Essay:
Mass Destruction
“Artists are often left baffled by the fact that they have millions of monthly streams, yet only a couple of thousand followers on social media.”

Issue 49

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Arts & Culture

  • Words Annabel Bai Jackson

During the pandemic, a gentle instrumental song became ubiquitous across TikTok—used and reused to soundtrack videos of morning routines and day-in-the-life edits. With its balmy chord progression and feel-good hum, the track signaled the cultivation of an enviably tranquil mode of living, one that in itself was an aesthetic that came to dominate large swaths of the app. But despite the pervasiveness of this tune—it now accompanies over 12 million TikToks and counting—its provenance is probably obscure to the vast majority of users, including those who are familiar with its beats. It’s called “Aesthetic,” and it’s by the musician Tollan Kim. The name probably won’t ring any bells, and yet Kim’s work is part of a ballooning TikTok mainstream, made up of snippets you can effortlessly—or perhaps, more accurately, mindlessly—recognize.

The contradiction at the heart of Tollan Kim’s success—millions of people know his song, but he couldn’t be further from a h...

( 1 ) In a 2019 article, The Guardian journalist Simon Reynolds wrote that streaming has killed the mainstream. “While the clock and the calendar continue to plod forward in their steadfast and remorseless way, what you could call ‘culture-time' feels like it’s become unmoored and meandering," he wrote.

( 2 ) Conversely, many famous musicians are requested by their labels to make lo-fi TikToks: Over just a few weeks in early 2022, FKA twigs, Halsey, Charli XCX and Florence Welch protested at their respective labels’ insistence that they should fabricate a viral moment, incidentally going viral in the process.

( 3 ) Succession is not quite a watercooler show, however. Despite rave reviews for five solid years, only 2.9 million viewers tuned into the finale. It was the show’s largest audience ever.

( 4 ) In Squid Game, potential players are ordered to use a specific phone number to confirm their participation in the life-or-death competition. Unbeknownst to writers and producers, they used a real phone number; the owner received up to 4,000 calls and text messages in one day.

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