If music isn’t the most important thing in the world, it at least is on the Internet. The number one tag on Tumblr is #Spotify; the biggest decision in making a TikTok is choosing what song goes in the background. And when it comes to the way those platforms interact with genres in 2021, it seems like alternative music is disproportionately impacted.
Alt-rock bands from the early ‘10s, like Arctic Monkeys and The Neighbourhood — who each have multiple catalog hits currently experiencing TikTok-accelerated spikes in streaming consumption — are necessary accessories for a current “e-girl” in the same way a choker and black eyeshadow are. This niche is best explained by Vox reporter Rebecca Jennings with both her pieces “E-girls and e-boys, explained” and “Stuck in 2020, pretending it’s 2014.” The latter memorializes the era of mid-2010s Tumblr that mixed obsession with the aforementioned bands, the edgy TV show Skins, and American Apparel tennis skirts. Here, music is not just music — it is a part of this collective, Internet-bred identity.
“It’s nice to go back, and think about the days when you got to imagine what life would be like rather than having already lived it,” Rebecca speculates to Billboard over the phone, about those individuals who grew up with mid-’10s Tumblr and are now reflecting it on TikTok.” Which is funny because we’re talking about early 20-somethings — their lives haven’t really started.”
Popular songs of that early ’10s era — like The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” and “Daddy Issues,” along with Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know?” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” — are proving to be enduring, thanks in large part to continued exposure on TikTok. The two Neighbourhood songs have both climbed into the top 20 on Billboard’s Rock Streaming Songs chart (“Sweater Weather” even reaching a No. 3 peak in January). “Sweater Weather” also climbs to a staggering new peak this week of No. 62 on Billboard’s Global 200 chart, ranking the biggest songs in the world from all genres, while both Arctic Monkeys songs have also made appearances this year on the international listing. (The bands also both made Tumblr’s Top 50 Trending Bands of 2020.)
“Tumblr has always been this home of youth culture,” Amanda Brennan, Tumblr’s resident trend expert and meme librarian, emphasizes, their current amount of Gen Z users being 48%. “We’re continuing to see a pattern of these [alternative] bands making their break because of Tumblr.”
Cortney Kerans, Head of Communications at Tumblr, thinks these songs are the being used as the soundtrack to these users’ evolving adolescence. “If you think about the reason why people come to Tumblr, a lot of it has to do with self-discovery,” she says. “Figuring out what it is that you love and finding the communities that love the same things. Music is such a big part of that. Music is such a defining thing in how we identify ourselves.”
Bring Me the Horizon, a much edgier band that started out as a cult-followed metalcore act that became less eccentric and more digestible with 2013’s Sempiternal, were a staple of 2010s Tumblr alternative. The art for that album consists of the “flower of life” symbol — a large hexagon made of circles woven together in a geometric way that is just manufactured for a wrist tattoo. It is a code; it means you have depth, and you’ve definitely reblogged lyric edits of the iconic lines: “The higher I get, the lower I’ll sink / I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim.”
The song those lyrics are from — “Can You Feel My Heart”— is also having a second life on TikTok right now, cracking the Global 200 in February, the band’s first appearance on the chart. Craig Jennings and Matt Ash of Raw Power Management, who’ve been managing Bring Me the Horizon for over a decade now, were surprised to see the numbers of the eight-year-old track rising so significantly. “It’s probably the first time we’ve had a retrospective moment with any of our artists, because a lot of the acts we manage are young,” Ash says.
It’s not hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about “Can You Feel My Heart” that’s resonating. “The hook of the song in the chorus is a massive moment,” Ash explains. “This transition from one burst of energy to another.” A majority of viral TikToks depend on just that — transitions. The videos rely on anticipation: You click on a video, expect the first few seconds to be boring, wait for the transition to happen, and receive a payoff, all typically within 15 seconds. The payoff is usually some kind of change in appearance, whether it be lights or intricate makeup or movement. The payoff with this song in particular tends to be either like an orgasm or exorcism — or both. “There’s a lot of kids making videos copying this trend of — when the chorus really hits, the strobe effect goes off and that’s something they can interact with,” he says.
There’s also the mood of the song. Ash considers the song to be “an emotionally-driven piece of music — which I think kids can relate to and attach to and find some kind of common ground on.” And that’s why a lot of alternative music is blowing up on TikTok: It’s not only emotional — it’s overly emotional, dramatic, intense. And kids love drama; drama makes for a good video.
In the context of current times, it also makes sense why older songs are being streamed now. “I think people have more time on their hands at the moment because of the pandemic,” Ash theorizes. “People are looking at older songs and spending more time looking back.” Even without the pandemic, nostalgia is a constant in Internet culture, and mid-2010s Tumblr is a popular era to reminisce on, whether you were a part of it or not. Jennings adds: “I think people are hankering after nicer times basically. A lot of these songs bring back memories.”
Based on the people she spoke to during the pandemic for her piece, Rebecca Jennings came to the same conclusion. “It’s not surprising that so many of [these girls] during the pandemic moved out of college or out of their apartments and moved back in with their parents during COVID,” she says. “[They’re] kind of regressing back and revisiting the stuff that [they] used to do online, in this really interesting way.”
And it’s undeniable that music consumption is radically changing as platforms emerge and evolve. Instead of finding out about bands through Pitchfork reviews or radio coverage, these online communities are spreading new communal hits, not only via the nostalgia of ‘10s alternative lovers, but through a whole new generation of impressionable kids looking for their own identity through music. As more TikTok users use “Can You Feel My Heart” in their videos, Bring Me the Horizon’s total number of monthly listeners on Spotify continues to increase drastically — currently nearing nine million — expanding to younger listeners who weren’t previously familiar with the band.
“If you’re 13 now, you were 5 years old when [“Heart”] first came out,” Ash says about this next generation of fans. “It’s definitely a cool thing to see younger people be engaged with the band’s music.”
And looking back at the band’s entire career, the relationship between social media and their growing fanbase predates even Tumblr. “Myspace helped launch the band internationally. When they were on a small independent label in the UK, there was no way they were going to be getting the reaction they did through the traditional label networks,” Ash explains. “We’ve managed Bring Me the Horizon for 13 years and we’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go but it’s definitely always been a consistent pulse across the world on various social media platforms and on the Internet. There is this element of alternative culture that exists very much online that allows bands to grow and evolve that doesn’t happen in mainstream media — there’s absolutely no doubt about that.”
Social media platforms seemed, from the beginning, to be the perfect escape for outsiders, especially those in middle school and high school. Myspace culture being largely built around being reclusive, horny, and sad carried on into Tumblr culture and now into TikTok culture. Rebecca describes this as “pent-up adolescent energy,” which bands like Arctic Monkeys “are so good at expressing that in this teen friendly way,” she explains. She mentions this term she used in her piece — “Goth Lolita: Like, Oh I’m so sad but I’m so hot,” she says with a laugh. It’s essentially an idealized, glamorized version of oneself, and it feels like a Tumblr feed, something to wrap around yourself and wear proudly. “[Music] impacts everything about us,” Kerans says. “How we dress, who we surround ourselves with, what we do. It has so much to do with identity.”
While algorithms are a major part of current music consumption, it seems like they will replace the importance of personal connection and community. And nostalgia is a powerful emotion — especially when collectively felt. Most people cherish their coming-of-age years; it’s even easier to reminisce on that time while listening to Jesse Rutherford sing the opening lines to “Sweater Weather”: “And all I am is a man / I want the world in my hands.” When Tumblr teens loved that song, it felt like the world really was in their hands — and now that they’re older and helping to define alternative culture once more, it may be again.