In October, Sadie Jean, singer-songwriter and sophomore at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, hit the road with friends to work on songwriting. One issue in particular, a plea to reconnect with someone who has slipped away, has started to take shape.
Jean has a soft but solid voice, and the song “WYD Now?” Is a clever nugget of the apprehension of the coming of age:
I don’t wanna be 20 and something, and always on my mind about
17 in my room talking, you said now we would be
Paint the walls of our shared apartment
You are always all I want and
I think we could work it out
The chorus ends with a cold calling question: “So what are you doing now?” “
John was doing TikToks on the trip, and in one, a friend urges him to share the song with his subject: “You have to send it to him.”
Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. But what she chose to do next almost certainly caught his eye. She released an excerpt from “WYD Now? As a sound that TikTok users could add to their own heartbreak videos.
Then, on Thanksgiving, she launched an ‘open verse challenge’, a reliable TikTok gimmick for increasing the virality of a song, in which a musician performs a song but leaves space for a collaborator, in the hope others on the app could duet the video and fill the blank space with something special.
Challenges like these have become routine, but Jean’s chorus, a research question in search of an answer, turned out to be a perfect fit for the format. In her video, she lip-synced her chorus in a wooden spoon, then extended the spoon to the camera with a plaintive look in her eyes, seeking resolution.
In the weeks that followed, dozens took on the eight bar challenge, with a wide array of approaches. Last week, the best of times turned out: a bona fide star took the bait. Rapper and singer Lil Yachty delivered a synthetic and adorable line. First, he played with the structure, jumping before the start of the eight bars, telegraphing emotional candor and urgency: “Fiiiiiiiinallyyyydoingggggbetttttterrrrr.” And his verses were tender, meeting Jean’s despair with a deep sigh of resignation.
Yachty’s verse capped Six Crazy Weeks for “WYD Now?” Which has become a kind of micromeme on TikTok. The answers traveled a wild arc, mixing music and comedy, sincerity and absurdity. (Also, a rigorous commentary from Charlie Puth.)
First, there were the well-matched duets – @theofficialkristylee writing from an older sister’s perspective; a complex sigh from @zakharartist; a flash of lame skepticism from @heyitsjewelss; @davinchi flirtatious therapy lecture; and a Drake-style rap by @lucasstadvec (“My meanness is that I try not to come back with you / You are bad for me and it’s unfair that I am not bad for you”). Those who chose to rap in the eight bars took a more thematic latitude, with very detailed verses about sex and violence comically juxtaposed in John’s seriousness.
The most striking and natural effort was that of @ zai1k_, whose voice is a motor purr but sings with light silk. “You wanna go, girl, so I won’t hold you back / Don’t say you need me, bae, because I told you / You keep walking around, you act like I have to, but I don’t owe it to you girl. “
Consuming these duets all at once highlights not only the glut of raw talent that permeates TikTok every day, but also the collective power of a myriad of approaches. The singers have found unique counter melodies; rappers have explored intriguing counter-rhythms. Some songs took up the theme of age in John’s original, and several made reference to the spoon.
Over the weeks, the collaborations got more absurd – Jean was replaying some of the funniest, on the joke she had unwittingly made – and even opportunistic. This slight thirst began to professionalize the challenge, recalling, in a way, the original energy and promise of “American Idol,” when contestants were asked to impose their personalities to limitless standards. For good measure, @hashtagcatie – that’s Catie Turner, the affable eccentric of “Idol” Season 16 – also did a Lucy Dacus-style duet. The same goes for @franciskarelofficial, who rose to fame on TikTok last year in a similar challenge from pop star Meghan Trainor.
The finished version of “WYD Now?” »Only for Sadie Jean? was released on streaming services on December 10; it only exists as a duo within the walls of the application. But perhaps sensing for a moment, another young singer, Stacey Ryan, challenged a scintillating cabaret-style number in late December.
@ zai1k_ also jumped on this challenge, his verse is as smooth as the one he wrote for Jean. And he and Ryan also raised the stakes, announcing that a full version of their collaboration would be released on streaming services later this week.
It’s a clever move, to take the dashing energy of an impromptu collaboration to a more formal stage. But it also opens up the idea of what exactly a song release could be like in this creative moment. On the streaming services, you can hear the solo version of Jean, but all of the aforementioned collaborators are also part of the song’s journey. Why not release an EP with all the different duets, the modern equivalent of the remix EP of yesteryear, or a dancehall riddim album? No one is going anywhere alone anymore.