For all of August of this awful, godforsaken year, I’ve found it a mammoth task to manoeuver my way through Instagram Reels without being forced to listen to Missy Elliott’s Get Your Freak On – a song really close to my gay heart, but one that is now forever tainted by people trying to breakdance like they are frozen in time.
There’s nothing wrong with being part of the cultural zeitgeist, but for how long can one listen to the same hook before reaching their auditory threshold?
A new trend lands on social media every week, and, with it, another catchy song that in most cases is only butchered to death. With younger people treating Facebook like the Church and leaving it en masse, the attention of content creators has pivoted to shorter, snackier content – ranging anywhere from 15 to 60 seconds. And one of the most common features used in these videos is licensed music that comes directly from the source, making editing a video feel like a breeze.
TikTok is the undeniable king of this format, championing it in the early days to fill the post-Vine void. Today, it has spawned multiple copycats, and following its ban in countries like India, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts are vying to be the next best thing.
A piece of music getting associated with shortform videos is a double-edged sword.
It can catapult a relatively unknown musician into the public spotlight and make their careers skyrocket, like in the case of Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road or Rahgir’s Aadmi Chutiya Hai in India. If people like the hook featured in a 15-second version of a video, they are bound to go online and look the entire song up, thereby adding more fans to a musician’s following.
But on the flipside, we could witness the resurgence of a song that is already a nostalgic hit, and watch it get played to the point of insignificance.
Sadaf Vidha is an arts-based therapist and researcher who agrees that overexposure to certain songs can kill the vibe for many. “It is very close to the research on involuntary musical imagery, or earworms, as they are more famously known,” she said.
Musical imagery basically refers to having an unconscious musical experience without any external stimulation. It’s when an ad jingle or a random tune (like one that plays when you back your car, for example) involuntarily makes a little space of its own in your brain, playing and replaying to the point of leaving you frustrated, exhausted, and detesting the very tune you loved.
“The irritation part [on social media] comes from the fact that you don’t know whether the next Reel or TikTok will feature the same song. So having little to no control over how you enjoy that music plays a major role in our day-to-day psyche,” Vidha said.
Personally, I love my playlists, and it’s therapeutic when I get to listen to songs the way I want to, in the exact order I intended. Vidha agreed that when on social media, one can get annoyed because they don’t get to listen to music on their own volition.
Capone’s Oh No plays in my head as I write this, and suddenly, it hits me that the song is now synonymous with things going sideways, as opposed to being a song about a lying boy, thanks to the song’s lyrics amputated by the videos.
“For a lot of people, the entire song is a work of art, and just listening to a few phrases out of context can lead to further annoyance,” said Vidha.
But Reels has also worked wonders for creators like Vipasha Malhotra, a musician-comedian who rose to fame in early 2021 for her Hindi cover of Aurora’s Runaway. The song, initially released in 2015, came back in full swing in 2021 on TikTok and Reels when a filter used the music as a built-in feature. Malhotra was one of the many to capitalise on the wave, one that catapulted her to virality.
“I have been making musical content before my video went viral, so I know what it’s like to keep trying trends ‘til something works for you,” she told VICE.
Malhotra added that the problem with these trends is that the meaning or the context of the song can get lost in translation. “I don’t know if we can expect 17-year-olds to understand the meaning behind certain songs. For example, the song Bezos I by Bo Burnham is about capitalism and how it’s ruining the Earth, but now people are just doing before-and-after trends to the track.”
This is also true of songs like Touch It by Busta Rhymes, in which people do wardrobe changes with their kids and pets while the rapper sings, “She turned around and was tryin' to put my dick in her mouth.”
Record labels are very much aware of this phenomenon and have been using the trends in music to get some of their stuff out there, current ones as well as those from their back catalogues. They will even go as far as to hire influencers to get a song into the fold.
It’s important to note that while some songs resurface organically and become a part of trends, most of what we see is funnelled through a series of creators to get it trending. What we believe is a community activity is definitely being monitored and controlled by suits, just so we are all on the same page. YouTube has in fact rolled out the YouTube Shorts Fund, with a sum of $100 million to get creators to proactively create and provide feedback on the platform.
“Music is such a key trigger for a lot of people, be it happy memories or bad,” said Purvaa Sampath, a neurologic music therapist who believes social media has the potential to dilute certain songs and turn them into an annoyance because of repetition.
“When you see or hear a song being used in an entirely different context than when you first associated a memory with it, it can lead to irritation and a longing to make that go away.”
Thankfully, as Malhotra points out, these trends are short-lived and are soon replaced by other trends featuring yet another song we can then get frustrated with.
The fact remains that social media content has truly become democratised since the launch of these apps. But at what cost? That’s the twisted reality of the times we live in. Everyone’s showing up for an assignment which was given to them by no one in particular.
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