The TikTok-Ready Sounds of Beach Bunny | The New Yorker
On the video-sharing platform TikTok, there are nearly seventy-four million posts hashtagged #promqueen. Hundreds of thousands of these are set to a track of the same name, from 2018, by a young indie-rock band from Chicago called Beach Bunny. TikTok, which encourages users to post short, surrealist interpretations of memes and dance moves, has become an incubator of musical talent, or at least of persona and digital acumen. Earlier this year, it helped send the rapper Roddy Ricch’s song “The Box”—which features a curious squeaking sound, perfect for TikTok—to the top of the Billboard charts. But, unlike the idiosyncratic hip-hop that typically takes hold on the platform, “Prom Queen” is a doleful ballad. The song dramatizes teen-age self-doubt and has the inverse effect of a pep talk. “Shut up, count your calories,” Beach Bunny’s front woman, a twenty-three-year-old recent college graduate named Lili Trifilio, sings in a disaffected tone. “I never looked good in mom jeans.” TikTok users, most of whom are in their teens or early twenties, have used the song as a backdrop for videos both literal and abstract. In one, a young woman presents an array of prom dresses, prompting her followers to help her decide which to buy. In another, someone splices together short clips of the food she’s eaten that day—quite literally counting her calories. One user attempts to follow a Bob Ross painting tutorial; another tries to cover up his face tattoos with makeup, sporting a sly grin.
Of all the confessional, female-fronted indie-rock bands to flourish in the past decade, Beach Bunny is perhaps the most shrewdly tailored to the whims of the social Internet, where everything, especially the misery and humiliation of youth, is molded into a bite-size piece of comic relief. On “Painkiller,” a song from Beach Bunny’s 2018 EP, also called “Prom Queen,” Trifilio name-checks pharmaceuticals that might make her feel better: “I need paracetamol, tramadol, ketamine. . . . Fill me up with Tylenol, tramadol, ketamine.” It sounds like it could be from the soundtrack of “Euphoria,” HBO’s breakout show about teen-age dereliction. Trifilio is a potent lyricist who tends toward despondency, but her songs are deceptively snackable—each is a two-minute burst of honey-butter melody, often with a title that incorporates hashtag-worthy slang.
Acts of earlier eras could more easily be traced to their predecessors, often by the artists’ own admission, but Beach Bunny comes from a generation for which stylistic influence is absorbed through lifelong exposure to a mass jumble of online reference points. Trifilio got her start in music by performing acoustic-guitar covers and uploading them to YouTube, as so many of her peers did before TikTok began pulling aspiring talents into its slipstream.
TikTok is a new platform, but its catchy, looping clips make use of an old music-industry trick. Psychologists and music-theory scholars have long studied the brain’s response to repeated exposure to music. As early as 1903, Max Friedrich Meyer, a professor of psychoacoustics, showed that a piece of music’s “aesthetic effect” for participants in a study was “improved by hearing the music repeatedly.” In 1968, the social psychologist Robert Zajonc coined the term “mere-exposure effect” to describe this phenomenon. According to Zajonc’s findings, appreciation of a song increased the more the subjects heard it, no matter how complex the music was or how it aligned with their personal tastes. This insight is the driving force behind the marketing of popular music in the modern era: FM radio stations and popular streaming playlists are most successful when they program a small pool of songs, inducing the mere-exposure effect as quickly as possible.
On TikTok, the length of a video is restricted to sixty seconds, but most clock in at less than half a minute. The app allows a seamless scroll through videos, demanding rapid-fire consumption. It also groups together clips that contain the same song, encouraging you to listen over and over again. The app’s success at making hits is partly due to its ability to accelerate the mere-exposure effect, making songs familiar at warp speeds. Without TikTok, it’s unlikely that a song like “Prom Queen” could have reached the velocity it did. The official video for the song now has more than seven million views on YouTube.
With increased exposure comes increased scrutiny, and the micro-virality of “Prom Queen” caused some listeners—maybe ones who caught only a snippet of the track—to question its message. In one verse, Trifilio sings, “I’ve been starving myself / Carving skin until my bones are showing.” Last summer, Trifilio pinned a lengthy comment underneath the song’s YouTube video. “Since this video is blowing up I feel the need to address something,” she wrote. “The lyrics are a criticism on modern beauty standards and the harmful effects beauty standards can have on people. . . . You are already a Prom Queen, you are already enough.” The message was about two hundred words—a longer piece of writing than any Beach Bunny song.
#Tik-Tok #Musique #Culture_numérique