This week: TikTok and music
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The form and content of recorded music has always been downstream of the technology that enables it. The three-minute pop song remains the most popular and enduring format in no small part thanks to the original limitations of the 45-rpm vinyl disc, and new developments in recording technology, synthesisers and software continue to reverberate through music and culture at large.
You can often identify a material basis for new trends in music through shifts in production and distribution technology. You may have noticed, for example, that song choruses have been moving earlier and earlier in the track. Artists and producers attempt to work around the fact platforms like Spotify and Apple Music don’t recognise a stream unless the user plays it for more than thirty seconds, making those seconds utterly essential to hook the listener in. Pop culture naturally organises itself around the structures of its undergirding technologies.
It’s well-attested by this point that TikTok has become the primary growth engine for new popular music. The platform, which hit Western markets firstly in the form of lip-syncing platform Musical.ly before being acquired by ByteDance, has thrust an entirely new model onto the music industry, forcing artists and musicians to capitulate to its schizoid viral incentives. These trends aren’t exactly new — YouTube had already brought viral content dynamics to music, and platforms like Spotify impose their own variation — but the algorithmic black magic that has made TikTok grow so explosively has amped it to eleven, and brought with it a wholly new cultural territory.
“Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive,” writes critic Neil Postman in his book Technopoly. “It is ecological … You have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival.” This trickles down into the material conditions of making music, too. You might recall earlier this year there were a flood of complaints from artists saying they were being forced by their labels and management to make TikToks in an effort to go viral.
Similarly, it’s impossible not to notice the contours of manufacture in the kind of pop music that reliably goes viral on TikTok (and then the charts) these days. It all sounds largely the same: sanded-down hyperpop and EDM, with subtext-free lyrics custom-built to be bolted onto some meme or another. You can’t tell me, for example, that Rabbit Hole by Qveen Herby — currently featured in nearly 200,000 TikToks — wasn’t cannily engineered for its viral potential.
On the one hand, that’s just the way it goes as music is dragged into another technological era. The incentives and systems are new, and the culture shifts to accommodate them. Given a time machine, you could madlib most of what I just wrote into a critique of what MTV and the ubiquity of the music video did to songwriting and production culture in the 1980s. But, as is often the case, the algorithmic internet brings with it its own brand of kaleidoscopic weirdness, worthy of its own note. There are many and varied examples of its strange affect, but two perfectly illustrative cases emerged over the past few weeks.
First there was the success of Mary on a Cross, a 2019 B-side by theatrical Swedish pop metal project Ghost, which was propelled to the Billboard Hot 100 on the back of its sudden TikTok success. The song, which is overladen with references to oral sex and contains lyrics like “if you choose to run away with me / I will tickle you internally”, inexplicably became a favoured soundtrack to grimly sad TikToks and hacked-together movie clip compilations. Its success had second-order reverberations through the platform, as musicians began to post covers en masse and dead-eyed content mercenaries attached it to ever more irrelevant videos in order to capture the eyeballs (and earholes) pointed towards it. It has now been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify, easily dwarfing the band’s other output.
The second example was odder still. A 2007 video of the Miami Boys Choir, a long-running pop group made up of an evolving cast of pre-teen Orthodox Jewish boys, went viral on TikTok. The track, titled Yerushalayim, emerged into mass fandom based largely on the fact the kids are quite talented vocalists, and it goes surprisingly hard (in a gaudy sort of way). Orthodox pop is one of the more endearing subcultural musical relicts — controversial within the community that produces it and trapped production-wise among the sparkling horns and squealing guitars of 80s AOR — and seeing an army of TikTok users dissect a single Miami Boys Choir video clip with the quasi-ironic fervour of the K-pop fandom is certainly something to behold.
Spurred by its newfound fame, the live version of the song was re-released on streaming services in the past fortnight, and has been played millions of times.
The response from those in and around the Orthodox community has largely been bafflement. Writing at her newsletter Unorthodox Gymnastics, Dvora Meyers describes the dislocating feeling of seeing the Miami Boys Choir, a somewhat guache fixture of her upbringing, emerge into flash-in-the-pan mainstream success thanks to the unknowable mechanics of the algorithm. “Those of us who consumed this stuff and were also exposed to secular pop culture did so with the sense that perhaps our own products were simply not as good as the stuff created by the mainstream media,” she writes. That confusion and amusement at seeing what amounts to a community secret explosively broadcast everywhere is, I think, an increasingly permanent fixture of reality.
The spectre of subcultural intrusion into broader success is not native to the internet, of course. In 2000, a Canadian vinyl collector named Brian Linds discovered, while browsing a thrift store, a series of recordings made between 1976 and 1977 of a number of Vancouver schoolchildren amateurishly singing pop hits in a way that came out perfectly haunting. The Langley Schools Music Project was rereleased the next year and became a cult hit, appearing on a number of end-of-year lists. (The cover of Space Oddity is particularly affecting.)
