Hitmaking has always been an inscrutable racket—who or what might resonate for a large audience at any given moment isn’t particularly easy to predict—but the emergence of TikTok as a star-making force has made the pop charts feel especially anarchic. TikTok relies on feeding its users an endless torrent of decontextualized, punchy videos; its capacity to send an old or unremarkable song onto the Billboard Hot 100 is by now well documented, if still not entirely understood. Sometimes the results of all that disorder are surprisingly pure. Back in 2020, a user named Nathan Apodaca filmed himself riding his skateboard while pulling heartily from a bottle of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice and singing along to Fleetwood Mac’s gauzy, winsome “Dreams.” Apodaca’s twenty-two-second video went wildly viral, and sent “Dreams,” which was first released as a single in 1977, to the top of the iTunes chart and to No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100.
What happened to “Dreams” is an early example of TikTok’s power, but it’s no longer an anomalous one. The platform now routinely resuscitates ancient bangers, or gives sudden credence to new and obscure ones. How and why does a song gain sudden purchase on TikTok? No one quite knows. My colleague John Seabrook recently explored the music industry’s mostly failed efforts to dissect and harness TikTok’s influence, ultimately noting that “all a digital marketer can do is closely monitor what’s happening organically on TikTok, and then hire creators to juice the trend.” It’s almost fun to imagine the number of frantic, irritated conversations that have gone down in the air-conditioned conference rooms of record labels, as panicked executives attempt to reverse-engineer a phenomenon that does not appear to hew to any known laws of commerce.
The most interesting song to move from TikTok to the top of the charts this year was by a twenty-four-year-old singer and guitarist from Compton named Steve Lacy. In early October, after hovering for four weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, Lacy’s “Bad Habit” finally unseated Harry Styles’s “As It Was,” and stayed at No. 1 for two more weeks. Lacy performed the song on “S.N.L.,” and is now nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. “Bad Habit” is, at heart, a song about remorse, impostor syndrome, timidity, acquiescence, and the sort of unnecessary meekness that, at one point or another, comes for us all. “I bite my tongue, it’s a bad habit,” Lacy sings, over a sprightly, warped-sounding guitar riff. “Kinda mad that I didn’t take a stab at it,” he adds. Lacy’s vocals have the sort of hangdog ruefulness familiar to anyone who has failed to seize an opportunity, or has self-sabotaged their way out of something great. (The R. & B. singer Fousheé, a frequent collaborator of Lacy’s, is a co-writer of “Bad Habit.”)
While songs of regret are not uncommon, something about Lacy’s lackadaisical delivery—“It’s O.K., things happen for / Reasons that I can’t ignore,” he sings in the second chorus—is beguiling. Maybe not every chance forgone is cataclysmic; maybe some missed shots are just a bummer. Certain corners of TikTok are an especially good fit for these kinds of gently devastated sentiments, which seem to reflect a vague generational malaise born, ironically, from pandemic isolation and an overreliance on social media. Though some tracks may go viral on TikTok because they inspire a series of endlessly replicable dance moves, or because they’re well suited to a before-and-after reveal, others simply entice users to stare at their front-facing camera, slack-jawed, and loosely mouth a lyric. The chorus of “Bad Habit” is dopey and uncomplicated (“It’s a bad habit”); yet, like many of popular music’s most anthemic and beloved lines, it taps into a wellspring of shared feeling. Imagine tens of thousands of adolescent faces, all confessing to some benign but lingering infraction: spending too much money on Crocs, or being “always late to any event.” (TikTok does not seem to invite or support the sort of dramatic or life-threatening proclamations that might appear on, say, Facebook; I did not find any TikToks of users shooting heroin or running red lights while “Bad Habit” played.)
Lacy has not sprung from obscurity. He was already being hailed as a phenom at least as far back as 2017, when he was just eighteen and still recording exclusively on a cracked iPhone 6. He has collaborated with Kendrick Lamar, Blood Orange, YG, J. Cole, Solange, and Tyler, the Creator, and is a member of the Internet, a visionary R. & B. group from Los Angeles whose third record, “Ego Death,” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2015. (Lacy was in high school at the time.) He has a matching tattoo—“We here forever technically,” a cagey nod to the athanasia of art—with the rapper Lil Uzi Vert and, very unfortunately, Ye. He is featured on “Sunflower,” one of the groovier tracks on Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride,” from 2019. His first full-length record, “Apollo XXI,” contains a wild, spiralling, nine-minute meditation on sexuality and self-identity: “I only feel energy, I see no gender,” Lacy sings on “Like Me.” His voice is yearning and desperate. “How many out there just like me?”
Lacy came of age in the streaming era, which makes it more difficult to parse his influences. His vocals are soft and honeyed, a pleasing mix of Prince and Steve Urkel. The production of his second and most recent record, “Gemini Rights,” recalls both Andre 3000 and Mac DeMarco, deftly combining elements of early-two-thousands, Brooklyn-based indie rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, and off-kilter R. & B. (He has said that he took inspiration for the melody of his song “Dark Red” from the Dirty Projectors’ “Two Doves.”) There’s something both nostalgic and futuristic about Lacy’s vibe, which feels apropos for a moment in which people are either dressing like it’s Y2K or embracing the return of indie sleaze, while also spending every waking hour staring at TikTok, an app that barely existed in the U.S. six years ago.
Lacy is often a reticent, lethargic interviewee. (In this way, Lacy—like other unforeseen TikTok stars—is a pleasing antidote to the so-called “industry plant,” or any artist who is aggressively media-trained to be instantly engaging or provocative.) When asked about “Bad Habit,” he told the radio hosts Angela Yee and Charlamagne Tha God, “I just felt it was a relatable story.” He later continued, “I’m shy, I’m really shy.” Lacy has had to adjust to playing sold-out venues where a significant portion of the audience may know only a few seconds of one of his songs. (A video from the tour shows Lacy holding out the microphone to encourage the crowd to sing the verse that follows the hook in “Bad Habit,” but no one—actually no one—in the audience seems to know it.) At a concert in New Orleans in late October, Lacy smashed a disposable camera after someone threw one at him, and left the stage shortly thereafter. He later wrote on Instagram, “maybe i couldve reacted better? sure. always. i’m a student of life. but i’m a real person with real feelings and real reactions. i’m not a product or a robot. i am human.”
Like many other technological advances, TikTok has not invented a new grammar; it has merely removed all the friction from an existing one. The platform gives credence and space to something that many of us already do, which is to use music to heighten or clarify random episodes of our existence. (I would approximate that I sing the chorus of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—“I did it myyyyyy way!”—to myself around a dozen times a day, usually after I’ve spilled something or sent an embarrassing e-mail.) “Bad Habit” dramatizes the excruciatingly ordinary experience of making and then remaking a dumb choice; it is pleasant to hum it to yourself after you have done something contrary to your best interests, like taking an enormous bite of pizza before it has cooled, or not returning a text from someone you enjoy. Who among us, after all? Lacy is a far more complicated and dynamic artist than the hook of “Bad Habit” might reveal, but it’s his capacity to write it—to instinctively grasp the banal internal experiences that unite us—that reveals a sharp understanding of what makes pop music an engine of mass communion.