‘People love to feel part of the process’: how the TikTok

This week, the Spanish pop superstar Rosalía released a new song called Despechá. It’s a zippy, zingy track – a kind of minimalist take on merengue and mambo that finds her rapping and singing about fickle fame and even more fickle boys over bright piano chords and a flinty, industrial beat. It’s only been officially out for a couple of days, but in Spain it has been the song of the summer for weeks. Go to any Rosalía concert and you’ll find tens of thousands of fans singing along; speak to people on the street, and they’ll likely have heard it too.

This is not a Josie and the Pussycats-style brainwashing situation, but another example of the way TikTok is fundamentally changing the way we interact with music. Where songs used to worm their way into the cultural psyche – and, as with Glass Animals’ slow-rising Heat Waves, sometimes still do – they can now reach full societal saturation before they are officially released.

In July, Rosalía posted a TikTok of her singing and dancing to Despechá; by the time she was ready to release the finished song, demand from her fanbase and the Spanish pop-listening public was deafening. You can understand why: the song’s piquant piano stabs, combined with Rosalía’s carefree, escapist lyrics (translated: “Baby, don’t call me / I’m busy forgetting your ills / I’m going out tonight / With all my motomamis”) have an irresistible sun-kissed charm.

Sharing a virality-friendly teaser is an increasingly common strategy as big stars come to understand the quirks and contours of TikTok. In this new economy of pop stardom, a few savvy and well-timed videos can be worth far more than a million-dollar marketing campaign.

Rosalía: Despechá – video

“If you want to be a star, if you want to go viral, you really rely on your fans’ labour and user-generated content to do that,” says Cat Zhang, an associate editor at Pitchfork. Zhang has written extensively on the effects of TikTok on the industry, as well as the way that the artist/fan dynamic has become increasingly reliant on fan labour in recent years. “It’s not really just [about] you tweeting or making a video so much as relying on the reaction to it.”

Zhang says she first noticed the “teaser” strategy being used by smaller indie-pop artists such as Ella Jane and Maude Latour, who will often share a snippet of a work in progress to gauge audience reaction. “Among developing singer-songwriters, it was a more common practice because they often didn’t have the budget to necessarily make a whole song first,” she says, “They would tease a snippet as proof of concept, and then if there was enough traction, they would try to build it out.”

Although Despechá may be the latest example of a song becoming a hit before its release, it’s not even the most significant this year. In April, Kentucky rapper Jack Harlow garnered his first ever solo US No 1 (and first UK Top 5 hit) after clips he posted using audio of his single First Class, which samples Fergie’s 2007 song Glamorous, went viral on TikTok. Before the song was released, the sound had been used more than 50,000 times; it has now featured in half a million videos and has remained in the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 for more than three months.

Shaylee Curnow – AKA Peach PRC – is an Australian TikTok star and singer signed to Republic Records. Her catchy, high-gloss pop songs (and candid, self-deprecating videos to camera) frequently go viral on the platform, where she has 1.9m followers.

In January, she posted a clip of her unreleased song God Is a Freak, unsure if its lyrics – “God is a bit of a freak / Why’s he watching me getting railed on the couch / Staying pure for a wedding? / He’s got fucked-up priorities” – would be too risque for her label. To her surprise, the snippet took off, inspiring users to share their experiences of religious trauma.

“I was just like, ‘This is such a silly song – there’s no way [the label are] gonna say: ‘Go for it.’ So I [put it out as] a cheeky little TikTok release,” she says. Naturally, the label loved the song’s popularity: on its official release a month later, the track became a radio and chart success in Australia and New Zealand.

Peach PRC: God Is a Freak – video

Since Curnow leaked God Is a Freak, it has become normal for artists to tease new tracks by sharing TikToks suggesting that someone in their team won’t let them release their new single until it garners a certain level of viral traction, as American star Halsey did in May.

The strategy is often dismissed as contrived but Curnow says she understands the appeal regardless. “People love to feel like they’re a part of the process of the song being put out,” she says. “These higher-up big bad guys don’t really exist, but [fans] want to feel like they’re for the people and they’re on the side of the artist. They want to feel like they’re part of their music.”

After minting a couple of genuine hits, teaser strategies have inevitably become an industry standard: the same day Rosalía properly released Despechá, TikTok announced a new “Pre-Release” feature that will allow artists to officially “leak” their own music. Soon, says Zhang, “it will cease to be novel or [will carry] too much pressure and then people will change tack. I don’t necessarily see it as a huge paradigm shift, but that’s only because I know that there’s going to be another thing added to the equation after this.”

In many ways, it feels like the industry’s embrace of TikTok teasers is yet more evidence of how unsustainable its practices are: whenever a song finds a new route to vitality, labels invariably seek to replicate that route and, in the process, render it no longer valuable. The fact that such a high volume of music goes viral today compared to even two years ago means the currency is already being diluted.

Despechá’s lightning speed and petrol-head lyrics almost feel emblematic of the era itself: “I’m going 180 because I’m a motorcycle girl,” Rosalía sings. “You get distracted, I overtake you on the right.”