This feels a little different, though. The currents of virality, fully unleashed with platforms like TikTok and its legion of incoming imitators, are sanding away the infrastructure that once sustained the music industry and the cultural universes it generated around it. And as our platforms increasingly gravitate towards the unrelenting content firehose model pioneered by TikTok, I think it’s going to get weirder still.
I’ll wrap this series of somewhat disjointed thoughts with an excerpt from this wonderful newsletter by Drew Austin, which articulates a parallel phenomenon: the rapid death of the 20th century music snob under the annihilating force of omnipresent, on-demand content.
Like the printing press in the 15th century, the internet would rapidly devalue a variety of hard-won skills, and analog snobs would suffer the same fate that monastic scribes once did. As the ‘00s progressed, it became clear that internalizing information—memorizing, cataloging, recognizing—was precisely what we would no longer need to do. Memory was outsourced to the cloud as taste became the individual’s burden: We all found ourselves adrift on an unbounded sea of content, suddenly responsible for doing our own canonization.
Big fan of odd indices tracking economic sentiment. Please share if you have a favourite you’ve seen out there.
License to thrill
In a delightful use of open government data, this Twitter account collects and shares applications for personalised license plates at the California DMV between 2015 and 2016, a period when that information was made available under the state’s Public Records Act. (At least I believe that’s the case — LA Mag claimed to have made the application back in 2019, when these would-be vanity plates were first surfaced.)
Officially, the California DMV — as with many state entities responsible for vehicle licensing around the world — does not permit “any personalised license plate configuration that [carries] connotations offensive to good taste and decency,” meaning that anything sexual, profane or likely to offend is not getting past the keeper. Contained in the public dataset is a treasure trove of Herculean efforts to evade that directive, and evidence of a state bureaucracy armed with little more than Google and Urban Dictionary trying in vain to stop them.
The vast majority of these plates tweeted at random by the account are denied, which leads me to think either the DMV has a remarkably low tolerance for tomfoolery, or this specific system only captures plates which were flagged for review or didn’t get picked up by some automated filter. (Assuming, of course, the creator of the bot isn’t prioritising denials in what it shares.)
It’s all very funny. But did get me thinking about vanity plates as an interesting aspect of a modern state bureaucracy. If I may put on my Seeing Like A State hat for a moment, they are part of an imposed system of legibility — vehicle licensing — but one permitted to be treated with a little bit of levity by the population at large. It’s one of the few instances in which the modern drive to inflict scientific order on messy reality is balanced with the human impulse to take the piss. (Even the simplest of human endeavours, naming one’s children, comes with all sorts of explicit rules depending on jurisdiction.)
The corollary is that vanity plates naturally become one of the points at which faceless government administrators are invited to make basically arbitrary rulings on good taste. It’s definitely an arbitrary call for our friends at the California DMV, given that basically every combination of letters imaginable has been entered into Urban Dictionary as a mythical sex act.
Thankfully, this Twitter bot exists to document those brave soldiers taking a pickaxe to the foundations of bureaucratic good taste.
More on the ‘far out, AI-generated content is moving quickly’ front. Two major text-to-video were announced in the past week or so: one from Meta, named Make-A-Video, and one from Google, named Imagen. The output from both still looks busted — even in what one assumes are the best examples they could muster — but it’s not hard to imagine this getting a lot better very quickly.
Further to the above thoughts on streaming, The Guardian covers those who are “quitting Spotify to save their love of music”. I can’t imagine this is particularly widespread as a habit, but it’s still interesting to think about how the format of streaming instils a certain kind of listening, which some people just don’t jibe with.
A good read here on earlier advocates for the decentralisation of the internet, who were trying to disrupt the web’s power centres long before crypto and Web3 usurped the mission.
Insta-click for me in my Gmail inbox from headline alone: “Why is this cyber-education nonprofit selling a $13,000 occult artifact on eBay?”
The Onion filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case of a man who faced criminal charges for starting a parody Facebook page of his local police department. It’s funny, but also a well-articulated case for parody as necessarily involving some degree of mimicry. “If parody did not deliver that advantage, then no one would use it.”
The Hollywood Reporter has a feature on how the Amazon Rings of Power deal worked, including selecting the (basically untested) showrunners and the process for dealing with the Tolkien estate. Enjoyed this bit:
Netflix pitched doing several shows, such as a Gandalf series and an Aragorn drama. “They took the Marvel approach,” said one insider to the talks, “and that completely freaked out the estate.”
Some interesting thoughts here: “80 brief predictions on the future of computing and its impact on the broader world”.
Fascinating (and extremely numbers-heavy) blog by mathematician Terry Tao about a recent viral news story about a lottery in the Philippines which had 433 winners, who then had to split the winnings amongst themselves. He starts out addressing the simple question (“how likely is that to happen?”) before digging into the more complicated issues — like punters having lucky numbers, or the likelihood of us hearing about something like this.
A critique of the practical impact of effective altruism and longtermism, two movements seeing something of a Silicon Valley renaissance.