From Kate Bush to Glass Animals, how TikTok and TV help give music a new life

Glass Animals band members playing various instruments on stage.
Joe Seaward, Dave Bayley and Ed Irwin-Singer of Glass Animals perform live for SiriusXM and Pandora’s Small Stage Series in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for SiriusXM

“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was released in 1958. It wasn’t until 2023 that the song hit the Billboard Top 100. Why? The New York Times said it’s thanks in part to singer Brenda Lee getting on TikTok.

Whether it be reviving a decades-old holiday classic or breathing new life into an older release, TikTok, television and movies hold great sway. Where DJs and dance clubs once influenced people’s musical tastes, social media and entertainment are the new tastemakers as they introduce or resurrect music. This leads to songs released years ago hitting charts in a way they didn’t upon release.

Headshot of Andrew Mall.
Associate professor of music Andrew Mall says social media and television fill the role DJs and dance clubs once played in helping people discover music. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This type of rediscovery of old music has long been a staple of the music industry dating to the 1950s when the emergence of the long-playing record allowed labels to print and profit off older properties, said Andrew Mall, an associate professor of music at Northeastern University. But the shifting nature of the industry and social media means listeners are rediscovering dated music in new ways like TikTok.

“What social media has done is redistributed how music discovery works,” Mall said. “It’s no longer ‘Oh I’m going to pay attention to this music to this music critic or this DJ.’ It’s now ‘I’m also paying attention to these playlists — many of which are algorithmically generated — and I’m also paying attention to my friends and I have a really easy way of discovering what people I’m in touch with through social media and through apps.’”

Before social media and streaming, people discovered older music through the radio and DJs. While record labels started pushing older properties in the 1950s, the ’70s was a huge turning point when the rise of the dance club and the subdividing of the radio market into different stations for different genres allowed people new avenues to discover new (and old) music, Mall said.

In the 2000s, movies, television shows and other media began playing more of a role in music discovery as productions started putting more focus on their soundtracks, Mall said.

“All of a sudden, we’re green-lighting larger budgets for major film and video games projects,” Mall said. “We have the rise of the music supervisor in Hollywood and elsewhere as a more powerful, professional curator than had been before. We also have on the music side the need for new revenue streams. That’s really a 21st-century story.”

Musicians have been benefiting ever since then. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” was prominently featured in “Love, Actually” which, along with social media, helped it live on as chart-topper nearly 30 years after its release. (It’s currently the No. 2 song on Billboard’s TikTok Top 50.) Kate Bush also got a boost. Her single “Running Up That Hill” hit the Top 10 on U.S. Billboard charts last year, nearly 40 years after its release, after it was featured in “Stranger Things.” 

It’s not just decades-old songs benefiting from social media either. The Glass Animals released “Heat Waves” in 2020. Yet the song topped Billboard’s Top 100 Chart in 2022, breaking records at the time for its 59-week rise to the top. The likely culprit behind this gradual ascent? The song became popular on TikTok.

It’s hard to predict which songs will take off, Mall said. However, some things catch on faster through social media because it feels more organic to users than consuming content they know is being pushed on them through ads.

“If we could identify a reason or method for how these songs go viral, gosh, we could sell that for so much money,” Mall said. “So many entertainment industry executives have tried purposely to make things go viral and it doesn’t work. Part of what makes virality fun on the consumer side is you feel like you’re in on something that the industry hasn’t created. So much of our media consumption is ‘OK, here’s what Netflix says I should watch.’ Virality is fun, because it’s like ‘oh here’s what all the other TikTok users are doing.’ It’s not imposed from the top.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.