The Curse of TikTok Brain

Gen Z’s favorite video app is a blessing in a pandemic. But why does so much of it sound the same?

A silhouette of a head with a ferris wheel filled with TikTok logos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Eugene Valter/iStock/Getty Images and alex_profa/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I downloaded TikTok in April, a month into COVID isolation. The onset of the pandemic saw millennials and olds older still flocking to a form of entertainment we’d previously associated with bored teenagers in their bedrooms. Going in, I was well aware of the app’s problems: how its dance crazes often left original creators without credit, its heavy-handed censorship of some content, the slippery slope toward digital Blackface that it paved, and, of course, that pesky extranational ownership of data thing. Nonetheless, cooped up in my bedroom, I gave it a try—and I was hooked.

Inside TikTok, I immediately inhaled several hours of whatever the algorithm served up in my personalized For You feed, feeling connected to the rest of humanity in a way that I hadn’t in a month of interacting exclusively with my roommate. I was awash in babies, puppies, and people dancing in their front yards. I sought out users who were making music and was delighted to find teens singing hello to one another in harmony and sharing creative names for original guitar riffs.

But in the weeks that followed, I discovered another pitfall of TikTok: It had infected me with an earworm.

Anytime I opened up the app, the same song would refresh my musical hangover: It was laid-back and sauntering, wordless yet somehow condescending, and simply everywhere. Eventually, I identified this tune as “Laxed (Siren Beat),” uploaded by producer Jawsh 685 in 2019 and used in over 55 million TikToks since. It’s often set as background music for explainer-style content and tutorials, though it also has its own dance challenge, two-dimensional and angular in the signature style of TikTok. Like this:

There: Now you have the earworm too. After a few weeks of scrolling on TikTok, I made peace with the fact that “Laxed (Siren Beat)” will be playing on loop in my head until I perish.

Much has been written about TikTok’s impact on music discovery: Thanks to its musical DNA, the app has proved to be a more effective launch pad for viral songs than any of its social media predecessors, and has secured record-breaking chart positions for artists both well established and previously obscure. But while TikTok may be known to the music industry as a hyperdynamic engine of musical creativity, my experience of TikTok consumption has been one of a repetitious purgatory.

This phenomenon is experienced widely enough to have a name: #tiktokbrain. The hashtag has 3.4 million views, its entries a parade of users lovingly complaining about the app’s various aural tics. A prominent sound under this hashtag is called “Stuck in My Head,” a rhythmless mashup of TikTok earworms uploaded by user Disfunnyguyrobert in early August. The sound has been used in about 8,000 videos, with captions like “trying to sleep after scrolling through Tik Tok for 3 hours.”

The design of TikTok has a lot to do with why you hear the same sounds over and over. A TikTok’s basic elements are video and sound, with an endless supply of effects available to apply to either. The visual element and sound can be recorded together and posted as is, like any old video you might take on your smartphone’s camera. But the feature that differentiates TikTok from Vine, its chief predecessor in short-form video, is the ability to record a video for the visual component of your TikTok but easily swap out your own recorded sound with sound uploaded by any other user on the app.

When you start creating a video in the app, TikTok suggests two durations: 15 seconds and 60. The former is a relic of an old limitation: TikToks could previously only be recorded in 15-second increments, strung together for a maximum duration of 60. Now recording can extend beyond 15 seconds, up to 60, or longer for videos imported from another app. But 15 seconds is still a default duration in the interface.

Because of all this, many of the popular songs in TikTok’s library of licensed sounds aren’t full songs, just 15-second snippets. And creators rely heavily on the shortcut of using these snippets. That’s why, when you open the app and begin scrolling through For You, you’ll often hear the same song reused again and again.

“Laxed (Siren Beat)” was the first viral earworm to torture me, but not the last. Take the Megan Thee Stallion hit “Savage,” previously a song I liked by an artist I treasure. After a few weeks on TikTok, this track has been permanently reduced in my mind to its 15-second edit, used in 31.2 million TikToks. Even the addition of Beyoncé in the remixed version released in late April could not save the song from its incarnation on TikTok: Scores of young women, a great many of them white, repeating the exact same dance to the exact same loop, “classy, bougie, ratchet” ad infinitum.

