At first, being on TikTok felt creepy. Trying to fill the Vine-sized hole in my heart, I, like so many others in my age group, begrudgingly joined the platform when quarantine began as a way to kill some extra time and maybe get in a few extra hahas here and there. But I’m a millennial, after all (or, at least, I consider myself one, despite being born on the cusp), and it’s no secret that TikTok is dominated by Zoomers. Because of my age (TikTok still files me under “mopey post-grad,” I guess) and geographical location (near lots of universities), my feed is usually flooded with college students making “You meet X kind of person at this [State University]” comedy videos or choreographing dances with their unwitting family members during quarantine (bless those moms). But the landscape is also filled with so many teens, which makes me feel icky and way too old to be here—like a grown-up sitting alone in the theater at Trolls World Tour.
TikTok’s algorithm adjusts itself depending on what state you’re in and the posts you interact with the most, so, after a while, I saw less and less stranded co-eds and 16-year-olds dancing to “Savage” and more and more Bon Appetit fan content and musical theater memes (hi, recovering theatre kid here). While it often feels like TikTok is reading my mind (thanks for all the Keeping Up With the Kardashians overdubs, Little Women jokes and tiny apartment tours!), my “For-You” feed is still dotted with the occasional rogue clip—a cocktail recipe, a travel vid, “what I eat in a day diaries” (almost always toxic), a recipe involving truffle oil, something that can only be described as Harley Quinn cosplay. It’s a mixed bag!
But here’s the first thing I’ve learned about TikTok: These videos, whether they’re curated to my taste or not, have genres. When the teens are sneaking down the stairs to make margaritas while their parents sleep (or any video where people are hunched and tip-toeing), the song “Interior Crocodile Alligator” by Chip Tha Ripper plays. Tyga and Curtis Roach supplied the quarantine anthem “Bored In The House,” which plays when TikTok-ers are trying a funny new activity brought on by indoor monotny for the camera. When someone wants to convey a transformation (a makeover, remodel, photography shoot, etc.), this particular audio featuring the words “and it went like…” created by a TikTok user plays over the footage. All these “genre” TikTok songs (some of them originals by TikTok users, others classics or popular songs) are used for varying degrees of parody, but when users hear “Human” by Christina Perri, they know more or less what to expect (someone showing a facetious display of willpower).
And here’s the second thing I’ve learned about TikTok: All of these songs are bangers. Since I write about music for a living, you’d probably expect me to have “taste.” I’m here to tell you that, yes, Fiona Apple is one of my favorite artists of all time, and I know every lyric on indie-rock band Pavement’s 1995 album Wowee Zowee, but when I go on a run or need to sweat, my taste deflates to that of a 17-year-old TikTok star. I’ll spare you my workout playlist, but let’s just say there’s more than one track featuring Zedd.
When some electronic, Chainsmokers-knockoff trash like the Imanbek-remix of SAINt JHN’s “Roses” (Yeah, I don’t know what any of those words mean either) comes on my workout shuffle, I get some extra pep in my step. Tez Cadey’s “Seve” sends my feet flying. When the first few trite electro-beats of “ily (i love you baby)” by Surf Mesa (again—you’re telling me this is a real artist?!) hit my earpods, I push from one mile to the next. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” (OK, I know this one!) is the perfect rhythm for my pace, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” (I know that one, too!) is an immaculate beast-mode anthem for any exerciser. I heard all of these songs on TikTok, and they’re all incredible workout songs, despite most of them being not-very-good songs by my usual standards.
It’s like my spidey senses that usually pick up whether music is “good” or “bad” are inhibited on TikTok. Instead, I’m only attuned to raw rhythm. Maybe it’s because I’m nostalgic for the energy I possessed when I was 19, and these songs make me feel invincible again. Or maybe I’m just an old-young-millennial, and I need to get the hell off this video platform that I clearly don’t understand and am too old for. If anyone is interested in rebooting Vine, give me a call. In the meantime, you can find me browsing YouTube like we did back in the good ol’ days.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.