Michael Fitzpatrick, singer for rock band Fitz & the Tantrums, doesn’t envy the younger generation of artists trying to catch a break in the music business.
“I’m so grateful my career happened and flourished before TikTok came,” Fitzpatrick tells Billboard’s Behind the Setlist podcast. “I feel for these new artists. They’re not even making music. They’re just content creators. They’ll work a whole year on an album and [if] their label doesn’t see enough viral s–t, they’ll literally shelf their album.”
Fitzpatrick is hardly alone in his criticism of TikTok. Last year, Halsey blasted her record label for holding the release of a new track “unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok.” Lizzy McAlpine, who debuted on the Hot 100 chart in February thanks to the success of the track “Ceilings” on TikTok, told Billboard she has “a love/hate relationship” with the app. “I feel like I can see the benefits of it, which is why I post,” said McAlpine. “But if I didn’t have to post, I would not be posting on TikTok.”
Not that Fitz & the Tantrums hasn’t had a bit of TikTok success; the band’s song “Out of My League,” which reached No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart back in 2013, has been given added longevity by being used in nearly 165,000 TikTok videos. But artists and labels can’t summon a viral hit on command, and Fitzpatrick isn’t sure lightning will strike twice. “I would say in the law of averages, we already had our viral moment on TikTok. So what’s the chance I’m going to get two? I’m not so sure.”
The trick is coming up with what Fitzpatrick calls “quotable” moments in music. He cites Meghan Trainor’s “Made You Look” as a good example of a song that wasn’t necessarily written with social media in mind but is perfectly built for viral potential. Trainor and her co-writers Sean Douglas and Federico Vender wrote “vibrant, neon-colored lyrics” with brand names — Gucci and Louis Vuitton — to go with “a cool dance,” he says. “I think if you can find a lyric that really feels makes a statement or says something profound in a clever way and is succinct enough, that’s not a bad idea to consider in your songwriting because it gives your song a quotable moment.”
If there’s a song from the latest Fitz & the Tantrums album, Let Yourself Free from 2022, with TikTok potential, it could be a track called “Ahhhh.” The lyrics — Fitzpatrick songs “I could be someone when I grow up” in the pre-chorus — have already attracted some TikTok users. “What I realized is we weren’t trying to create that moment, but it might be the most quotable part of the whole record,” says Fitzpatrick. “People went out, they felt that lyric, felt that message and they’re creating.”
But will “Ahhhh” resonate with a larger swath of TikTok users? “We’ll see,” Fitzpatrick says cautiously. “It’s such a tricky thing.”
Listen to the entire Behind the Setlist interview with Fitzpatrick at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeart, Stitcher or Amazon Music.