If you happened to be one of the 12.4 million people who watched the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, you might have noticed a familiar scene. During their performance for their hit single “Unholy,” featuring singer Kim Petras, Grammy Award winner Sam Smith looked into the camera and made a cross with their fingers. The gesture, which spurred a viral dance trend on TikTok, was first debuted on the video-sharing app more than 5 months ago. In total, the song has been used on the app over two million times since.
By the end of the night, when Petras hoisted the statue, it was clear that TikTok had helped deliver them the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. No other artist in that category had come close to “Unholy’s” level of social media success.
But for those paying attention, the result brought the music industry an inch closer to all-out war with the social media app.
Last year, when Bloomberg surveyed 50 music insiders about the state of the industry, the results revealed a growing irritation with the way TikTok has been altering the business. Some even suggested a desire to move away from the app completely. “This will be the year that music marketing moves past TikTok,” one insider said. All this, even despite the fact as part of the same survey TikTok was voted as the best platform for new artists to break into the industry.
At the Grammys, TikTok virality was considered a gimmick for much of the night. In a roundtable of superfans of the artists nominated album of the year, Adele’s fan representative said, “Adele doesn’t need a dance to go viral on TikTok.” This was likely a jab at Lizzo, who very deliberately used a TikTok dance to help her song “About Damn Time” climb the charts.
Last year, after the Recording Academy faced major pushback for nominating TikTok-born musician Gayle’s song “abcdefu” for Song of the Year, there was some speculation that the decision to ultimately give Bonnie Raitt the Grammy for her song “Just Like That,” a song with less than 300 views on TikTok, was in direct response to the criticism.
Other artists have vocally complained about labels forcing them to manufacture TikTok success. In May, Halsey, blasted their label Astralwerks-Capitol for refusing to release their song “So Good” without an accompanying TikTok trend. Even producers have unhappily stated that they are encouraged to make shorter songs, which have a better chance of going viral. Clearly, some artists are annoyed by having to conform to the platform’s whims.
For its part, TikTok is wondering how much its users even care about music. It is currently testing limitations on how many songs a user can upload in an attempt to determine how critical music is to the platform. Record labels claim that TikTok needs to pay them higher royalties. If people still use the app without as much music, TikTok could theoretically use that as an excuse to avoid paying the high fees the labels are demanding.
Still, there’s little doubt how much most artists rely on the video-sharing app for their success. TikTok darling Olivia Rodrigo handed the award for Best New Artist to Samara Joy, who has over 200,000 followers on the app. Joy, a 23-year-old artist who also took home the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album, credits part of her success to TikTok. Her videos caught the attention of people at the “Today” show, and her performance on the show helped her reach a wider audience. Other nominees in the category, like Wet Leg and Omar Apollo, also became famous for viral TikTok songs.
So for now, whether it's an up-and-coming artist trying to build an audience or an established musician trying to maintain relevancy, TikTok clearly has the upper hand. And as long as artists continue to be rewarded for making music that fans can use to score their day-in-the-life videos and point-of-view skits, we can expect to see more viral dances at next year’s Grammys.