How Do Pop Stars Come to TikTok? Sınır in Hand, Grasping at Buzz

For the last few weeks, one of the challenges ping-ponging around TikTok has been set to a snippet of “Buss It,” by the Dallas rapper Erica Banks. It’s a bit of a head fake — the song begins with a sample of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” before abruptly pivoting to its own frisky chorus, a perfect soundtrack for a classic TikTok outfit-change transition from frumpy to fabulous.

“Buss It” came out last summer to some attention, but not much. Because of TikTok, though, it’s freshly hot, the sort of song recognized by millions, even if it’s not quite known. For Banks, it’s an opportunity, and a boost for a fledgling career. But a song like this — intensely viral, but not at mass saturation — is also ripe for co-optation. And so, like clockwork, a few weeks after “Buss It” caught fire came an official remix featuring Travis Scott, one of hip-hop’s superstars.

A collaboration like this is a boon for Banks, giving “Buss It” a better shot at radio and streaming ubiquity. But it serves just as valuable a purpose for Scott, who benefits from association with a beloved viral sensation — he’s an invitee, but also an opportunist.

Erica Banks’s “Buss It” is a TikTok phenomenon.Credit…Scrill Davis
So it’s no surprise that a star like Travis Scott jumped onto a remix.Credit…Scott Legato/Getty Images for Live Nation

This is a neat distillation of how established stars, and the major labels that rely on them, have been approaching this tough-to-govern app. TikTok is chaotic and sometimes untameable, and, while it’s not immune to top-down marketing, it’s better suited than any other social media platform to amplify the obscure.

And so established performers — ones generally beyond the point of organically gaining traction on a Gen-Z targeted app — often find their way onto remixes of trending hits. Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, DaBaby, Justin Bieber, Jessie Reyez, Young Dolph and many more: they’ve all tried to catch a TikTok wave before it crests.

TikTok is a free discovery platform, a way for young people, or those who caucus with them, to sort out what snippet of music they find aesthetically appealing, or fun to dance to, or suited to talk about trading GameStop and Dogecoin over.

Very often, that music will be by a relative unknown. Record labels, naturally, scramble to sign these artists, often to short-term deals, in hopes that there might be a second hit in the chamber. According to TikTok’s self-issued 2020 year-end report, around 70 musicians signed record deals after finding success there. (It does not specify the size or length of the agreements.)

Sada Baby’s “Whole Lotta Choppas” got a remix featuring Nicki Minaj.Credit…Scott Legato/Getty Images
It was a pairing that didn’t make much sense.Credit…Evan Agostini/Invision, via Associated Press
Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” was fortified with a Beyoncé remix.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times
The pairing of two Houston musicians was a smash.Credit…Christopher Polk/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

But TikTok is a largely closed ecosystem, which means that songs that are popular on TikTok may well remain only that. Often, a label might find more success trying to amplify a song that’s already a viral success by adding a famous person to it, rather than investing in an unknown and waiting for lightning to strike again. Hence these remixes, which are, in the main, predatory moves passing as beneficence.

Even though the success of these remixes vary widely, they all emanate from the same set of circumstances. And sometimes both sides benefit. The most crucial precedent for this gambit is the saga of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which rode a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019, and stayed there thanks to subsequent remixes featuring Young Thug, Mason Ramsey and BTS.

This technique was also responsible for the song with last year’s most unconventional path to the top of the Hot 100: “Savage Love (Laxed — Siren Beat).” It began life simply as “Laxed — Siren Beat,” an instrumental made by the New Zealand teenager Jawsh 685 in his bedroom, which migrated onto TikTok without his knowledge, and became the bed for a vocal by Jason Derulo. That song became a pop phenomenon, and was boosted to the No. 1 slot via a remix by, yes, the magnanimous and savvy BTS.

Jawsh 685’s “Savage Love” started as a beat made in the teen’s bedroom.Credit…Cornell Tukiri for The New York Times
It ended up a hit on TikTok featuring the singer Jason Derulo.Credit…Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

This is remix as canny chart strategy, but far more often, these partnerships are fleeting, destined for the post-TikTok-virality remix dustbin. Some artists have made tagging along on TikTok trends a bit of a side hustle. Tyga started out last year with a clever appropriation of Curtis Roach’s “Bored in the House” comedy snippet into a proper song, but then became a too-frequent guest, on remixes of WhoHeem’s “Lets Link” and Cookiee Kawaii’s “Vibe (If I Back It Up).” Nicki Minaj might have made sense on the remix of Doja Cat’s “Say So,” but her attempt at hijacking Sada Baby’s “Whole Lotta Choppas” was bewilderingly awkward. Lil Uzi Vert’s appearance on the remix of StaySolidRocky’s “Party Girl” felt obligatory, but his turn on Popp Hunna “Adderall (Corvette Corvette)” was joyful, including the görüntü, making it one of the rare remixes where the superstar comes down from the stratosphere to the level of the aspirant.

This was true, too, on the Beyoncé remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which found the Houston elder sing-rapping about OnlyFans. But while Megan is the up and comer on this remix, she in truth exists in between generations — on the remix of DJ Chose’s “Thick,” she is the guest star lending credibility and absorbing a bit of refracted viral clout.

WhoHeem’s “Lets Link” was one of many TikTok hits that inspired a Tyga remix.Credit…YouTube
Tyga has made jumping onto TikTok remixes a side hustle.Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

For several big hip-hop hits that gained early traction on TikTok before transitioning to radio staples — Jack Harlow’s “Whats Poppin,” Saweetie’s “Tap In,” 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” — the approach approximated the revival of the posse cut remix, evvel a hip-hop (cassette-era) mixtape staple, and now an algorithmically driven cross-promotional technique designed to maximize eyeballs and eardrums.

But even as major labels and superstars continue to sniff out and capitalize on viral opportunities, the TikTok remix may end up being remembered as a transitional relic, especially as the platform begins to mint its own stars, and its own hits.

In roughly the same time window that “Buss It” has moved from viral breakout to superstar remix, Olivia Rodrigo has been dominating the Hot 100 with “Drivers License,” a song that was a TikTok stunner upon its release, and quickly became the most important pop song of the year.

At this point, any remix featuring a bigger star would feel false, underscoring that in all of these cases, the real center of gravity is the song, not the superstar divebombing into its orbit. All the elders can do is sit back and listen, and seethe in silence.

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