A weird thing happened in September 2022. Mary On A Cross, a three-year-old Ghost song that originally appeared on the B-side of 2019’s Seven Inches Of Satanic Panic single, entered the US Billboard Top 100, unexpectedly giving the Swedish band their biggest hit yet.
Its belated success was down to one thing: TikTok. A few weeks earlier, a TikTokker named @editingtherapy had used a slowed-down version of the song to soundtrack a compilation of scenes from Stranger Things. The connection to the hyper-successful Netflix show pulled people in, but it was Mary On A Cross that caught their attention. On the back of its inclusion in the original clip, the song itself soon went viral, eventually appearing in more than 300,000 videos and clocking up a staggering one billion hashtag views.
“I think it was my daughter who spotted it first,” Ghost frontman Tobias Forge tells Metal Hammer. “She said, ‘I heard Mary On A Cross on TikTok.’ She’s done that before with other songs. Then I was summoned to a label meeting and they were like, ‘Are you aware of what’s going on?’, and they started presenting stats.’”
Still, he remained sceptical. “I take things like that with a huge grain of salt, because I’m not a TikTok user, so I don’t know what it means. I know that people listening to a streamed song does not mean they like it.”
Tobias isn’t the only person from the metal community arching an eyebrow at TikTok and its potential influence. Mention of the platform can elicit a range of responses, from confusion at what exactly it is to disapproval of the Gen-Z lip-syncers and influencers it’s arguably most famous for.
But things are changing. TikTok’s evolved into a powerful, if complex, part of the music industry. It’s a tastemaker at our fingertips, something that can potentially draw attention to songs and genres that might otherwise be ignored by wider audiences – including metal.
“I absolutely think that TikTok is going to be behind the revival of metal, and we’ll see metal become as popular as it was in the late 90s and the early 2000s,” says Kasey Karlsen, singer with rising US band Deadlands and an active TikTokker. “It’s just a matter of time before bands are literally making their careers off of it.”
With one billion active users spread across 154 countries, TikTok is the third largest social media network, behind only Facebook and Instagram. Originally used mainly as a platform for short lip-sync videos, it has grown into a place where everyone from comedians and cooks to artists and therapists can create content, pushing it to the wider world through an algorithm-supported feed or via users’ individual ‘For You’ pages.
Today, TikTok has become such an integral and powerful part of the music industry that viral hits from the app now have their own category on Spotify. There’s little difference between pop radio and TikTok – the former plays songs that have trended on the app.
Viral metal and rock TikTok hits are less frequent but memorable. In 2021, Bring Me The Horizon’s eight-year-old song Can You Feel My Heart was picked up by users, sparking a trend that involved people posing under fluorescent lights to the song’s chorus. More recently, Nickelback’s 2014 single She Keeps Me Up hit big when it was used to soundtrack thousands of “thirst trap” videos – clips that involve users dancing or posing raunchily. “Thanks for all the love for She Keeps Me Up,” the band wrote next to a compilation video showcasing the trend. “That one was pretty unexpected!”
Ghost’s Mary On A Cross, meanwhile, took on a life beyond its original Stranger Things-related success, with fans creating videos exploring beauty stereotypes, centred around the lyric ‘your beauty never ever scared me’. Elsewhere, individual creators and influencers can notch up big numbers on their own. Guitarist Kiki Wong, who posts a mix of skits and dazzling instrumental metal covers, has 1.3 million followers.
‘Metaltok’ is the unofficial name for TikTok’s vibrant metal community (the #Metaltok hashtag has close to 900 million views). It’s a place where users can engage with the genre by watching or making covers, memes, collaborative duets, challenges, fan-filmed live recordings, behind-the-scenes artist content, band/song rankings, and comedic commentary about the community.
Erica LeAnn is a metal influencer and co-founder of the MoshTok account, which creates everything from memes and comedy skits to interactive challenges, and encourages conversation about music and metal culture.
“It was a shock to me how big the metal community really is on TikTok. I’m seeing all these new creators making content and a lot of their accounts are doing well, says Erica, who created MoshTok with six other influencers during the pandemic. “I’m seeing all these new creators making content and a lot of their accounts are doing well. I see a lot of memes, but also videos about stereotypes of metalheads – like the fact that we all wear black.”
@ericaleann_ (opens in new tab) ♬ avenged sevenfold ranking - Erica LeAnn (opens in new tab)
It’s not just metal fans and independent creators who have realised the potential of TikTok. A growing number of more clued-up bands are active on it, among them Korn, Evanescence and Bring Me The Horizon. BMTH singer Oli Sykes is a prolific TikTok creator, using the platform to generate an intimate space for fan interaction by ‘duetting’ or live-reacting to fan-created videos, as well as by posting behind-the-scenes clips relating to his band.
Surprisingly, Iron Maiden have an active presence on TikTok, albeit via their digital team. Still, it shows an awareness on the part of the veteran band of the app’s value in bridging the generation gap and reaching a potential new audience.
It can also be a powerful tool for new bands. Deadlands singer Kasey Karlsen joined TikTok earlier this year, shortly after the band formed in Long Island, New York. To appeal to her audience, Kasey uploads video covers of various metal songs by the likes of Motionless In White, Asking Alexandria and Beartooth (her biggest cover, Diary Of Jane by Breaking Benjamin, has been watched by more than 750,000 people).
“I try my best to pick bands that are influential for us, and I’ll kind of just use those to my advantage,” she says. “In the beginning of a video I’ll mention we have a show coming up, or when we have merch, and if people are interested enough in the TikTok cover I create, they go right to our bio.”
This approach is working for Deadlands. “TikTok has given us about 14,000 monthly listeners for a band that just started seven months ago,” explains Kasey, who now has more than 200,000 followers. “We’ve had over 100,000 streams on our new EP [Sentence Of Myself] and first single [Crushed]. It’s crazy to me.”
@deadlandsband (opens in new tab) ♬ Deadweight - Deadlands (opens in new tab)
TikTok videos can become successful for multiple reasons, but it’s ultimately human emotion that is the key to driving popularity. If a video is relatable or inspires a strong reaction, then the viewer will be more attached to the soundtrack behind it, driving them to listen to the accompanying song via streaming services. Often, as in the case of Ghost, the band themselves don’t need to be involved in making it happen.
“That was never something that we planned,” says Tobias Forge. “Even the label said so: ‘We wish we did this for you, but we didn’t do shit.’”
Yet despite its clear usefulness for bands and fans, many in the metal community remain suspicious of TikTok. “I think people are stuck in their ways,” says Kasey. “They’re used to having the traditional way of finding music on Spotify or YouTube, but they don’t want to get on a platform just for the virality of it.”
Ironically, even some TikTok users view the platform as a passing trend – or at least a stepping stone to something bigger and better. “I think TikTok is going to follow [now-defunct short-form video-sharing platform] Vine,” says MoshTok’s Erica LeAnn. “It’s gonna run its course and then eventually there’s going to be a new platform that offers something even more unique than TikTok, and everyone’s gonna go run over there.”
Whether TikTok sticks around or not remains to be seen, but right now it’s giving a helping hand to metal bands and making it easier for the world to discover heavy music. It’s a fan club, digital tastemaker, social media app and promotional tool all rolled into one, offering more exposure and opportunities to metal musicians and fans at a time when it’s needed more than ever.
Despite his scepticism, Tobias Forge recognises the part TikTok has played in the success of Mary On The Cross, and the wider benefits that come with it. “We attracted so many new people who got sucked into this and fell into the rabbit hole of everything that we created,” enthuses Tobias. “And that’s a great thing because you always need more people.”