtop her face. “I just want to release music, man. And I deserve better tbh.” FKA Twigs shared a similar sentiment on the app this year: “It’s true all record labels ask for are TikToks and I got told off today for not making enough effort.” Florence Welch sang a stripped-down version of her single “My Love” and captioned the video, “The label are begging me for ‘low fi tik toks’ so here you go. pls send help.”

It made sense in 2020, that an app providing windows into peoples’ homes would be the object of fascination. It made sense that without concerts, people would turn to their screens to simulate the experience of live music. Two years later, TikTok has trained a generation of eyes — and ears — on its tech and transformed the way they discover artists and listen to music. The personally catered user-generated content feed has evolved from lip-syncs and dance challenges at the forefront to include a wider range of videos, like skits and outfit try-ons and confessionals. The app calls its songs “sounds,” designed to soundtrack creators’ lives and carry viewers from clip to clip. This year, artists realized it’s no longer as simple as describing dance moves for a single to get attention on the app, leaving artists like Halsey and their teams scrambling for the elusive “TikTok song.” TikTok has rewritten the anatomy of an earworm and changed what people expect from pop stars.

For a pop song to become a TikTok song, it has to play to the whims of the algorithm and users’ shifting attention. It has to abide by a set of unspoken rules. It has to be relatable. It has to be genuine. It has to be familiar. It has to have a moment. In 2022, nearly all of Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 number-one songs — singles like “Bad Habit” by Steve Lacy, “About Damn Time” by Lizzo, “As It Was” by Harry Styles, and “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals — were associated with TikTok moments.

“Moment” is the new “catchy,” rebranded for a visually-focused, fast-moving content stream. A moment is a part of a song that inspires listeners — or, more accurately, viewers — to use the music as a tool for self-expression, and embody it in their own short-form videos. The moment can be call-to-action lyrics that command a series of hand gestures, or a turn-of-phrase that provokes a personal anecdote. Taylor Swift’s refrain, “I’m the problem, it’s me,” from her 2022 single “Anti-Hero” has been used hundreds of thousands of times on the platform, playing in the background of videos where TikTok creators share their “problems” in bold text. The moment can be an emotional verse about missing an ex that accompanies a slideshow of a creator’s old romantic photos. It can be a sunny chorus to soundtrack a video of someone’s beach vacation or general good vibes, like “Sunroof,” which initially gained popularity on TikTok and then peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The moment can be a dramatic sound effect or key change that complements a before-and-after makeover clip, like Sam Smith’s “Unholy.” It’s hard to imagine these songs weren’t written with TikTok front of mind.

Cole Silberman discovered the artist Role Model a few years back and now mainly manages young, up-and-coming talent. “When a label says ‘make a TikTok song,’ they’re not looking for a full body of work,” he said. “They’re looking for things that they can share quickly and build quick moments on, and then continuously lean into those moments. A label is a business, and they have to make money.” When a song does well on TikTok, it juices streaming numbers and sales. Labels figure that these moments are like ads for their product, and why would you put out a product without a commercial?

The TikTok moment has become so crucial that users have been speeding up songs, as if to get to the climax quicker, before a viewer gets bored and swipes up for something new. Sped-up versions of songs took off on the platform this year, to the point where artists like Panic! At The Disco and Marshmello re-released their old hits in double-time. Some newcomers released three recordings per single — normal, fast, and slow.

Hannah Hicks is a manager whose company roster includes Grammy-winning producers and artists like Grimes. “TikTok is such a big part of what we think about, even from the creation of a song. It’s defined what it means to be an artist in 2022,” she said over the phone. Most artists have been trying to “make transitions hit harder” in their songs, Hicks told me, a bass drop or chord progression to soundtrack the pacing of a video, to signal a turning point in a 30-second clip. If enough creators use your transition, you’ve got a moment.

A TikTok moment should be easy to latch onto. One straightforward way for an artist to achieve this, as the platform showed this year, is to go back to basics. Gen Z pop-punk-ish artist Leah Kate released “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bitch” in June and it’s been used nearly 45,000 times in TikTok videos. Meanwhile, her counterpart Gayle’s TikTok hit “ABCDEFU” was nominated for next year’s Grammys. Counting, spelling, and nursery rhymes are well-worn pop strategies — The Jackson 5’s “ABC,” Brian McKnight’s “Back At One,” Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E” — taking on new life in the TikTok era. Another way artists facilitated the moment this year was by remixing old songs, warming up melodies that have proven successful in the past. Nicki Minaj took on Rick James circa 1981 for “Super Freaky Girl,” Jack Harlow did his best 2006 Fergie for “First Class,” and Yung Gravy sampled Rick Astley on “Betty (Get Money).” Each song had its moment on TikTok upon release.

