Why are teenagers on TikTok obsessed with an eerie 1950s song?

The video-sharing platform beloved by Gen Z is giving new life to some very old tunes – from YMCA to a twee number by a mid-century sister act

Mention of the video-sharing platform TikTok brings to mind two things: a) the endless torrent of spellbindingly inane 15-second clips created by its gargantuan teen userbase, and b) its ironclad ability to make anyone born before the turn of the millennium feel like a bewildered OAP. Yet since the app’s global launch in 2018, TikTok has carved out another reputation: as a musical tastemaker. Forget Spotify algorithms or, shudder, the mass media, nowadays young people are discovering their new favourite tunes layered under bedroom makeup tutorials or films of body-popping GCSE students.

That means TikTok can make unknown tracks go stratospheric; Old Town Road, Lil Nas X’s country-rap smash, owes its success to a cleverly engineered TikTok challenge. Yet the app also uses its hit-making powers to give random songs a second life: decade-old singles, such as Mariah Carey’s Obsessed and Jay Sean’s Ride It, have both enjoyed massive popularity spikes thanks to tie-in TikTok dance challenges.

But they are far from the strangest songs to have been resurrected. Take, for example, Spooky Scary Skeletons, a 1996 Halloween children’s song by Golden Girls theme writer Andrew Gold. A remix of this novelty number currently soundtracks 2.6m TikTok videos thanks to, you guessed it, a viral dance challenge. Or even odder, the popularity of Tonight You Belong to Me, an eerily twee unrequited-love song made famous by sister act Patience and Prudence in 1956. Hearing its unusually quaint melody reappropriated as a teen anthem is extremely discombobulating; on the app you can watch a gaggle of excitable friends bellowing the haunting top line while swaggering through a shopping centre.

To the casual observer, it may seem as if these old songs have been plucked from the internet’s infinite music catalogue by the modern future-humans of Gen Z, who have identified some exciting and mysterious lure inaudible to anyone over the age of 21. The truth is far less strange: TikTok is simply echoing existing success stories. Spooky Scary Skeletons was already a massive hit on YouTube, thanks to a 2010 video that paired it with a vintage Disney animation, while Tonight You Belong to Me has been repeatedly covered by artists and often crops up on TV.

In fact, TikTok’s penchant for excavating vintage tunes can be rather comforting: recently, the app found itself in the grip of YMCA mania, thanks to a challenge involving the school disco standard and face-tracker software. The global, never-ending talent show that is TikTok teenagerdom might seem horrifyingly newfangled, but it feels like a relief to know this tomorrow’s world can’t quite leave the past behind.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pan pipes, Wienerlied, whale song: what old-time TikTok trend is next?
After the viral success of sea shanties, a Mongolian throat singing collab with Megan Thee Stallion could be on the horizon

Issy Sampson

29, Jan, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Haai: ‘I’m obsessed with Laurie Anderson and O Superman’
The up-and-coming London-based vibes consultant empties the contents of her psychic record bag

The Guide

05, May, 2017 @11:30 AM

Article image
Daddy cool? Why pop is obsessed with bad dads
To mark 10 years since Glasvegas released Daddy’s Gone, we explore the failing fathers of pop, from Flight of the Conchords to Madonna

Gavin Haynes

12, Oct, 2018 @11:59 AM

Article image
Why are you so obsessed with me? How pop fans became all-powerful
Little Mix named their album after the title their followers suggested, while the 1975 roped devotees in for their video. Pop’s power reversal puts fans closer to the stars

Issy Sampson

16, Nov, 2018 @12:59 PM

Article image
Beyond retro: 80s-obsessed producers are taking Rihanna back in time
Remixers like Initial Talk and Tronicbox are revitalising modern pop hits with a vintage makeover

Hannah J Davies

02, Feb, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
Last Man Standing: how Hollywood became obsessed with the Biggie and Tupac murders
Nick Broomfield’s new documentary is the latest film to investigate the fatal east coast/west coast beef, but are the retellings muddying the waters?

Steve Rose

28, Jun, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Banks’s sweary new song: the best of this week’s music
The no-nonsense Californian nabs the top spot from Justice with her ‘selfie schtick’

Sam Wolfson

22, Jul, 2016 @11:59 AM

Article image
Dillon Francis: ‘Don’t even read this, just listen to this song’
The American DJ, producer and Diplo associate empties the contents of his psychic record bag

Rachel Aroesti

18, Aug, 2017 @11:29 AM

Article image
Beth Ditto’s Fire: a sexy mega-thumper of a torch song
Also this week: Kid Ink changes gear with a surprisingly sweet track, while Ludacris doesn’t change a thing

Graeme Virtue

21, Apr, 2017 @1:00 PM

Article image
Shura’s Nothing’s Real, the finest song written about a panic attack
Also this week, Röyksopp are back with another banger, Sting releases more beige rock, and Olly Murs hits peak Olly Murs

Hannah Jane Parkinson

04, Nov, 2016 @1:00 PM