What makes an old song go viral on TikTok?

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You don’t need us to tell you that TikTok now has a huge effect on the music industry. With the power to launch careers with one viral clip, we’re seeing the birth of a new star every day. But how about the revival of an old one? Last year saw TikTok revive vintage hits, from ‘70s classics such as Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ to ‘00s deep cuts such as legendary Glasgow indie band Life Without Buildings’ ‘The Leanover’. Now ancient sea shanties are even going viral on the app, as is – perhaps more improbably still – The Wombat’s 2015 electro-pop tune ‘Greek Tragedy’.

With 41 per cent of users between the ages of 16 and 24, we hit up musicians, psychologists and some of the app’s biggest creators to find out why the app is bringing back tracks that outdate even their parents.

The Nostalgia Factor

It would be naïve to believe that we’re living in a world where the younger generation don’t know timeless anthems such as ‘Dreams’, or Bowie’s ‘Starman’ (the latter has amassed over 14,000 videos since being added to the app on his birthday). The cross-generational appeal of these songs could instead be a reason for their success. California-based psychologist and writer Dr. Ronald Riggio, who specialises in adolescent psychology, credits “greater involvement by parents” as a factor, with parents spending more time sharing their own interests and tastes with their kids, causing Gen-Z-ers to take to TikTok to create content soundtracked by songs from their childhood that trigger good memories.

And maybe that nostalgia doesn’t even have to be tired to a particular memory of a song, but more a vibe that puts you in a reflective mood. Talking about his own recently-revived track, ‘Life Without Buildings’ guitarist Chris Evans chalks it return up to its ability to “take you somewhere or to a certain somebody– it can also be a wilful thought, say if you’re singing along in the backseat of your stepdad’s car.”

TikTok tribes

However, this is definitely not the case for every viral vintage tune. Take Kate Bush’s 1980 banger ‘Babooshka’, for example. 200,000 TikTok videos have featured the song in some form or other (including a trending cover for which actor and musician Tobee Paik adds metal guitar) and Twitter is flooded with Gen-Zers delighted at having discovered Kate’s discography. Even 18 Year-Old Tennessee-based TikTok fantatic Sydney Rose White (aka @rosebewhite on the app), whose video using the sound has accrued more than 344,000 likes, admits to NME that she had never “heard of her or listened to any of her stuff before”.

Kate Bush has quickly settled into her rightful place on so-called ‘WitchTok’, with ‘Babooshka’ soundtracking content about tarot cards, love potion making and gothic-inspired videos with dramatic outfit changes, not too dissimilar from her original music video. This is down to the success of TikTok’s personalised ‘For You’ page, which like any algorithm-driven success story reflects your own tastes back at you. Or, as TikTok’s Communications Lead Barney Hooper puts it to us, it’s “powered by a recommendation system that delivers content that is likely to be of interest to a particular user, based on a combination of factors”.

Here’s a perfect example: it only took a 10-second-long clip of former NME cover star Beabadoobee lip-syncing the song to turn ‘The Leanover’ into a new alt-girl anthem with over 69k videos on the app and 3 million Spotify streams , 21 years after its release.

Inevitable gatekeeping

Naturally when this happens, the song’s popularity is quickly boosted by those desperate to prove that they listened to the track before it was TikTok approved. A quick search of “Kate Bush TikTok” on Twitter and you’re met with a wall of disgruntled fans fuming at the song’s revived mainstream popularity. They then take to TikTok to attempt to assert their superiority, and in turn only make it more viral.

not even in a gatekeepy way, if you discovered kate bush because of tiktok that’s just sad

— simon ♥‼ (@eIectriccafe) January 12, 2021

Straight-up marketing

There’s definitely a case for TikTok themselves playing a part in this phenomena. When Idaho-based TikTok Nathan Apodaca posted a clip of himself TikTok cruising on a skateboard with some cranberry juice, soundtracked by ‘Dreams’, the Fleetwood Mac album it appeared on, 1977’s ‘Rumours’, re-entered the Billboard chart for the first time in 43 years. This also boosted sales of the song by an astonishing 374%. The app clearly saw an opportunity and have since welcomed the music estates of icons such as John Lennon, Whitney Houston and Elvis, and recently did a huge push around adding Bowie’s music to the app by launching the hashtag #TheStarman.

@420doggface208

Morning vibe #420souljahz #ec #feelinggood #h2o #cloud9 #happyhippie #worldpeace #king #peaceup #merch tacos #waterislife #high #morning #710 #cloud9

♬ Dreams (2004 Remaster) – Fleetwood Mac

Ole Obermann, the Global Head of Music at TikTok, tells NME: “Record labels and artist teams recognise TikTok as one of the most powerful promotional tools in the business”, indicating that as more old songs go viral, it becomes more and more likely that boardrooms and suits are getting involved, marketing legacy songs on the app in the same way in which they approach new releases.

A little something special

On a more optimistic note, there’s perhaps also a remixing element at work, as Gen Z-ers see new qualities in tracks they were previously unfamiliar with. With 14.9 million followers, TikTok make-up tutorial star Abby Roberts is one of the biggest UK creators on the app. She reveals to NME what she looks for when creating content: “Something like a good beat drop is ideal for TikTok because it means I can do transitions”, referring the dramatic jump-cuts between the make-up looks she creates, which amp up the effect of the ‘before’ and ‘after’.

@gnocchi500

what a song

♬ The Leanover by Life Without Buildings – andrew :•)

Homing in on this, Guildford-based producer Timmy Dillow explains that while modern production may feel more vibrant than older tune, it’s actually “less effective through a phone’s mono speaker” because “popular music in the ‘50s to ‘80s put a lot of emphasis on harmonic and melodic change from verse to chorus”, lending for a more standout, rousing jump that still sounds great through your iPhone.

The Visual Element

Beyond the science of production, songs such as ‘Babooshka’ and ‘Starman’ were made in a time when music videos were a big deal. Songs were more likely to be written with a visual element in mind, making them far easier for TikTokkers to come up with trending concepts or use them to soundtrack scroll-stopping transitions. ‘The Leanover”s opening humming lends itself to an exaggerated satisfied smile as TikTokers lip-sync along to the track, casting themselves in the lead role of their own mini music videos.

When ’80s hip-hop duo L’Trimm’s ‘Cars That Go Boom’ hit the app, it came accompanied by a cheesy dance routine that could’ve been pulled straight from the original video. Remember: in a time when TV shows like Top Of The Pops made or broke a song, artists were crafting dance routines in the same way that Drake‘s ‘Tootie Slide’ shimmy unashamedly catered for TikTok last year.

@rosebewhite

the absolute serotonin rush this gave me #fyp #horsegirl #forest #bridgerton #fairytail #cottagecore

♬ original sound – Tobee Paik

Who doesn’t love a new song?

Overall, Life Without Buildings’ singer Sue Tompkins summarises it best with her excitement: “I love discovering new music, old music, anything that just makes me feel something new and excites me… I think it’s just that you find things at the right time.”

For Gen-Zers discovering these songs for the first time, it is no different to stumbling upon an up-and-coming band. Years on, these old songs are falling on fresh ears, judging them and connecting to them in the same way they would a new release, and adding it to their playlists regardless of its production date.

TikTokkers don’t care that Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers‘ ‘Just The Two Of Us’ – which has also gone viral on the app – was made in 1985 when it’s still catchy as ever today. Good songs with a good sentiment don’t age, and the feeling of finding a song you love and playing it on repeat doesn’t have any time constraint.

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