How Big Can a TikTok Duet Get?
In October, Sadie Jean, a singer-songwriter and a sophomore at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, hit the road with some friends to work on writing songs. One particular number, a plea for reconnection with someone who slipped away, began to take shape.
Jean has a sweet yet sturdy voice, and the song, “WYD Now?,” is an astute nugget of coming-of-age trepidation:
I don’t wanna be 20-something, and still in my head about
17 in my bedroom talking, you said that by now we’d
Paint the walls of our shared apartment
You’re still everything I want and
I think we could work it out
The chorus ends with a cold-call query: “So what are you doing now?”
Jean was making TikToks on the trip, and in one of them, a friend urges her to share the song with its subject: “You have to send it to him.”
Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. But what she chose to do next almost certainly got his attention. She released a snippet of “WYD Now?” as a sound that could be appended by TikTok users to their own heartbreak videos.
Then, on Thanksgiving, she issued an “open verse challenge,” a reliable TikTok gimmick to boost a song’s virality, in which a musician performs a song but leaves a gap for a collaborator, with the hope that others on the app might duet the video and fill the empty space with something special.
Challenges like these have become routine, but Jean’s chorus, a searching question in need of a reply, turned out to be perfectly suited for the format. In her video, she lip-synced her chorus into a wooden spoon, then extended the spoon to the camera with a plaintive look in her eyes, seeking resolution.
In the weeks since, dozens have taken up the eight-bar challenge, with a wide range of approaches. Last week, the best-case scenario unfolded: A bona fide star took the bait. The rapper and singer Lil Yachty delivered a synthetic, adoring reply. First, he played with the structure, jumping in before the beginning of the eight bars, telegraphing emotional directness and urgency: “Fiiiiiiinallyyyydoingggggbettttterrrrr.” And his verse was tender, meeting Jean’s desperation with deep-sigh resignation.
First, there were the well-matched duets — @theofficialkristylee writing from the perspective of an older sister; an intricate sigh by @zakharartist; a bolt of lame-ex skepticism from @heyitsjewelss; seductive therapy talk from @davinchi; and an early-Drake-style rap from @lucasstadvec (“My pettiness is me trying not to get back with you/You bad for me and it’s unfair that I’m not bad for you”). Those who chose to rap in the eight bars took more thematic latitude, with vividly detailed verses about sex and violence comically juxtaposed against Jean’s earnestness.
The most striking and natural effort was by @zai1k_, whose voice is an engine purr but sings with a light bristle. “You wanna leave, gal, then I won’t hold you/Don’t say you need me, bae, ’cause I done told you/You keep walking around, you acting like I owe you, but I don’t owe you, girl.”
Consuming these duets in a big gulp highlights not only the surfeit of raw talent that pulses through TikTok every day, but also the collective power of myriad approaches. Singers found unique countermelodies; rappers explored intriguing counterrhythms. Some songs picked up the age theme in Jean’s original, and more than a few referenced the spoon.
As the weeks passed, the collaborations became more absurd — Jean would re-duet some of the funny ones, in on the joke she unintentionally made — and even opportunistic. This light thirst began to professionalize the challenge, recalling, in a way, the early energy and promise of “American Idol,” when contestants were urged to impose personality onto edgeless standards. For good measure, @hashtagcatie — that’s Catie Turner, the affable eccentric from “Idol” Season 16 — did a Lucy Dacus-esque duet, too. So did @franciskarelofficial, who bounded to fame on TikTok last year during a similar challenge issued by the pop star Meghan Trainor.
The finished Sadie Jean-only version of “WYD Now?” was released to streaming services on Dec. 10; it exists as a duet only within the walls of the app. But perhaps sensing a moment, another young singer, Stacey Ryan, started a challenge for a sparkly cabaret-style number in late December.
@zai1k_ hopped on that challenge as well, his verse just as seamless as the one he wrote for Jean. And he and Ryan elevated the stakes, too, announcing that a full version of their collaboration would be released to streaming services later this week.
It’s a savvy move, to graduate the frisky energy of impromptu collaboration to a more formal stage. But it also opens up the idea of what, exactly, a song release could be in this creative moment. On streaming services, you can hear Jean’s solo version, but all of the aforementioned collaborators are part of the song’s journey, too. Why not release an EP with all the different duets, the modern-day equivalent of the remix EP of old, or a dancehall riddim album? No one gets anywhere alone anymore.