Like many 40-year-olds who only use social media when necessary, MGMT co-founder Ben Goldwasser doesn’t have a TikTok account. So when the title track from the band’s 2018 album, little dark agesuddenly started appearing in thousands of videos on the platform during the first pandemic summer of 2020, he had to rely on his wife and friends to enlighten him on the phenomenon that came out of nowhere.
“It was even surprising to me that our song was on TikTok, and then it was like, ‘Well, how big is that?'” Goldwasser says. TURN by telephone. “I don’t even know what a great TikTok song is or what it means.”
In this case, “big” doesn’t really do justice to what happened with “Little Dark Age” on TikTok, where users made over 5.5 million videos who weave the song into anime, superhero movies, video game clips, and post-George Floyd social justice-themed content. Others have used “Little Dark Age” in content where they transform into characters from classic paintingsexpress their solidarity with those who identify as trans and, more recently, to the soundtrack of sequences of Russian missile bombardment of Kiev.
The mid-tempo, synth-driven “Little Dark Age” doesn’t seem to be about any of those things, and Goldwasser would only say that the song (which was written during Donald Trump’s first year as president) is “very much a commentary on things that were happening in the world at that time that were still quite present” when the TikTok trend took off. The lyrics are open enough to invite myriad interpretations, although references to “forgive who you are for what you have to gain” and “love seeps” from police weapons seemed particularly relevant both under the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic, which was indeed a ” dark ages” for people around the world.
“Reminds me of a world steadily deteriorating as everyone’s sanity dissolves – like a dystopian novel,” wrote one YouTube commenter. “This song makes me feel like the bad days are yet to come and it makes me excited for them,” said another. The song “brilliantly manages to connect so deeply with each member of its audience, often in radically different ways on a case-by-case basis,” offered a third. “No song has made me feel so strong.”
Goldwasser describes MGMT’s own video for “little dark ageas “really a love letter to 80s goth music videos, where we just referenced a bunch of things we love.” It wasn’t necessarily related to any of the song’s topics or anything like that. In this way, MGMT had already done what the TikTok community would later do: use the song as a starting point to riff on topics that were both fleeting and profound.
All of this activity has boosted MGMT’s streaming numbers on DSPs, particularly on Spotify, where “Little Dark Age” now has 266 million plays, and YouTube, where the official music video has soared to 68 million views. The song was garnering around 50,000 streams a day on Spotify before things heated up on TikTok, eventually hitting a single-day high of 658,000 on October 29, 2021. Daily streams have remained in the 450,000 range for decades. weeks, making “Little Dark Age” the band’s fourth biggest song there, behind only 2000s indie-rock standard bearers “Kids”, “Electric Feel” and “Time To Pretend”, all taken from his debut in 2004, Spectacular Oracular.
“What I find really cool about this, personally, is how much it slips out of our hands,” says Goldwasser. “It’s completely unintentional. It’s not like we have control over how people interpret this. People pick it up and run with it. For me as a musician, it’s really exciting. It’s more creative than trying to figure out what an artist has to say or trying to figure out the deeper meaning of something. Often there is no deeper meaning. Meaning is what happens in the world.
Massive and mainstream pop hits dominated TikTok in 2021, with Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat reigning as the two most-watched artists. But the platform’s ability to resurface seemingly left and catalog tracks from a range of genres is equally powerful, a phenomenon attributed to its legendary algorithm. “These indie rock sounds are very popular right now,” says an executive at a major A&R label. “TikTok’s algorithm is excellent at recognizing other songs with the same sonic feel and slowly but very intentionally boosting them from level to level.”
Over the past few weeks, Hollywood celebrities such as The Rock and Drew Barrymore have thrust the Ting Tings’ hit wonder single ‘That’s Not My Name’ back into the limelight by releasing videos of their various film roles over the years. Philadelphia indie-folk actor Dr. Dog enjoyed a blistering TikTok cover of his 2010 song “Where’d All the Time Go” last year, while Chicago band The Walters, who was separated in 2017, got back together and signed a big contract. with Warner Records once his 2014 song “I Love You So” shot to fame on TikTok in late 2021.
Artists in this position basically have three options: do nothing and see what happens, hire influencers to create more posts with the same music and hope the algorithm notices, or film their own related content and post it to from their own account. Sources say MGMT took the former approach, preferring to let the trend unfold organically.
Goldwasser compares the ‘Little Dark Age’ experience to how people recently experienced The Beatles Return documentary, given the benefit of more than 50 years of background for the recording sessions captured there. As such, the music becomes even more of what the individual listener makes of it, which was clearly a factor in the success of “Little Dark Age”.
“I don’t know how many people knew about the clip from TikTok and then used it themselves, or heard small parts of it without any context,” Goldwasser says. “It’s hard to tell if they were influenced by the song or if they were influenced by the fact that the song is already being used for other purposes. Sometimes you hear something with a certain sound and it brings up all these other feelings and images.
Even when TikTok’s success translates to a surge in DSP streams, most of those songs, including “Little Dark Age,” have seen their second winds largely ignored by mainstream radio (for what it’s worth,” Kids” has never exceeded #91 on The Billboard Hot 100 and no MGMT song has ever reached the top 15 on Billboard’s Hot Rock and Alternative Songs chart). For some observers, this proves both the power of TikTok to smash songs and how disconnected cultural radio has become.
“There are stations that don’t play these records because they’re too old, even though they get five or 10 million streams a week,” the executive says. “Instead, it’s like, give me that other new song that’s stalled at 25,000 streams a week. This Walters song is on Today’s Top Hits, which is one of Spotify’s biggest playlists. in the world. People aren’t used to the idea of working with music pushed and coming from an app like TikTok. But kids find it just as meaningful – it’s their version of listening to the radio and hear a song.
Known for taking their time between projects, MGMT has not performed live since November 2019 and has no plans to release any new music in the near future. But Goldwasser is already curious to see if new fans don’t know about the band before “Little Dark Age” explodes.
“It will be really interesting to see how the crowds have changed each time we start playing live again, and if that can carry over to some of the other tracks on the album as well, which would be great,” he says. “People criticize the TikTok generation for having no sense of context or history, but if you spent 10 minutes there, it would completely prove that wrong. Kids are incredibly smart and educated and bring all those references. It’s pretty amazing.