How a New Strain of Goth Alt-Pop Evolved on TikTok
by Michelle Hyun Kim, a Third Bridge Creative contributor whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Teen Vogue, and Pitchfork.
In February, less than a year since he started releasing music online, a relatively unknown Canadian artist called ThxSoMch cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with his breakout hit “SPIT IN MY FACE!” The achievement came after the angsty track had been going viral on TikTok since October, when the young singer-songwriter posted its first short snippet: a screen recording of BandLab, the music production app that he used to make it.
“SPIT IN MY FACE!” sounded novel in its amalgamation of different genres. Though its base is a sped-up post-punk guitar and bass pattern indebted to the Cure, made even more punchy with upbeat dance drums, its melodies and lyrics skew towards pop-punk and SoundCloud rap. "You broke me down, I kept on cutting/I bleed for you and now I'm gushing," ThxSoMch sings in a British accent. Possessing the viscerality of an XXXTentacion song, the dreamy melancholy of goth music, weirdo ad-libs in style of Playboi Carti, and a dash of manic internet vibes, the song has since racked up over 164.58M Spotify streams and more than 88.9K TikTok videos.
The success of “SPIT IN MY FACE!” is indicative of an emerging strain of gothic alt-pop that has been gaining steam on TikTok for the past year. While the artists operating in this style are clearly inspired by goth rock and post-punk (made popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s by bands like The Cure and Joy Division) and darkwave (the moody counterpart to new wave’s bright synth-pop), their vocal delivery and production style results in music that’s hyper-digital and categorically agnostic—naturally leading to its online popularity. Below, we examine the songs that led to this rising sound that’s beginning to flood the internet and take over the charts.
Laying the Groundwork: Mareux
Mareux, a Los Angeles based producer who has been issuing music since 2013, first sparked a darkwave resurgence on TikTok with viral hit “The Perfect Girl,” an interpolation of the Cure’s 1987 song of the same title. While he borrows the original lyrics and overall gothic mood, his track features completely new production of haunting synths and a menacing beat, as well as new melodies, which he delivers in a gloomy baritone. Though he first uploaded the track on SoundCloud in 2015, it only began to properly blow up in summer 2021 after a few TikTok influencers used it for their videos. That led to a steep increase in the track’s SoundCloud popularity throughout the month of October 2021, when it shot up from 213,863 streams to 12,335,067 streams. (Now the song has over 17.3M SoundCloud streams and is steadily growing.) That December, Mareux officially released the track on Spotify for the first time, where it has since accumulated 206M streams—with its “retrowave remix” now clocking it at 29M streams and the instrumental version boasting over 18M streams.
While it’s hard to approximate exactly how many times “The Perfect Girl” has been used on TikTok due to its countless remixes and edits, a conservative tally is 223.8K videos. The track’s popularity coasted on the platform throughout 2022, due to its association with a meme of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of the 2000 film American Psycho, who has become a hero for a certain subset of young men on TikTok who uphold “the sigma grindset”—which GQ UK believes is a mere evolution of incel culture. (“The Perfect Girl” holds the No. 1 slot and appeared for 154 days overall on the extremely popular Spotify playlist called “SIGMA MALE TIKTOK MUSIC,” which has 610,250 likes.) Though there is nothing explicit about the song or Mareux’s message that encourages the sigma “lone wolf” mentality, it seems like online users who might ascribe to being sigmas also identify with the dreariness and intensity of Mareux’s music.
The Internet Trendsetter: Yung Lean
By now, Yung Lean is the veritable godfather for extremely online musicians who play with the boundaries of rap. The Swedish musician established himself as an early viral rap star with his 2013 hit “Ginseng Strip 2002,” whose hazy, electronic sound and playfully referential lyrics foreshadowed a future sound for experimental rappers and Pluggnb and hyperpop artists alike. The cloud rap track has stood the test of time, as proven by its sudden uptick in popularity on TikTok last year that led to over 11M videos, making it the most used song on the platform in 2021. And while Yung Lean and his Drain Gang collective were first written off as viral flukes, they’ve since steadily built a strong cult following among Gen-Z listeners worldwide through consistent output. Over the course of the last five years, Yung Lean’s YouTube following has gone from 422,370 to 1,050,000 YouTube subscribers.
