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The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
avatar for Alexandria Arrieta

Alexandria Arrieta

University of Southern California
PhD Student

“This audio has potential”: Boundless Audio and the Performance (and Appropriation) of Identity on TikTok


“This audio has potential” is a comment frequently left by TikTok users when they think a video’s sound is going to go viral. The app, which enables users to lift audio directly from the videos of other users and use it to soundtrack their own videos, has made it so that odd songs and sounds have new circulatory potential. Over the past year, users chose esoteric songs like “Ameno” (2002) by French new-age musical project Era to soundtrack videos of pets displaying alien-like behaviors, they became obsessed with a song from a Russian cereal commercial, and they used Miley Cyrus’ adlibs from the transition music in the TV show Hannah Montana to make videos in which they rated their family members. TikTok users often mobilize bits and pieces of “found” audio in their performance of identity, speaking and singing through musical fragments, exclamations and noises that might have otherwise been discarded. The app is also an environment in which cultural appropriation runs rampant and audio creation is often miscredited. This kind of musical play has been a long time coming and stems from earlier platforms like Musical.ly (eventually integrated with TikTok), which had such a highly developed lip-syncing culture that users would draw from a common gestural language as they performed along to songs from the platform’s large musical database. This video presentation will provide a tour of some of the most compelling and bizarre tracings of how audio travels on TikTok and analyze the changing relationships between audio, identity, and embodiment within participatory digital networks built around viral sounds.

Alexandria Arrieta is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California. She researches issues related to race and gender in the music industry and is particularly interested in the relationship between popular music and memes. As a fellow within the Stanford|Warner Music Group Leadership Initiative, she worked on marketing strategies for emerging pop artists under Warner Records. Arrieta is also a singer-songwriter and producer who has toured across the west coast.