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Arts & Culture, Reviews

Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘SOUR,’ the onset of the TikTok Era of Music

How TikTok is hindering progression of music with formulaic songs like Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2021

Rodrigo’s first studio-length album, “Sour,” was released May 21 to widespread acceptance and popularity amongst Gen Z-ers.

Olivia Rodrigo has become a name that everybody recognizes — whether you’ve spent hours watching TikTok videos to her debut single ‘drivers license,’ released earlier this year, or you’ve heard the song playing on the radio. 

Her rise to fame seemed to happen overnight — Rodrigo went from being a Disney star that only pre-teens and some old-school ‘High School Musical’ loyalists would recognize from the Disney+ TV Series ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,’ to being #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 9 weeks straight in a matter of months. 

While she is not the first Disney actor-turned-popstar, it is undeniable that she had an advantage that Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus didn’t have in the early 2010s: TikTok.

‘drivers license’ quickly soundtracked several TikTok trends: from dance challenges and dramatic cry-singing, to videos decoding clues that suggested the song was about her HSMTMTS co-star and rumoured ex-boyfriend, Joshua Bassett. 

Gen Z’s obsession with Rodrigo’s relationship drama fueled the success of the song, but the raw emotion that seeps through relatable lyrics is what made the song a TikTok sensation. This relatability is characteristic of every track on her debut album, “Sour,” released May 21.

While the lyrical relatability and familiar radio-pop form of the song work well for 15 second TikTok videos, the problem arises with the TikTok Effect, which has spilled over into every corner of the music industry. For instance, ‘drivers license’ broke the record for most streams in a day on Spotify for a non-holiday song — even though it is arguably trite in its musical quality. 

‘drivers license’ is a typical, formulaic pop ballad, far from innovative. While this does not seem like it would be immediately advantageous, social media has rendered it commercially successful (if not artistically). The majority of pop music’s consumer base has already been so conditioned to consume art that conforms to a basic melodic formula that predictability is rewarded disproportionately — which inevitably means that innovation is penalized. 

This tendency for conformity is a problem that started before TikTok; a result of long-term conditioning by the most successful figures in music. But TikTok has catalyzed the process due to its increasing influence on the music industry, acting as a metric of success that disturbs the talent-reward ratio even more than before by increasing the incentive (and therefore, the pressure) to conform to the formula.

To gain fame through TikTok, the artist’s song has to become a trending sound, which usually happens through dance challenges, memes or even unrelated trends that use the song. This system is flawed in itself, because the success of music is now dependent on how danceable and ‘memeable’ it is — but it also further reinforces the formula, as the music most likely to conform to these standards is the familiar, cookie-cutter pop with catchy choruses and simplistic lyricism. This is the kind of music Olivia Rodrigo makes.  

 Another very obvious problem with TikTok — which also incidentally worked in Rodrigo’s favor — is the short-form video format of the platform. Videos can be up to a minute long, but the 15 second videos are the most popular. Again, only the very simplistic, very repetitive songs can conform to this reductive format without losing crucial elements of musicality.

In order to garner TikTok success, a song needs to instantly capture attention — something which familiarity helps achieve — but this leaves no scope for innovation. Just like the essence of a novel cannot truly be captured in a paragraph-long summary, the layers and complexities of a song that progresses beyond the monotonous radio standard simply cannot be captured in 15 seconds, and it should not have to. The fact that most mainstream music follows a similar pattern already inhibits listeners from actively engaging with a track, and shortening the length will reduce attention spans even further — making it that much harder for the non-conforming artist to get noticed.  

The reward for those who do conform, however, is so bloated that the TikTok Effect is also seeping into the production of music directly. Rodrigo said in a video explaining her songwriting process that she deliberately added a cue into ‘drivers license’ that could act as a transition for TikToks. “And people did make TikToks like that so I’m really happy about that,” she said. 

While 18-year-old Rodrigo used this strategy skillfully and successfully, others have attempted to do the same to little avail. Justin Bieber, for instance, went to great lengths to make his single ‘Yummy’ go viral on TikTok through its bubblegum-pop production, but listeners saw through his somewhat desperate attempt, some even condemning that the song was very clearly designed for TikTok. 

But unlike Bieber’s futile attempt at TikTok trendiness, Rodrigo’s song still seems to have some heart: Its saving grace is emotional — not musical — authenticity. The underlying fact, however, is that commercialism is invading the creative process, and the art is being tainted. If artists are keeping the TikTok market in mind while creating music, we can expect this era of music to be marked by a further increase in standardization, a further loss in innovation. And the artists who resist the allure of the formula’s ensured commercial success will have an even harsher, more indifferent world to contend with. 

Olivia Rodrigo, however, has merit to her success — she already had a Disney fanbase, and she is not without talent. She can be credited for a powerful voice and the smart business sense that allowed her to adeptly use TikTok and the formula to her advantage. But ultimately, it remains true that her immediate and unparalleled success in doing so has catalyzed the onset of a new era of the same, old music — robbing the music industry of the sanctity of the creative process. TikTok is the indicator of success in music now, and while it can be credited for lowering the barriers of entry in the music industry by giving musicians a platform to grow, the issue remains that it prefers homogeneity to originality, leaving many potentially talented artists disadvantaged. Like most systems that claim to be meritocratic, TikTok is anything but. It clings desperately to the familiar, and in doing so, actively hinders the progression of art.

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