If you'd asked Jawsh 685 about TikTok a year ago, the producer behind smash Jason Derulo collaboration "Savage Love (Laxed –Siren Beat)" would have scoffed.
As far as the 18-year-old was concerned, the app was a "cringe" place to post dance videos and hardly the platform that would propel the music and culture of a teen from the modest suburbs of South Auckland, New Zealand to worldwide stardom.
"I heard of TikTok and thought it was cringe because all I saw was people dancing in front of their fence," Joshua Stylah says. "I thought it was not that cool, but then I downloaded the app for fun and started finding interesting stuff. I would scroll for hours looking at posts, but wasn't posting anything myself."
All that changed one year ago when his catchy instrumental "Laxed (Siren Beat)" became the soundtrack to endless pandemic posts after a user took a clip of the "siren jam" from YouTube, danced to it, and posted it on TikTok.
Siren jams are a New Zealand and Pasifika trend involving creating beats to play through siren speakers, which are often attached to bikes or cars. Stylah started experimenting with the style in 2018 but didn't think there was anything extra special about "Laxed (Siren Beat)" when he produced it in his bedroom with audio software FL Studio the following year.
Sharing the track on his YouTube channel, he moved on – until it surfaced, meteorically, on TikTok in May 2020. The song has since spawned more than 55 million TikTok videos, including posts from Lizzo, Jimmy Fallon and Jessica Alba.
#SAVAGELOVE @jasonderulo ⚡️
Reflecting on the app's role in his global success, Stylah believes what set the platform apart from Instagram or YouTube was its colossal popularity amid the coronavirus pandemic. "Lockdown hit and everyone was on TikTok," he says. "You could post videos and they would get better views because people were just at home on their phones most of the time. But I never saw it coming."
For fellow New Zealand-based TikTok sensation Benee (real name Stella Bennett), her single "Supalonely" became a quarantine anthem as it blew up on TikTok.
"It's a really upbeat song about taking ownership of your loneliness and that was interpreted in a really pandemic-friendly way," says her manager, Paul McKessar. "We had the right song saying the right thing at the right time. TikTok threw fuel on the fire – and TikTok burns really quickly. It was ferocious. It creates a moment for you, very fast."
Benee, 21, had previously felt the impact of TikTok with her 2019 song "Glitter," which McKessar says gave their team an indication of the "bump" the platform can give a song. That bump turned into an explosion after "Supalonely," from Benee's 2019 EP Stella & Steve, sparked a dance challenge on TikTok in February 2020. The catchy track has since provided the tune to more than 10 million videos on the app.
"What I love about TikTok is that it's a platform with no filters or gatekeepers," McKessar notes. "For both 'Glitter' and 'Supalonely,' it all began with a dance created by a single kid and was explosive beyond that point. It allows you to achieve things in a super-weird organic way."
Of course, the key to commercial success is what happens beyond TikTok. For Benee, users didn't just have their fun with "Glitter" and "Supalonely" and then forget about the tracks. McKessar says they headed to Spotify to find the songs, with "Supalonely" having racked up 531 million Spotify plays. Many users were subsequently introduced to the rest of Benee's music and she has since dropped her debut studio album, Hey U X.
In Stylah's case, "Laxed (Siren Beat)" also ignited commercial success, largely thanks to Derulo taking the instrumental, adding lyrics and posting "Savage Love" on TikTok. Derulo and Stylah then teamed up to make the track an official collaboration, titled "Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)," which has topped the charts around the globe, surpassed 1.1 billion streams, and is now nominated for TikTok Bop of the Year at the iHeartRadio Music Awards on May 27.
The song has also been re-released as a chart-topping remix featuring K-pop superstars BTS.
TikTok hasn't just helped bring Stylah's music to the world, but his culture. His mother is Cook Island and his father is Samoan and Stylah calls out "605" (the calling code for Samoa) in the track.
He was stunned when "Laxed (Siren Beat)" ignited TikTok's "Culture Dance" trend, where users posted videos dancing to the instrumental while celebrating their heritage by wearing clothing native to their cultures. The viral craze came amid the heightened cultural awareness surrounding the Black Lives Matters movement, and Stylah took pride in helping people celebrate their heritage during such times.
That includes himself. "I always learned about my culture since I was child, but didn't embrace it as much as I do now," he says. "I didn't go around waving the flags as a kid. And I never performed cultural [dances] or anything like that, so this is my way of representing it now."
Not long after Stylah's beat sparked the Culture Dance, the trend continued with the track "Hot Seat," which appears to feature snippets of the 2017 song "Caroline" by Aminé, mixed with Bill Wurtz's "I Just Did a Bad Thing" recording.
One of the earliest such posts was by Texas model, Milan Mathew, who shared a clip showing her wearing western clothing one second and a gorgeous Indian outfit the next. By the next morning, the post had more than one million views and inspired others to join the trend.
Similarly to the "Laxed (Siren Beat)" culture dance videos, the "Hot Seat" posts begin with users wearing everyday clothing before changing into traditional attire. More than half a million videos have been posted using the track, with cultural attire including Indian saris, African clothing, Native American headgear, and Filipino outfits.
"I think it was me embracing my culture that made people want to actively and openly embrace theirs, too," Mathew told Nylon. "I had the confident vibe, and I was building up a community. It's good to see you don't have to change your culture or be assimilated in a certain way to be accepted by society."
As for how monumental success on TikTok impacts an artist's music going forward, that's largely up to each musician. Scottish singer and TikTok star Nina Nesbitt told BBC she will be conscious of what songs or segments of tracks might work well for TikTok when it comes to new music.
Benee, on the other hand, doesn't give the app any thought while creating new music, according to McKessar.
"I'm sure in the record companies' eyes, they're hoping every song has a TikTok moment in it," he says. "But it doesn't [register] remotely for us. Stella creates music as pure artistry. The TikTok conversations are for the people who market your music, not the people who create it."
Watch the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Awards on Thursday, May 27 (8:00-10:00 PM ET) on FOX