TikTok’s hold over the music industry has only gotten stronger—just take a look at this year’s Grammy nominations. Better yet, take a look right at the Best New Artist category, where more nominees than ever owe their success to the viral video app. Thanks to TikTok’s ability to take a song and run with it, everyone from Olivia Rodrigo to Saweetie to Glass Animals have become household names and Grammy-nominated performers. No matter who the Recording Academy decides to hand out awards to, when it comes to star-making ability, it’s social media that makes the call.
Nowhere is that more obvious than within the Best New Artist category, in which more than half of the nominees have at one point or another soundtracked users’ For You Pages. The biggest and brightest star of that pack is Olivia Rodrigo, who first saw TikTok traffic for her debut single “Drivers License” last January; currently, there are 1.4 million videos using the song and counting. Now, the critically acclaimed, Billboard mega-hit song has been nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Solo Performance.
Surprisingly, “Drivers License” didn’t go viral thanks to a TikTok challenge, which is most often the cause of a song becoming a hit on the platform. Instead, the song spread due to the power of fan theories, thanks to the widespread speculation about its supposed inspirations. Word on the street was that Rodrigo’s kiss-off was about her High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett and his possible romantic relationship with fellow Disney Channel star Sabrina Carpenter. TikTok was obsessed with reading into the lyrics’ specificities (who is “that blonde girl”?!) and the fact that both Bassett and Carpenter dropped their own songs almost immediately following the release of “Drivers License.” Users attempted to break down the alleged drama behind the song, either in explainer-style videos, or they uploaded footage of them explaining it to family or friends.
Rodrigo’s following single, “Deja Vu,” also caught the attention of TikTok, but this time, it sparked a trend, as creators made accompanying videos using the #inverted effect, replicating the visual effect used in the song’s music video. It became such a popular gimmick that Rodrigo even tried it out herself. Rodrigo’s biggest TikTok hit was her third single, “Good 4 U,” which appears in more than 2.2 million TikToks thus far. The rock-tinged track arrived at a point when pop-punk was thriving on TikTok, striking a chord with those eager for more guitar-driven tunes. The song also scored a Grammy nod for Best Music Video.
Rodrigo stands out from other TikTok-famous musicians, however, in that her songs were popular outside of TikTok as well. Sour, the album from which her TikTok hits came, landed an Album of the Year nomination after a massive opening on the Billboard charts. Starring on a Disney show certainly helped give her music extra visibility, but TikTok helped pave the way for her music to make a cultural shockwave too. Rodrigo broke the record for most Spotify plays in a week with “Drivers License”—only to break that record with “Good 4 U.” That kind of virality can’t be attributed to one factor, but it’s clear that it wouldn’t have happened without TikTok.
But for many of the Best New Artist nominees, TikTok wasn’t just a reinforcement but also a launching pad. Giveon’s “Heartbreak Anniversary,” a nominee in the Best R&B Song category, featured in an internationally popular dance trend on the app, with people performing a dance routine loosely based on the song’s lyrics in front of a partner or others, with some of those dance videos ending up with millions of views. “Heartbreak Anniversary” is a slow R&B ballad, but thanks to Filipino creator Marc Daniel Bernardo, who came up with the dance and performed it with his dance partner Katkat Manimtim in February 2021 (a year after the song’s release), the song became one of the app’s more enduring tracks last year. (Sadly, as the TikTok Creator Fund is not open to creators in the Philippines, the creators do not make income off of their TikTok content.) The song went viral in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia before reaching the top 20 on the Billboard 100 and eventually going platinum.
It’s not Giveon’s first or only Grammy nod. He received a Grammy nomination last year in the Best R&B Album category for debut EP Take Time, which includes “Heartbreak Anniversary.” Giveon also featured on the Justin Bieber track “Peaches,” along with Daniel Caesar, which is nominated for both Song and Record of the Year, along with Best R&B Performance and Best Music Video. The song has more than a billion Spotify streams and debuted at number one, and—you guessed it—it was popular on TikTok. “Peaches” features in more than 1.4 million videos thus far.
Fellow Bieber collaborator the Kid Laroi first made waves on TikTok back in December 2020 with the breakup ballad “Without You,” which now appears in more than 2.4 million videos. The song spread when creators started to use a snippet of the song’s (very problematic) line, “so there you go/ can’t make a wife out of a ho.” Creators mainly used this line for comedic effect, as an ironic reaction to a situation described in the caption of the videos, with some using the audio to call out misogyny. TikTokers took the meme even further: in some audio clips, “ho” was replaced with different words, including “truck.” The song got bigger from there: Miley Cyrus jumped on a remix in April, and both artists performed it on Saturday Night Live in May 2021.
As for the Bieber connection, the Canadian pop star appeared on the Kid Laroi’s summer hit “Stay,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in August and is still hanging out in its upper reaches. “Stay” also produced a viral dance trend in July, started by @maxtaylorlifts, whose video is now at 8 million likes. (A similar video posted to his alternate account has 12 million likes). TikTok user @totouchanemu also filmed himself performing @maxtaylorlifts’s wiggling dance moves with a drone. This video helped give “Stay” even more staying power as it received more than 44 million likes, and he went on to film versions with Jason Derulo, Bella Poarch, and Paula Abdul.