Emotional mirroring, as every source I spoke to told me, can be just as important as a song’s immediate stickiness. Gayle released chill and angry versions of “ABCDEFU,” in addition to fast and slow renditions. She, or her team, knows her song needs to meet fans where they are…be it chill or angry. Specific, relatable content goes a long way in this landscape, and a wider array of emotions means more chances for her moment to land.

On TikTok, you’re not just listening to music, you’re projecting yourself onto it, pairing it with a snapshot of your life. A TikTok song has to resonate with a creator for them to feel compelled to use it in a video, or for a viewer to listen to 30 seconds of it. People want to lip-sync along to a song where they feel exactly the same way as the artist. “It’s like everyone is their own music supervisor,” Hicks said. “They’re thinking, ‘what song can not only capture the emotion, but also the movements of what I’m doing?’”

The word “moment” came up 20 times in my conversation with Silberman and seven times with Hicks. The thing about moments, though, is they end. A viral hit isn’t enough. What listeners really want from today’s pop artists is a relationship. The person behind the moment. They don’t want artificial pop stars, they want down-to-earth people. They want to feel like they’re hanging out with their artists, like they can reach through the phone and touch them.

They also want to feel heard, like they’re part of something, like social media is including rather than isolating them. In 2022, fans wanted input. This year, many artists quasi-collaborated with fans on TikTok, letting them have a say in which lyrics they should use or which songs they should put out first. Artists shared intimate footage of their processes writing and recording songs, hooking viewers to follow through to the final product. Charlie Puth shared pieces of his song “Light Switch” on TikTok as he was writing it, building hype before it was even available on streaming services. Fans are the decision makers, perhaps even more than the invisible music industry execs. “It’s interesting to see the kids just picking and choosing what music is gonna work and what’s not. I feel like all the power is in their hands right now,” Scout Easley, an A&R Manager at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, said.

Everything comes back to the algorithm. TikTok rewards consistency, so if an artist is constantly uploading videos, the algorithm will have their videos populate peoples’ feeds more frequently. More videos also means artists will have to show more of their lives and days to the platform, which conveys a certain level of intimacy by proxy. The TikTok machine wants genuine personalities as much as listeners do.

The formula is, of course, always evolving and impossible to pin down. And that’s why artists have to move fast. Stacey Ryan, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter, had the moment, after responding to an “open verse challenge” with a piece of her original song. She had the emotional connection with her 1.5 million followers, all of whom wanted to hear the finished product. And then, she had two weeks. Two weeks to record and put out “Don’t Text Me When You’re Drunk,” while people’s thumbs still hovered over her profile. Another week and she might’ve been lost in the scroll.

“That was a song that I had written that wasn’t even finished. And then, it all of a sudden blew up,” Ryan said. “We recorded the song and put it out in under two weeks, because we really wanted to jump on the bandwagon. That kind of kickstarted my professional career on TikTok. That was when I got signed.”

Charlie Finch, a 19-year-old artist, says he uses TikTok as a “testing platform,” a way to get a sense of what listeners want from him. The first video Finch posted about his single “Enough” got a million views, and the next 20 “Enough” TikToks did similar numbers. Other songs of his stay in the thousands.

This new world might feel strange for artists like Halsey, whose careers predate TikTok, but it can be a land of possibility for rising names like Ryan and Finch. This is how a new slate of pop stars are being made. But it comes with a price. “There is a stress that comes with it, because TikTok definitely does penalize you for not posting and consistency is the number one thing,” Finch said. “You have to keep going, keep going, keep going. If I’m on vacation with my family, I can’t stop. I have to figure out a way to make it work.”

Just as easy as it is to swipe away from a video, it’s easy to forget a TikTok song the minute a new one comes around. When music is content and content is ephemeral, nothing is built to last.

Halsey’s label eventually let her release “So Good” after her initial TikTok made headlines. The song has been used 16,100 times on the platform, small numbers compared to Gayle and Ryan’s millions. User TheRealTophiaChu commented on one of Halsey’s videos about the debacle, “Any time a song is TikTok famous it loses value SO fast.” The comment continued, “There are so many good songs that I can’t even listen to because they were so overused.”

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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