Even singers are subject to TikTok’s culture of repetition. I follow a handful of incredibly talented teen vocalists I came across under the #harmonizing hashtag—marveling at their skill has genuinely been one of the highlights of my year. But their song selection is frequently inspired by a trending vocal challenge. This is kind of like a dance challenge, but instead of offering their attempt at existing choreography, TikTokers try their luck at a popular riff, harmony, or duet. For example, I was stunned by this take on a Beyoncé riff:

But I dared not navigate to the #halochallenge hashtag this creator included in her caption, which would have led me to thousands of people singing the exact same notes. I learned this lesson from the #laymedownchallenge hashtag. This challenge, adapted from the Sam Smith song of the same name, is designed to show off three octaves of vocal range, set against a plunking piano accompaniment unrelated to the original song. Spending only a few minutes scrolling through it one day left me feeling like a weary high school theater director after a long day of auditions.

The existence of TikTok hasn’t changed the act of musical creation all that much. Dances might be a little flatter so your entire family can do them in a challenge; hooks might be bassier; pop hits perhaps a bit more gimmicky. But the goal is, as ever, to create something that resonates with people. Whether that’s crafting a catchy earworm, covering one with as much skill and aplomb as you’ve got, or parodying it into something funny and new, the methods are probably as old as the recording industry itself.

What is new is the consumer experience: I doubt that any medium has ever bombarded the listener with the same thing over and over like TikTok does. A spin through TikTok is like going through your entire FM radio dial and hearing the same jingle in nine different ads, the same 15-second sections of three different hit songs playing on four stations apiece, and a smattering of varyingly successful adaptations of songs from years past. When I turn to TikTok to break up the monotony of my socially distanced life, it sometimes delivers with creative surprises and unbridled joy. But just as frequently it plunges me into an aural brain-mush of mind-numbing sameness so bleak I wish I’d never sought it out in the first place.

In those moments, it crosses my mind that maybe TikTok simply isn’t for the consumer, but the creator. The sound-swapping functionality that limits the app musically is what makes the barrier to entry lower than it was on any preceding app: The daunting challenge of the blank page is replaced by an endless list of challenges to try your hand at. But this raises the question: When you add your own contribution to a pile of same-sounding videos, does it really satisfy the call to create?

Like every generation before them, zoomers on TikTok have self-sorted into mainstream and alternative factions. It seems to me, a middle millennial, that users who see themselves as part of #alttikok, #deeptiktok, or #elitetiktok share my complaint about the hyperredundancy of noises on TikTok. They talk up the glitchy, strange audio they use as very rare, often describing it as “crunchy” and “cursed,” and they mock the predictable dance challenges and lip-syncs of those they call #straighttiktok. But even the platform’s weirdos can’t escape TikTok’s tendency to serve you up the same sounds over and over. This is evident in things like the #alttiktokchallenge, where users score themselves based on how many of these supposedly rare songs they can sing every word to:

One prominent TikTok earworm even seems to originated in the depths of alt-TikTok: The sound known mostly as “Mi Pan Su Su Sum” was originally a Russian cereal commercial, sang acoustically by user @chernaya.princessa, seemingly sped up in a version uploaded by user @isterrrrika, which went viral, appearing in 5.7 million videos and counting. This song is both a prominent case of TikTok’s functionality obscuring the original creator and the absolute earwormiest of all of its viral earworms. It’s permanently lodged in my brain, and I’m not alone in that.

These days, the future of TikTok is uncertain, and it’s unclear if the change of ownership demanded by President Donald Trump (or a partnership with a U.S. company, as TikTok’s Chinese owners now hope will happen) will change the culture of the app. I’m of the belief that the things people love about TikTok—the effervescent cheer, the surrealist humor, the maximalist user experience—largely came about not because of the app itself but because of the generation of people powering it. Whatever happens to TikTok, I hope Gen Z continues to have a place to make weird stuff outside of their elders’ gaze. But I also hope that the next big social media platform moves away from a functionality that makes it so easy for users to do the same things to the same sounds. People will still find ways to do all the innovative, hilarious things they want to do online, just less repetitively. And maybe, just maybe, my experience of being alive will no longer sound like this: