By now, anyone with so much as a pinky on the pulse of popular music knows that TikTok is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to breaking new music.
Most notably, the video-sharing platform was credited with boosting Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” into the Hot 100, where it soon began a record-breaking run of dominance. Other TikTok favorites by young, virtually unknown artists soon joined it on the charts, including Y2K and bbno$’ “Lalala,” Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne,” and Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey.”
It’s not uncommon for time-honored classics to also have stints as TikTok phenomena — see the mashup between Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” that took off a few months ago — but decades-old one-hit wonders are another story. The latest song to get a massive jolt from TikTok is Matthew Wilder’s 1983 bouncey, reggae-inflected pop-rock hit “Break My Stride,” which at its No. 5 peak, was the only Top 10 hit of his career.
In the past month, the song’s broken into Spotify’s Top 200 and Apple Music’s Top 100 charts, and also broke Billboard‘s Digital Song Sales chart for the first time (at No. 50), buoyed by a TikTok format that involves users texting the song’s (relatively obscure) opening lyrics to unaware friends, and seeing how long it takes for them to realize they’re being pranked:
Last night I had the strangest dream
I sailed away to China
In a little rowboat to find you
And you said you had to get your laundry cleaned
Didn’t want no one to hold you
What does that mean?
And you said…
Then, the recognition usually hits around the time of the song’s much-more-familiar chorus:
Ain’t nothing gonna break my stride
Nobody gonna slow me down
I got to keep on moving…
“Break My Stride” isn’t the first unshakably dated-sounding song to become a meme — but unlike say, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the subject of many an unwanted troll (AKA “RickRoll”), it seems oddly fawned over by teens. Multiple users in the above video describe Wilder’s song as their “favorite,” or something to that effect, which has surprised and delighted the 67-year-old singer/composer/producer.
“[I was] getting all of this information about peoples’ enthusiasm for the song,” he says, “that they were genuinely into the song and it wasn’t just some sort of passing fancy — what can I say? I didn’t see it coming, and I’m really bowled over.”
Wilder, who says he was only “peripherally aware” of TikTok before his brother sent him a Google alert about the “Break My Stride” meme, is enthusiastic about the song’s longevity, but remains realistic about the circumstances of its recent explosion:
“I could get prophetic about the song itself, saying how deep-rooted it is in its message, and how it connects with people. But let’s look at it at face value: Everybody was having a bit of a laugh, taking the lyrics and sending it to their friends, and with all of these non-sequiturs [in the lyrics] — it was a bit of a joke.”
The format of the TikTok prank does hinge on the sheer ridiculousness of the first verse (“Not to get overly heady about it, but it was an exercise in Dada,” says Wilder of his free-associative lyrics), but the chorus and overall theme of the song have more specific significance to Wilder. After stints in the folk duo Matthew & Peter and as a backup singer for Rickie Lee Jones and Bette Midler, he began the ‘80s by signing a solo deal with Arista Records. Before the release of 1983’s I Don’t Speak the Language, the album that houses “Break My Stride,” Arista head Clive Davis voiced his skepticism at the lead single’s hit potential.
“To correlate [“Break My Stride”] specifically to my frustration with a record label is not completely accurate,” says Wilder. “But the song, especially the chorus, is reflective of my mindset of where I was in my life, and how I needed to bolster my own defiance against all of that frustration.”
Wilder then left Arista. “It was a gut response on my part after spending a couple of years on a label and you’re not getting any love, coupled with a base belief in the record itself,” he says. “I felt it was better for me to get behind my own message and stick to that, not having an inkling of where I was going to go. We didn’t have any prospects, it was just a spontaneous reaction on my part.”
Needless to say, it panned out. “Break My Stride” didn’t just have a successful stint as a 1983 hit — it’s also enjoyed a few revivals prior to its current TikTok boom. The song was interpolated by Puff Daddy and Mase on their 1997 Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” and Matisyahu on his 2006 album Youth, and covered in lurid Eurodance fashion by Austria’s Unique II and Germany’s Blue Lagoon (in 1996 and 2004, respectively), both of which made waves on international dance charts. Wilder has a soft spot in his heart for Puffy’s version, in particular due to some sweet, sweet revenge:
“That year I attended Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party in New York, and Puff Daddy was up onstage performing ‘Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.’ There’s a whole lot of irony behind all of that, because ‘Break My Stride’ was my swan song for Arista Records, the reason why I asked to leave the label, because they wouldn’t release it. Things had come full-circle at that point.”
