We have to talk about Bruno. The theme song from Disney’s hit movie Encanto (On ne parle pas de Bruno) has become the first song from an animated film that topped the US charts for several weeks. How did it happen? The answer is, again, TikTok.
The short video platform is still behind creating a hit song. TikTok is changing the music industry, the way hits are made, and the way the platform is opening up a new way to discover new artists and new music.
At the heart of the phenomenon are viral challenges or trends, in which creators use short snippets of a song that are reused by thousands or millions of other users in their videos.
Although TikTok videos don’t count on the Billboard charts, activity on the platform directly drives music consumption on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. More than 175 trending songs on TikTok in 2021 listed on the Billboard Hot 100twice as much as the previous year.
But how do trends, challenges and memes create success? The answer lies in how music has become creative material for social storytelling on TikTok, and how storytelling works when videos are only seconds long.
Social storytelling with music
Tom van Laer, associate professor of narratology at the University of Sydney Business School, explains what makes for good storytelling:
For a good story, you need three things. A story has a plot and a character… That’s the minimum for a story. For a good story, you need a third thing, which is a dramatic curve.
And that’s where the music comes in. When a challenge or trend emerges on TikTok, it always features the same clip of a particular song, which serves as a common story element for all those videos. As van Laer explains:
What you get then is some cultural capital or cultural knowledge that is already there. So each new iteration is just added to that. And if you’re on the inside, if you’re in the know, then it’s still something you can easily follow because you see the single 15-second video just as another event in the bigger story.
Because the clip is instantly recognizable to the public, it links all the videos that make up a TikTok challenge or trend. It acts as the meta-narrative that allows each creator to bring their own interpretation to the story.
This may take the form of imitations, as in the Trend “Jamie Big”, based on an original video viewed over 200 million times. It shows a man dancing to Say It Right by Nelly Furtado in front of his bathroom mirror.
Thousands of videos have since imitated the originalwhere a creator always films himself in front of his bathroom mirror, switching to the original video at the change of rhythm of the song.
Other trends work by offering different interpretations of the same story. A good example is the Trend “Things that make sense…”set to Che la luna, a version of a classic Sicilian folk song. In this video, contributors film themselves showing the characteristics of a particular place, each making the same characteristic hand gestures.
An example is Australian Olympian Scott James film his room at the Beijing Olympic Village.
Because the audience still recognizes the characteristic song, they are immediately familiar with the plot of the story; they know what to expect and so can simply enjoy every rendition of the theme. Music provides the glue that holds together a social story, told collectively through numerous videos.
A challenge or trend is therefore a form of social storytelling, with the music acting as a shorthand to provide the context for all the videos.
We’re not talking about Bruno has provided material for a number of different trends, each fueling his popularity. And besides the many fan edits of Encanto featuring parts of the song, there is a particular clip with a catchy hook that underpins a story in which the creators try to do a task in the first take of the video and after the change of pace they reveal why the task is so difficult. This features dance moves from the movie Encanto.
Music as creative material
To understand what makes TikTok such a powerful platform for the music industry, we need to “unlearn” music as something we listen to. On digital platforms like TikTok, music is quickly becoming a material for creation, self-expression, and storytelling.
Virality then is a by-product of using music as a creative material for collective storytelling – a material that provides the canvas, or meta-narrative, for each creator’s interpretation of the emerging story.
The most popular songs sometimes exceeding 20 billion views on the videos of which they are the soundtrackthe magnitude of the phenomenon gives the platform its transformative role for the music industry.