Why Is Mariah Carey Back on the Charts? Blame TikTok

From left: TikTok user Dane Drennan, Louis Prima, TikTok user Helen Park and Justin Bieber. Photo: Everett Collection, Associated Press

One of the first songs Dane Drennan heard on TikTok was “Fergalicious.”

I’ll be back

The song has popped up in a range of short TikTok videos, including people lip-syncing to the lyrics as well as more random scenes: a girl falling down the stairs, someone painting a SpongeBob SquarePants character on a shirt, and a science experiment with a beaker, a match and a hard-boiled egg.

“I hadn’t thought of that song in a hot minute,” said Mr. Drennan, a 19-year-old sophomore in Oklahoma City. The song was first released 13 years ago, when he was 6 years old. Mr. Drennan has since saved the song on Spotify so he can listen to it some more.

TikTok, the social video app that has boomed with younger generations since its launch just over a year ago, has become a force in the music industry, despite limiting songs to 15 seconds. So popular is the app that it has pulled along old songs, obscure songs and others lost to time.

A video of a girl crying and dancing to Mariah Carey’s 2009 song “Obsessed” rode a wave of popularity this summer on a range of social-media platforms after it was posted to TikTok, where it has 2.5 million likes and counting. That spurred others to make variations.

In one version, Howie Mandel’s daughter teaches him the dance. Students in another perform it in class to avoid detention. Ms. Carey herself did her own take walking down the street after her car broke down.

Last week, “Obsessed” appeared on Billboard’s R&B Streaming chart at No. 23, one day shy of a decade after the song’s album was released. Those charts count listens from music subscription services and platforms like YouTube, but not TikTok.

The song has since dropped off the chart, but its appearance and the app’s growing ability to drive music discovery is “a natural byproduct” of the format, said Corey Sheridan, TikTok’s head of music content operations.

“People see all these memes and remember a song they forgot about. And of course then they’ll go to Spotify or Apple Music and listen to it there,” said Trevor Anderson, Billboard’s R&B and hip-hop charts manager.

He’s done it himself. “ ‘9 to 5’ has really come back around. Who doesn’t love a good, classic Dolly record?” he said.

TikTok has been a source of new hits—the most famous being “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, which got its start on the platform and went on to become the longest-reigning No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

The TikTok resurgences, by contrast, have swept up artists from Justin Bieber to Louis Prima, who got his start in the 1930s swing era. On TikTok, people pretend to be time travelers to a remix of his song “I Wan’na Be Like You” from 1967’s “The Jungle Book.”

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The opening line to Elton John’s 1970 “Your Song” serves as the reveal for videos where one person finds something amusing but their friends don’t. Videos of cats performing to the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” on a delay have found an audience as well.

Helen Park, a 27-year-old high-school band teacher in Greenville, N.C., initially downloaded the app over the summer to be able to relate to her students. She went viral with a video calling her students out for being on TikTok instead of practicing their instruments.

She’s ended up rediscovering some old songs, including Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” which she used in a video of her guinea pig eating. “There are a few I’ve listened to again,” she said.

When users open up TikTok on their phones, they are immediately served up a full-screen video. It’s a call to action, much like an autoplaying ad that starts blaring from an unknown browser tab: You either watch it or stop it. Tap, it’s paused. Swipe, there’s another video. And another. No account necessary. The app’s algorithm refines its recommendations on its “For You” page based on your engagement with previous videos.

TikTok doesn’t provide a clear prompt on how to use it or what to use it for. The approach has led to a generational divide where younger users intuit the design, while many older users are left scratching their heads.

For those on the app, “the older kids have heard a song a while ago and the younger kids hear it for the first time. There’s definitely a cycle,” said Mr. Drennan, the 19-year-old who rediscovered “Fergalicious” on TikTok.

He makes his own videos as well, including of him tap dancing to viral songs. He’s now made two videos using Ms. Carey’s “Obsessed.” Before TikTok, he said, “I’d never heard it.”

Write to Matthew Riva at [email protected]

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