Wilder’s solo career had long since fizzled out, but he was attending Davis’ Grammy party as a nominee — that year, No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, which he produced, was up for best rock album. It was doubly surprising, as the band had previously been languishing on Interscope Records with little-to-no commercial success, and it was Wilder’s first full-album production for another artist. By the mid-90s, he had notched writing credits for The Pointer Sisters, Nu Shooz, Donny Osmond, and others. The No Doubt gig came about via his work as a staff writer for Interscope:
“I was working on a film called The Air Up There, for which I had written the music and was producing those tracks,” he recalls. “The gentleman who was A&R’ing that soundtrack was Tony Ferguson, and he was the person who had signed No Doubt to Interscope. He took a liking to what he was witnessing in the room and knew about my history with ‘Break My Stride,’ and pulled me aside and asked if I’d be interested in producing a band — actually, asked me if I had ever produced a band before. I said ‘No.”
No Doubt, like pre-“Break My Stride” Wilder, were in something like label purgatory, having self-released their previous album due to Interscope’s dissatisfaction with it. Combine that with Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal’s breakup, and keyboardist and primary songwriter Eric Stefani (Gwen’s brother) quitting the band halfway through Tragic Kingdom sessions, and “tragic” was in danger of becoming the title’s operative word.
“It was a very difficult record to make,” remembers Wilder. “I don’t want to wax prophetic here, but sometimes the toughest creative battles are the ones that are the most enduring. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. ‘Break My Stride’ was born out of frustration and a good deal of angst. Ditto Tragic Kingdom.” As was the case with “Break My Stride” for Wilder, Tragic Kingdom still stands as the biggest success of No Doubt’s career, their only album to reach diamond certification.
Wilder’s successful second act as a behind-the-scenes wiz continued as he logged work with Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, and Miley Cyrus into the 2000s, and yet again, he broke into another arena with the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for Disney’s animated 1998 film Mulan. Co-writing and composing five songs featured in the film, including such fan favorites as “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” Wilder also voiced the character Ling, all of which left him nervous throughout the creative process. “I was new to that whole environment and just praying that I’d make it from one side of the experience to the other and cross the finish line,” he says. “It was a lot of firsts for me.”
Where others would abandon hope for anything resembling a viable career in music, Wilder has — time and time again — stuck it out, honing his marketable skills and learning new ones after the window of opportunity closed up on his solo career. “I knew that I still wanted to be in music and was going to fight as hard as I could to be able to maintain in the field that I felt I was married to,” he says. “It’s just taking steps along the way to survive, really. You love what you do so much that you’re willing to fight to keep your head in the game.”
His list of upcoming projects is just as eclectic as his existing resumé: scoring an political animated film about North Korea by Japanese director Eiji Han Shimizu, mentoring a young singer/songwriter, OSKAR O., and writing songs for an “imminent” Broadway musical that he’s “not at liberty to talk about.” He’s also involved with the upcoming live-action Mulan remake which, according to Wilder, prominently features “Reflection” and quotes a few other songs in the score elsewhere.
Against the backdrop of his rich resumé, Wilder’s recent TikTok-driven revitalization looks less like a random windfall for a one-hit-wonder than yet another left turn in a career defined by them. When asked what differentiates Gen Z’s “Break My Stride” infatuation from the other unexpected boosts he’s received in the past, Wilder gives a typically optimistic, grateful response:
“The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that it’s come full-circle to the source. It’s not being interpolated or optioned for a commercial. People are actually coming back to square one, where they’re discovering the song in connection with the artist. A lot of people didn’t even realize that I’m also the guy that produced Tragic Kingdom and wrote the score to Mulan. Those were revelations to this generation. It’s almost as if you’re launching a new recording artist all over again. Does that make sense?”