Since it dropped in April, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" has been an inescapable hit. The song's massive blow-up is at least partially thanks to TikTok: the social media platform that launches viral stars 15 seconds at a time, and what writer Alyssa Bereznak called the "future of the music industry" in a recent article for The Ringer.
TikTok, which has hundreds of millions of users and is especially popular among teenagers and young adults, is driven by machine learning and, as Bereznak explained to NPR's Audie Cornish, viral "challenges," often based around music. Using the mobile app, TikTok users watch and post 15-second videos that incorporate and respond to a piece of a song; for instance, in the "Old Town Road" challenge, video-makers suddenly appear in cowboy gear the moment the beat kicks in.
Other up-and-coming artists have also found a foothold in TikTok's format. In videos set to the first 15 seconds of Supa Dupa Humble's song "Steppin," users play along with the repeated opening lyric "I don't know" until they arrive at a visual punchline. Blanco Brown's TikTok hit, "The Git Up," is a country trap-song with dance instructions (in the vein of "Cha Cha Slide" or "Macarena") for lyrics.
"I think the users are looking for high drama in a short amount of time," Bereznak says. "You know, you only have 15 seconds to make your video compelling—so that lends itself really well to bubblegum-pop music, and to trap music, which often has really intense mood shifts or beat drops."