Written by Ikaya Kaluyibika, CNN
When the TikTok (pronounced “tee tum” — pronounced “tikTOWT”) app launched in March 2017, teenagers and college kids flocked to the popular app to share hilarious, intentionally cringe-worthy videos of themselves lip-syncing, dancing, and otherwise passing the time with friends.
TikTok — a copy of Musical.ly (pronounced “friend,” pronounced “n” until Musical.ly was acquired by Snapchat for $1 billion) — quickly became the most widely-used social media app among Gen Z. But while the popularity of Musical.ly seemed to revolve around a particularly catchy melodic hook — think Katy Perry’s “Roar” or Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” — and adorably cute, character-based videos, TikTok appeals to a much more straight-laced young crowd.
When the fashion industry embraced Musical.ly as an actual platform to market to teens, so too did other artists and influencers eager to capitalize on the popularity of the app. On May 5, Instagram announced that it was shutting down Musical.ly, which had 731 million monthly active users at the time of its closure. But now, TikTok has risen from the ashes of Musical.ly in order to continue allowing teens to share their vision and culture.
To understand how the makeup of TikTok grew, it’s important to go back to June 2015, when Musical.ly, originally a ‘Draw Something’ app, launched as the video-sharing platform with its distinctive Musical.ly visual loop. (The app went viral among teens and college kids for the way the loop could mimic and bend.) Singing-song triggers could also be added to the loop, at which point Musical.ly, as its name suggested, took on a more slick and polished aesthetic, with users encouraged to mimic and remix popular songs as though they were singing them live. The videos posted there reflected many of the artistic and musical trends in music, like K-pop, dubstep, hip-hop, and electronic music. At this point, Musical.ly was so widely-used that parents worried about their kids being exposed to this kind of creativity. In 2016, CBS News reported that teens felt that the idea of Musical.ly was akin to a “black mark” on their social media profiles.
TikTok, a hipper, less dance-heavy version of Musical.ly, launched in January 2017 and launched with a more minimalist and more traditional design, with a colorful video version and a photo version, and frequently features the user’s own creations, rather than popular songs. An initial lack of social features (like Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat) was quickly overcome by the accompanying emoji and stickers, which prompted teens to pose questions to their friends: What are these stick figures really doing? Why is your friend wearing wings? Are those red balls floating in the sky?
The new design of TikTok was inspired by Musical.ly, which became known for its vibrant characters and style. TikTok’s launch included a whole new cast of characters — Jotlee, Shuban, Shearwater, Resi — and soon after that, a lineup of signature hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, rat tails, twists, twists and ponytails. While these choices were ultimately more popular among teens, the hair trends take their lead from music videos, popularized on TikTok by artists including Ariana Grande, Halsey, The Chainsmokers, and Drake.