A ticking tok: What are the components of a good ‘TikTok song’?


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“It’s for research!” 

Famous last words. 

Ever since I downloaded TikTok for the first time a couple of months ago I haven’t been able to get my grubby mitts off my phone screen. It’s addictive! Notorious, the algorithm finds a way to twist itself around your brain, keeping you swiping through 15 seconds and then another 15 seconds and then another 15 seconds and then another…

What keeps me truly hooked, however, isn’t some stiff text-to-speech voice detailing someone’s woodland mushroom picking (even though it is calming) but rather the odd mix of both familiarity and distinctiveness in each TikTok. I know, I know, this may seem contradictory, but hear me out. 

If you have the app, like many of us Gen Z whippersnappers, you’ll have noticed that there are certain songs and trends that seem to crop on no matter which ‘Tok’ you’re on, fine examples of which being FrogTok and FoodTok. These songs can underscore just about anything and provide a sense of cohesiveness throughout the whole app – no small feat considering the abundance of videos uploaded each day. 

But what is it that decides which song shall be victorious? Considering the sheer influx of music that floods the Internet’s consciousness each day, this seems like an impossible task. But it could potentially be pared down to a few factors: the ‘soundbite-ability’ of a track, the ability to be tied to a trend/format, and the ease of recreation.

A small drop of the perfect concoction from the creator’s pipette can diffuse outwards quickly.

The deciding factor in whether a song is ‘good enough’ would be the platform itself. A TikTok can last from fifteen seconds to up to a minute, with the former option being the most popular. Fifteen seconds is barely enough time to nuke soup in the microwave, let alone to concentrate on anthems detailing winding tales of personal strength. No, in those precious seconds, a potential hit is broken down to a catchy hook, a ‘sound bite’ if you will. It’s about finding that golden nugget with the highest entertainment potential.

There are numerous compilations on Youtube of ‘TikTok songs’, in these you’ll find a common trend of picking out the aforementioned ‘sound bites’ from the mother source. So, in order to harvest these little nuggets, there needs to be a pre-existing opportunity to harvest them from. The obvious choices would be songs from prominent artists like Ariana Grande’s positions or Dua Lipa’s disco-flavoured Levitating. However, the vast majority of so-called ‘TikTok songs’ are generally snippets from relatively unknown songs or artists. For some, having their songs blow up on TikTok is the kickstarter to their careers, the power those little ‘bites’ hold can become a fantastic marketing opportunity.

The people know what they want and those high up in the trade are quick to recognise just that.

Doja Cat, for example, has left many viral TikTok trends in her wake. Relatively unknown before joining in February 2020, she has taken the platform by the horns. A strong Hot Pink-hued voice emerging from amongst the tough and grimy rap that once dominated the app, her music was quickly taken up by young female up-and-coming influencers. The turning point in her career, however, has undoubtedly been the Say So dance trend. Simple and dynamically sweet it became so popular it even made its way into the subsequent official music video. If nothing, this shows the sheer power these trends hold, especially in terms of viral potential.

One key element in concocting a viral opportunity would be the ease of recreation. If you have one video that can be recreated over and over again, the possible reach doubles each time. If you can send your mind back about 10 years, you may remember the advent of the Harlem Shake and how much we all enjoyed watching people fling themselves in ridiculous directions. That was because it was so easy to recreate that trend, stick a camera on, turn up the volume and, simply, shake! Those were the days…

Nowadays, dance trends like the aforementioned Say So can launch any song into the stratosphere – think Renegade, Savage Love. The moves are relatively simple and can be executed by everyone and their grandma; fun for all the family! Through constant resurrections of the same choreography, the algorithm identifies the song’s popularity, inciting the little tech monster to funnel it onto more and more people’s feeds; a chain reaction if you will. 

The sway a little box on a phone screen has on this colossus of an industry might seem ridiculous. But it isn’t the biggest surprise, music has always been market-focused and the consumer has always been King. The people know what they want and those high up in the trade are quick to recognise just that. And where you have millions upon millions of young users concentrated in one place, a small drop of the perfect concoction from the creator’s pipette can diffuse outwards quickly.

It’s a truly a beautiful sight to see.

Image: Mohamad Hassan via Pixabay

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