TikTok is a fascinatingly paradoxical place. After close consideration, I’ve come to realize that the wildly popular platform is equal parts a communal space for exchanging opinions, inside jokes and stories, and a space where people love to withhold information. The latter phenomenon acts in equal congruence with this conviviality, formally labeled by some as the act of “gatekeeping.” In essence, gatekeeping, whether it be the name of a song or the brand of a thrifted sweater, is meant to preserve a person’s sense of individuality and provide respite from the apparent evils of the mainstream.
Every day I watch these two conflicting forces battle it out in comment sections to no point of resolution. Is it inherently bad to want to keep something you love a secret? Or is it altogether selfish to believe that you should be the only person to enjoy that elusive clothing item or Japanese arthouse film? I don’t have a clear answer to this moral quandary, but I do know that TikTok’s ability to ignite new trends like wildfire keeps the flames of discourse alive.
At the surface level, the fixation on branding and knowing exactly what others consume can appear vapid and materialistic. I would argue that this phenomenon is neither good nor bad, just reflective of the human tendency to copy things we find appealing about others. Yet the context of gatekeeping that surrounds clothing and personal belongings are heavily centered around ideas of ownership and the ways in which we present ourselves. Sharing music, though often subject to similar scrutiny on the app, isn’t tied down by this same problem of physical possession. Music is uniquely easy to consume and distribute; some might even say its purpose is to be shared with others. So why are some people so set on protecting what they view as “underground” artists from the general masses?
Maybe this impulse is motivated by the belief that fame can disrupt the sense of intimacy between a listener and an artist. This intimacy is perhaps best embodied by the little feeling of excitement you get when you come across an artist you really love who has only 200 listeners on Spotify. It’s as if you’ve stumbled upon a jewel hidden from the noise of notoriety. When an artist’s fanbase gets bigger, you feel like your best-kept secret has been revealed to the world. But that’s the nature of music; it’s malleable and ever-spreading, and the concept of what is underground and mainstream can change in an instant. When we start to project ownership onto music, we’re erasing its role as an accessible form of art.
Even beyond this possessiveness, notions of what kind of music actually exists on the fringes of the mainstream is wholly dependent on the person. I’ve witnessed grown men complain that teenage girls using audios of The Strokes’s “The Adults Are Talking” in their TikTok videos has somehow destroyed the credibility of their favorite 2000s rock band, one which has been hugely popular for two decades and won a Grammy just this past year. There are clear undercurrents of sexism in much of the gatekeeping that occurs on the app, with teenage girls, in particular, being labeled as basic for liking Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes, and posers for liking music that’s even slightly peripheral. TikTok has made music more accessible to younger age groups, and, for some reason, swathes of “true fans” and “day ones” are distressed that their favorite artist is gaining appreciation. Whether being catapulted to fame on a social media site is the best way to build a loyal fan base remains to be seen, but there’s undeniably a lot to gain for artists with an otherwise small platform (see TikTok pop princess PinkPantheress). The rapid way in which rising artists are sensationalized on the app, while by no means a perfect trajectory, provides a stepping stone out of anonymity through bite-sized video clips.
From a consumer standpoint, I’ve surprisingly gotten a lot out of the TikTok music community, too. The app is not immune to its fair share of objectively stupid and time-sucking content, yet I’ve never experienced a platform that has allowed me to discover new music so easily. I don’t think that learning about music on TikTok should be condemned, and I certainly don’t think that being a new fan is something that should be looked down upon either. You don’t need to earn entry into fanhood by memorizing an artist’s discography; you just need to value their music.
Sharing music is a powerful act of love in my mind. I send songs to my loved ones so that they can feel the same visceral reaction that I do when I listen to them, to somehow capture and share that moment of intimate emotional connection with the music. When we stop trying to cultivate exclusivity in musical communities and dictate what is “unworthy” of mainstream consumption, this act of sharing feels just as powerful and intimate as connecting with an obscure gem of an artist.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.