If you’re a music fan of a certain age browsing through a list of Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles from the early 1980s (Men at Work’s “Down Under,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), you’ll almost certainly recall images of each song’s music video, made unavoidable through heavy airplay on MTV. If you’re a teenage music fan doing the same with 2020 No. 1s (Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage,” Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj’s “Say So,” 24kGoldn and iann dior’s “Mood”), you’d probably remember similar images. But rather than the artists’ own videos, they’d be of viral dance challenges born on TikTok.
In 2019, TikTok became a household name among both teens and adults, in large part thanks to artists who used their popularity on the video-sharing service to springboard to mainstream success. One of the app’s earliest and biggest success stories is Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” first went viral as the soundtrack to a TikTok meme before eventually becoming the longest-running No. 1 in the Hot 100’s 62-year history. But in 2020, with a global pandemic forcing everyone into their homes and onto their phones, TikTok’s influence became impossible to ignore.
As a result, TikTok has become an audiovisual force that hasn’t existed outside of radio and streaming in popular music since MTV first landed on the moon in 1981. “MTV could make artists famous without there being a radio format for them to succeed on, or without their success at radio being a foregone conclusion,” says Craig Marks, co-author of the MTV oral history I Want My MTV and former Billboard editor. “I think TikTok is a much more clear example of [that gatekeeper-bypassing influence]. TikTok is, in some ways, its own little biosphere.”