Local Current Blog

TikTok is changing the way we interact with music. Is that a good thing?

Jay Gabler/MPR

In a recent viral TikTok video, Nathan Apodaca, a.k.a. @420doggface208, skates next to an Idaho highway while sipping cran-raspberry juice. Apodaca has a playful smirk on his face; he seems relaxed. “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac plays in the background. As evening sets in, he glances behind his shoulder before emphatically lip-synching the famous vocal flutters of the first verse: “It’s only right that you should play the way you feel it.”

The simplicity of the scene is captivating. There’s no elaborate stunt or eye-grabbing moment, just a cheerful guy expressing his driftless satisfaction and a passion for Stevie Nicks. It seems unlikely that Apodaca had any idea that the video would be viewed millions of times, cause “Dreams” to return to the U.S. charts, and garner a parody video from Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood.

While the video in question may speak to the unorthodox tastes of Internet users, the ability for it to circulate so quickly is no doubt attributable to the platform itself. In its three-year lifespan as an international social media app, TikTok has already launched countless music, comedy, and marketing careers.

It was ground zero for one of the best-selling singles of all-time in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” and it’s fueled the rise of many more hits including “Toosie Slide” (Drake) and “Savage” (Megan Thee Stallion). It’s been the source of immense controversy, with several countries including Indonesia and India banning its use for geopolitical reasons. It’s even caught the ire of President Trump, who’s threatened to ban the China-owned app, citing national security threats.

But beneath the glow of glitzy influencers, catchy neo-pop tunes, and dance memes is an even more intriguing phenomenon: TikTok appears to be dramatically shifting the way we interact with and express our relationship to music. Gone are the days of zines and indie blogs. Welcome to a world where the Nathan Apodacas of the world can by sheer happenstance initiate millions of streams and sell units of music.

The original premise of this article was an exploration of how Minnesota’s music community is using the app. We wanted to see how artists were using the platform to connect with their audience. The TikTok experience, though, is more universal than local. It’s a free-for-all, laissez-faire experience in which every active user is seeking to accentuate their particular brand. While there are specific, niche TikTok zones — goth TikTok, Christian TikTok, queer Tik Tok, sports TikTok, etc. — there’s no organized access point. As I explored the app for the first time, I realized I had to click on a hashtag and see where the rabbit hole would take me.

These peculiar circumstances are both dystopian and hopeful. On one hand, the political economy of TikTok encourages endless circulation, a Videodrome-style format that sucks users in with its borderless interface and infinite scrolling capacities. It’s not really intended as a subcultural space that promotes new understandings of pop, rock, or hip-hop; that’s more of an accidental byproduct.

Conversely, Tik Tok has also given musicians and fans alike a powerful new medium for communicating their musical perspectives. The “For You” feed on the TikTok app specifically tailors the algorithm to your preferences, monitoring which videos draw your interest and feeding you more along those lines: if your interest is in music, the possibilities are endless. Even a few minutes spent engaging with this feature can yield a new favorite artist or song.

But it’s the videographic component where our relationships with music, as it is presented in the platform, becomes even more personal. Follow any musician on the app, and you will be granted small vignettes personally curated by the artist in question.

@markmallman

In a forest #control #painful #decisions #choices #instinct #trust #lifeadvice

♬ Transzendenz Express – Sensorama RMX – Brian Eno

Take Minneapolis artists like Mark Mallman and Dizzy Fae, who have become heavily invested in using the platform. Mallman’s signature self-help tidbits are mixed with his obsession with music. In one video, he captures his walk through a forest with a Brian Eno song and an uplifting message: “We can’t control the world. We can only control what we can control. Trust our instincts, and make the smartest decisions we can.”

Meanwhile, Fae has used the app to provide an intimate portrait of her music and life. There are clips of her dancing to the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack, another is a video meme about the queer dating scene. After releasing her recent single, “I’m Good,” Fae used TikTok to get the word out and connect with fans.

@dizzyfae

#duet with @ezechielsenam7 i can’t believe she’s dancing to my song 😭❤️ you killed it!!!

♬ I’m Good – Dizzy Fae

But this use of TikTok isn’t just limited to popular artists. Searching any artist or song will bring up a myriad of videos showcasing people’s unique relationships to the art in question. All you have to do is simply plug in the song of your choosing. “Beer For Breakfast” by the Replacements brings up a film of a young man yearning to party during quarantine, another features someone showing off their colorful new button-up shirt. Both videos end with each user mouthing the titular “all I wanna do is drink beer for breakfast!”

@pennymay21

#beerforbreakfast #summer #socialdistancing

♬ Beer for Breakfast – The Replacements

For contemporary Minnesota artists and bands, this doesn’t just mean that one of their fans has the potential to create a novel reapplication of their work. Rather, as the “Dreams” video and the stardom of Lil Nas X shows, musicians are just one fateful, viral video away from a dramatic shift in their trajectory. Even just a modicum of internet spotlight has huge implications for anyone, but it’s especially so for musicians on TikTok.

The charming nature of TikTok and the endless musical possibilities that it promotes are where an unfortunate dilemma lies. At the end of the day, the application is essentially a data farming tool for a multinational tech company; it has no real commitment to its users or the communities that it creates. But despite the coldness of the corporate undertones, the creators and fans on TikTok — especially as it concerns the music world — have carved out a fascinating new way to explore and share the art that they care deeply for. Even more so, TikTok has provided stranded music fans the ability to meaningfully connect in ways that Twitter or Instagram users cannot.

Whether or not we find TikTok to be especially compelling, the reality is that technology is once again dramatically shifting the nature of popular music. This does not necessarily mean bowing down to our silicon overlords, but to reflect on the ways that digital communication reshapes our worlds and communities. These observations are not judgmental, but a reminder that digital tools can atomize us as easily as they can bring us together.

@camdeezyy

Tag me if you try it!!😁 #foryou #PlayWithLife #MacysProm #tiktok #dance #tutorial #viral

♬ Funky Town – The Dance Queen Group