Last month, I was scrolling through my feed on Douyin, the version of TikTok accessible on the Chinese mainland, when I came across a “Top 10 Douyin Songs of 2021” compilation. Produced by a music company I had never heard of, I was skeptical that it was just a marketing ploy. Nevertheless, I let the video play.
To my surprise, I recognized every song on the list. Also to my surprise, most of the comments on the video were highly critical: “Catchy songs never last,” read one. “Douyin updates trendy songs so fast, they’re gone before I can even learn how to sing them,” another user added.
The idea that Douyin has deprived China’s Generation Z of truly classic songs is not a new one. In online discussions, music fans born in the 1980s and 1990s frequently reminisce over the so-called golden age of Chinese pop music. Lasting from the late 1980s to roughly the emergence of the fresh-faced boy band TFBoys in the early 2010s, it was a time when pop idols produced stone-cold classics in an endless battle for chart position. Admittedly, everything looks better when viewed through nostalgia’s rose-tinted glasses, but these wistful fans are onto something. China’s music industry is in the midst of a dramatic decoupling from traditional distribution channels, one that’s reshaping how we experience new music.
The short lifespan of Douyin hits is an inevitable outcome of the app’s short, 15-second video structure. Douyin functions on the premise that shorter is better: The shorter the video, the more likely viewers will watch the whole thing. Its 600 million daily active users never experience songs in full, but rather in short clips and usually just their catchiest parts. That means Douyin video creators want songs that are brief and can be played endlessly without getting old, not pop ballads.
In contrast with music-streaming platforms like QQ Music and NetEase Cloud Music, where full songs are still the primary product, music is never more than part of Douyin’s backdrop. Good music is still indispensable to the app, even if the platform has rendered it more disposable and anonymous than ever. A song’s adaptability — its ability to work with a wide variety of videos and their associated visual effects — is just far more important than what it aims to express.
Take “Give You Four Seasons,” for example. One of the titles listed by the above-mentioned “Top 10 Douyin Songs of 2021” video, it started as a gentle love ballad. Its Douyin version, however, added concentrated drums, making it more likely creators would choreograph a dance to it. And choreograph a dance they did: A number of influencers have set the song to a dance that shows off their rippling ab muscles.
These drumbeats and seemingly unrelated thirst traps work to shift viewers’ focus away from the song itself and on to video creators. The app’s famous algorithm also pushes users in this direction. Search the names of top songs on Douyin, and the app will often auto-fill suggestions like “dance” or “finger dance.” Dance tutorials also tend to rank near the top of search results. In this way, Douyin engineers condition creators to produce the imitative, competitive content they want to see.
In response to Douyin’s growing influence over the music market, music labels have started turning to data analytics in the hopes of finding the secret formula for producing a viral hit. Their findings suggest that Douyin’s algorithm favors songs with simple, memorable lyrics and repetitive tunes, which all have a “brainwashing” effect on users. Armed with hard data, small- and medium-sized music labels now produce music according to user preferences, as opposed to what artists want to express — a practice that crystalizes the contradiction between music as “art for art’s sake” and as a programmed means of entertaining the masses.
With everyone following the same formula, it’s no surprise that the music users encounter on Douyin feels increasingly replaceable. The marginalization of lyrics in the music production process doesn’t help, either. Some Douyin-oriented music companies have started treating lyrics as dispensable, especially when compared with the importance of crafting a danceable beat. Video creators often design each dance to click with a sound beat at a precise point, such as making a hip thrust to the sound of a drum. This coordination between beat and body is what makes the dance flow. Lyrics are practically irrelevant.
Of course, Douyin is fully aware of its role in the homogenization of pop music production. Prior to 2019, members of its music team, many of whom were trained in music, even sought to distance themselves from the trend by manually placing one or two songs deemed to be of at least some artistic value on the app’s “trending” chart. For example, the song “Sheng Ge” by former idol show contestant Zeng Yiming found its way to the top 10, despite a cool reception from the app’s creators. Even with the platform’s support, the song’s poetic lyrics were used in just 35,000 videos according to a March search. A typical top-10 song might be used millions of times.
The lack of enthusiasm for actual songs, even ones that are generally well-liked and reviewed, puzzled even Douyin’s music team, according to interviews I conducted with employees at ByteDance, Douyin’s parent company. The only reason they could give is that users’ musical tastes are fickle. Absent any answers, the platform’s music team has since abandoned its efforts to inject their musical preferences into the algorithm and has gone back to recommending music solely based on data or as part of commercial deals with labels.
Meanwhile, the competition to make the next trending hit is only escalating. According to domestic media reports and interviews with music industry insiders, if a song does not go viral within three days, the label immediately stops promoting it. It’s a cruel rule, but it has nonetheless become the norm for music companies. Over time, repetitive tunes and simple lyrics — or even no lyrics at all — have become increasingly common, and songwriters and recording artists work as if on an assembly line.
All of this is turning music into what economists call a “fast-moving consumer good,” a term for non-durable, low cost, and quick-selling products. If Chinese music fans are nostalgic for the golden age of pop, perhaps it’s because at least then you knew what your idol was singing about.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A tourist walks past a promotional billboard for Douyin in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Feb. 15, 2021. People Visual)