A few weeks ago, the popular TikTok creator Ari Elkins introduced a new series titled “Oldies You Should Know.” The first track? “Something In The Way,” a moody Nirvana deep cut from the band’s classic 1991 album “Nevermind.”
In the clip, Elkins strums along to video from the band’s 1994 “MTV Unplugged In New York” — an album recorded shortly before frontman Kurt Cobain took his life.
My first reaction to this was a full body cringe that nearly threw out my back.
Why is this boy jamming to a moody, downtempo track, in which Cobain sings about being homeless and sleeping under a bridge?’ And if Nirvana is an oldies band, what does that make Frankie Avalon or Elvis Presley? Also, why is he playing air guitar to the rhythm of the kick drum?
As a millennial, this got me thinking:
After digging a bit deeper (ie. scrolling through the app for a few more hours), I realized that the song was everywhere on TikTok. Sparked by it’s inclusion on “The Batman” soundtrack, “Something In The Way” eventually made its way to the app, where it has taken on a life of its own.
As of this week, “Something In The Way” has been used to soundtrack nearly 200,000 TikTok videos. Its ubiquity there has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the song recently entered the Hot 100 Chart last month — some 31 years after its release.
“All it takes is one video that might have been kind of funny that somebody posts on TikTok, and all of a sudden spreads out everywhere, and becomes a fixture in everyone’s mind,” Joshua Jackson, a popular TikTok creator who mostly creates videos about Star Wars, told the Star.
“After ‘The Batman’ came out and all the humorous (TikTok) takes showed up, I can’t stop listening to Nirvana. I think TikTok has a tonne to do that. I don’t think YouTube or Twitter — just based on how they’re structured — can do that on the level that like TikTok can.”
Jackson is certainly familiar with this dynamic. In March, he went viral for his hilariously exaggerated but earnest rendition of “Iris,” the 1998 hit by the post-grunge band Goo Goo Dolls. “This is real music, ya’ll,” a caption reads.
The clip, which was viewed 2.5 million times and racked up hundreds of thousands of likes, became a meme of its own, spawning hundreds of TikToks that used Jackson’s sound.
Even Lizzo, a beloved American rapper and singer, used Jackson’s sound on a clip that was also viewed 2.3 million times.
Jackson, who was born in 1997 and considers himself a “grandad of Gen Z,” says he did not expect the video to go viral.
“I’m a big fan of like grunge music and older stuff from like the late 90s, early 2000s.” he says. “So I mean, I made it, then I forgot about it like I always do. And then I came back to it an hour later, and all of a sudden it had reached every corner of the ‘For You’ page.”
He says most Gen Z kids were probably already familiar with “Iris” in some capacity, but believes his video has helped revitalize the song’s relevance.
In early April, “Iris” returned to the Billboard charts for the first time in decades.
“I don’t know if that has anything to do with me,” Jackson says, laughing. “I’m not that popular. But it would be incredibly hilarious if it did.”
The phenomenon of TikTokers revitalizing old songs is not a new phenomenon.
The most popular example of this came in 2020, when a creator named Doggface shared a clip of himself vibing on a skateboard while drinking cranberry juice to Fleetwood Mac’s track “Dreams.”
After the video went viral, with hundreds of users creating their own versions, the 1977 track re-entered the Billboard charts, garnering tens of millions of on-demand streams in the U.S. alone.
More recently, in 2021, Gen Z discovered the track “No Children,” a rather dark song from 2003 about divorce by the indie folk group The Mountain Goats. A short-clip of the song randomly went viral on TikTok, inspiring a dance trend and helping the song wrack up tens of millions of views on Spotify.
“The Mountain Goats getting TikTok famous sort of feels like if “Ulysses” suddenly became the bestselling book on Amazon,” wrote Rebecca Jennings in Vox.
But the latest trend, at least within the parameters of my personal algorithm — seems to be a new-found enthusiasm for grunge and post-grunge music from the 1990s.
In addition to “Something In The Way” and “Iris,” there’s “Yellow Ledbetter,” a 1992 song by Pearl Jam. It’s a great song — maybe one legendary Seattle grunge band’s best — but it’s popularity on TikTok stems from Eddie Vedder’s garbled vocals.
The song has been used for over 4,000 videos on TikTok — a modest number, though Google Trends shows that interest in the decades old song has risen exponentially in the past few weeks.
This theory is largely speculative. According to TikTok, the hashtag “grunge” has been viewed 4.4 billion times globally. Is that a lot? Seems like a lot.
Indeed, Jackson’s most liked video is an absurd riff on Creed’s 1999 hit “Higher.” It’s racked up 1.5 million likes and has been viewed an astonishing 10.5 million times.
Folks who grew up listening to this music may feel the urge to scoff as beloved songs are stripped of their original meaning or context. But beneath the meta-jokes and layers of irony, there seems to exist a genuine appreciation for the music.
“A lot of people in the comments section think I was making fun of (these songs),” Jackson says. “I was like, I’m not! I know all the words … these songs are on my playlist when I go to work!”
The history of popular music is filled with stories of appropriation and desecration, often giving rise to new and exciting forms of art.
So just relax and enjoy it, grandpa.