Star power also gave Baby Keem a boost, both on TikTok and toward wider success. Outside of Best New Artist, he’s nominated in the Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance categories for “Family Ties,” featuring none other than his cousin Kendrick Lamar. Bella Poarch, Halsey and Addison Rae all helped popularize Keem on TikTok by participating in a trend featuring his song “First Order of Business.” A snippet of the song was uploaded by @ohsostephanie and is now used in over 859,000 videos. This trend, which helped boost the single’s visibility in November 2021, was built around a transition where, in some videos, the users brush their teeth as Keem raps “wake up in the morning/ brush my teeth before I see my queen;” some creators used the transition to show the before and after of them getting ready, in others, a person is joined by someone else immediately after the beat drop, and they lip sync to the line, “wow, who are you?”
“First Order of Business” isn’t Keem’s only TikTok hit: “Lost Souls” featuring Brent Faiyaz sparked a viral trend as well in December. A slowed-down remix, uploaded by TikTok user @lizok, which uses a sound clip uploaded by the creator @DocterS, now appears in more than 1.1 million videos. Users would post a “before” picture of themselves alongside the text “sorry you’re not my type,” then cut to a black screen quoting the line “16 missed calls.” Then the same user would either show their “after” picture or, in some parodies of the meme, someone else entirely. Interestingly, it wasn’t these songs that did well outside of TikTok, but “Family Ties,” which broke the Billboard Top 20.
The nominee with the most TikTok cred thus far, however, is the Bay Area rapper Saweetie. Her single “My Type” went viral in 2019. It appears in 1.2 million videos on the app, most of them featuring people riffing on the line “that’s my type.” From there, she found her biggest TikTok success off “Tap In,” which now features in 3.5 million videos. After the song’s release in June 2020, it became the subject of—no surprise here— a dance trend started by TikTok user Lesley Gonzalez. Like many TikTok dances, the moves were inspired by the song’s lyrics. The trend took off early in the pandemic, when TikTok downloads were soaring and TikTok dances were taking off. Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae, and even Saweetie herself joined in, gaining more than 187 millions Spotify streams for the song as a result. She also released a remix featuring Post Malone, Jack Harlow, and DaBaby. (This was released almost a year before DaBaby made homophobic comments at Rolling Loud.) Saweetie herself is an avid TikTok user, with 4.8 million followers. She uses her account to share clips of her songs, jump on trends, for brand partnerships and to perform skits.
In January 2021, Saweetie released a song practically tailor-made for TikTok popularity: “Best Friend,” which landed a Best Rap Song nomination this year. Featuring fellow Grammy nominee and TikTok superstar Doja Cat, “Best Friend” has been used in 1.4 million TikToks thus far and naturally inspired a dance. But the song’s success—and Saweetie’s—extends beyond dances and remixes and trends. The artist further cemented both the song’s and her own TikTok ubiquity when she became the subject of a TikTok meme, when users edited a moment from her New Year’s Eve performance of “Best Friend” into different scenarios.
More surprising, however, is when TikTok gives a boost to an artist that’s been kicking around for much, much longer than the app itself. That’s the case for Glass Animals, which is nominated in the Best New Artist category despite having been a band since 2010. “Heat Waves,” a single from the band’s August 2020 record Dreamland, became a surprise TikTok sensation by September 2021—more than a year after the single’s initial release the previous June. In retrospect, it seems like a perfect fit for the app: its chillwave vibes made it a versatile choice for soundtracking content like fan edits, vlogs, or aesthetic videos. Many creators seized upon the song’s line “sometimes all I think about is you” in particular, which they used in videos about whatever’s been on their mind. It took some time, but it translated into massive off-platform success. The song also got the remix treatment—a slowed-down version and one featuring Iann Dior. After a stunning 59 weeks, “Heat Waves” made it to No. 1 on the Billboard chart—knocking down another TikTok hit, Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”– making it a slow-burn commercial hit, but a viral song with staying power. In a way, it parallels Glass Animals’ rise, being nominated for a breakthrough artist award 11 years into their career.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a song that’s popular on TikTok and a popular song, period. Songs by big pop stars (think Dua Lipa’s “Levitating”) find their way onto the app, since they’re already generating buzz and radio play. Examples this year of artists whose TikTok hits were nominated in the big categories include Billie Eilish (“Happier Than Ever”), Doja Cat (“Kiss Me More”), and Lil Nas X (“Montero [Call Me By Your Name]”), the artist whose gigantic career breakthrough in 2019 can be directly attributed to the platform. TikTok has been most useful in helping the Lil Nas X-types—those who might have had a harder time breaking through without a little social media boost. They’re the ones without major label buzz, resources, connections, or other benefits their competitors enjoy. The Grammys recognizing these overnight superstars has institutionalized what was once an unconventional path to success: going viral off a short clip on an app associated with young people. This year’s Best New Artist crop is the latest step in TikTok’s evolution into the industry’s biggest taste-maker—an evolution that’s nearing its final form.