Yung Lean brought post-punk into a rap context with his 2022 hit “Bliss,” featuring FKA twigs, which now boasts 3.5M YouTube views and 10.6M Spotify streams. On the track, which samples the 1987 post-punk song “Na Zare” by the Soviet band Alyans, Yung Lean raps in a brooding whisper about running from love and The Exorcist, as animated sound effects flank his lines. Though it didn’t take off on TikTok, the single seems to be part of the larger alt-pop zeitgeist inspired by doom and goth aesthetics—especially as Yung Lean has established himself as a forward-thinking trendsetter in experimental rap.
The BandLab Success Story: d4vd
With his breakout hit “Romantic Homicide,” a gothic indie soul ballad that peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard singles chart last year, d4vd proved that all it takes to go viral is just your iPhone, Apple earbuds, and some ingenuity. In late 2021, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Houston, Texas started posting his BandLab song sketches onto TikTok, where there was an emerging community of young creators posting their own song drafts and exchanging tips. Similarly to how “type beat” producers on YouTube and SoundCloud use popular artists in the names of their instrumentals to make their beat come up in search results, BandLab users on TikTok also often use artist hashtags—like #Drake or #SZA, for example—to push their songs into more user feeds.
After making songs that veered from indie rock to R&B and hyperpop, d4vd finally hit gold in July 2022 with his snippet of “Romantic Homicide,” a melancholic song that has grabbed listeners for its arresting lyrics like, “In the back of my mind / I killed you.” In interviews, he’s mentioned that he found the instrumental for the song on YouTube and just recorded vocals on top, which, again, seems like an evolution of “type beat” rap culture for musical teens trying their hand at instantaneous virality on TikTok. Since its release, the track has since been used in over 356.1K TikToks and garnered over 441.95M Spotify streams.
But as a teen finding new music on the internet and seemingly unaware of genre boundaries, d4vd also tried his hand at his own post-punk-inspired song. On his April 2022 single “Dirty Secrets,” which sounds a ton like the Cure, he sings in a pitched-up British accent about not being “escape from this place called home.” While it never took off like “Romantic Homicide,” it proved that a scrappy take on post-punk could be made merely through a YouTube search and a mobile app.
Engineering Virality: ThxSoMch
When scanning the TikTok profile of ThxSoMch, it’s clear that “SPIT IN YOUR FACE!” was created with the influence of all three of these artists. In his first TikToks, ThxSoMch can be seen using the hashtags #YungLean and #d4vd, revealing that he was not only influenced sonically by these artists, but wanted to tap into an audience on Tiktok who were already their fans. His process of promoting his work using BandLab snippets, pitching up his vocals, and also finding instrumentals through YouTube is also inspired by d4vd, as he implied in one TikTok comment.
ThxSoMch also used the popularity of “The Perfect Girl” to his advantage. Likely aware that The Cure is now gaining more attention due to Mareux’s hit song, he’s tagged the Cure on all of his posts featuring “SPIT IN YOUR FACE!” Last fall, he also released a song called “Imperfect Girl,” which seems like another nod to Mareux.
Though ThxSoMch cleverly engineered his virality by culling from other trending songs, “SPIT IN YOUR FACE!” is also a genuinely addictive blend of the artist’s influences that reveals his commitment to melodrama and knack for writing shocking lyrics. Now, it’s become a hit that has been used to soundtrack everything from alt fashion videos, tattoo artists, gymtokers, video game compilations, anime edits, extreme sports clips, and even content associated with the military and war.
As for ThxSoMch, he’s continuing to promote himself by posting about his weird and semi-dangerous stunts, like “wrecking a rental car” by trying to “drift in three feet of mud” on someone’s property to film a music video, sneaking into a mall with dirt bikes, or harassing store employees. Whether he’s sustaining his relevancy through his music or through image-making, it seems that he knows that on TikTok, people sometimes aren’t just into the alt-pop music. Instead, they’re often just infatuated with the image and mindset of “being alt."