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What happens when your favorite thing goes viral?

A 2002 song by the Mountain Goats about a doomed divorce is suddenly big on TikTok. Why?

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle performing in 2015.
C Brandon/Redferns

Nobody is quite sure when or why it happened. But as of the past few weeks, the Mountain Goats became TikTok’s new favorite indie band.

This is weird not because young people are discovering music that predates their existence. That happens all the time, especially on TikTok, where at any point there is guaranteed to be at least five trending Abba songs. And it’s not weird because the song that made the Mountain Goats go viral is “No Children,” an incredibly dark divorce anthem between two fictional lovers. Weird and dark stuff gets big all the time on the platform; last year a six-hour experimental album about dementia became a viral TikTok challenge.

No, it’s weird that the Mountain Goats are TikTok famous because the Mountain Goats are perhaps the least likely candidates for “viral TikTok sensation” on the planet. The band, which formed 30 years ago (and, for long swaths, consisted of just one member) and originally recorded their music on DIY-style boomboxes, has released an astounding 20 albums. These albums seem relatively unconcerned with breakout singles or hits and more interested in shaping larger complex narratives about topics from Dungeons & Dragons to professional wrestling to child abuse.

Which is to say, it can be a bit daunting for would-be fans to tackle the band’s discography; there is simply so much of it, and so much subtext to sift through. The Mountain Goats getting TikTok famous sort of feels like if Ulysses suddenly became the bestselling book on Amazon.

Videos set to “No Children” first started getting tens of thousands of views in January and February and again over the summer. In early October, it went nuclear, possibly (from what I can tell) catalyzed by an 18-year-old who posted his reaction to the lyrics: “this song is way too depressing. It sounds like a middle aged man crying over a girl he met in high school. Like get over it dude.” (This is an objectively hilarious response to a widely beloved indie folk song.) “No Children” has since inspired its own dance trend, in which people use comically literal recreations to the lyrics, “I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand / And I hope you die.” There are self-deprecating jokes about being a depressed child listening to “No Children” before fully comprehending the words; there are people coming to terms with their relationships with their fathers. Even Jack Antonoff made a TikTok about it.

Largely, though, the videos I’m seeing are a sort of meta-reaction to the trend, made by longtime Mountain Goats fans who are talking about what it’s like to see a song and a band that was so deeply important to them get sucked into the infinite churn of trending content. “As a 2010-era hipster in recovery from an insufferable superiority complex, I am constantly forced to reckon with unlearning the impulse to gatekeep everything I love from everyone,” begins one TikTok. “And in an effort to combat that, because it’s the worst thing about me, here’s a crash course on the Mountain Goats.” There are others like this too, offering helpful guides on how to get started climbing the proverbial, erm, mountain.

When I asked fans on Twitter what they thought, people tended to reply that they were extremely happy that the band has found a new, young audience. “At first, I felt silly that my first thought was, ‘Wait they’re mine!’ But it’s kind of exciting to have everyone discover something you hold dear, even if it’s for a weird reason,” one woman wrote. Some were concerned that the nuance of the song, and the band’s lyrics in general, could get flattened by the context collapse of a 15-second clip in a TikTok video. “All of their lyrics are excellent and they cover so many themes and images with a completely groundbreaking form, and frankly, trying to compress their work in a 15-second video is quite reductionist,” said another.

@itskeyes

#duet with @13leu watch me hit the Tallahassee

♬ original sound - bleu

“I am a little worried that the specific portion of that song could create some misreadings and weird romanticization of ‘bad’ relationships,” one woman added. “The song really only makes sense in the context of the rest of [the album] Tallahassee, so if you hear just a snippet you might walk away with the sense that this is cool hip angst rather than a story of a really, really bad time in a couple’s relationship.” Some were nonplussed: “Maybe a couple of zoomers will really get into it and their music taste will improve. Sick. But my guess is that it’s just as ephemeral as any other social media meme. How’s that Fleetwood Mac revival going, again?”

No one is more surprised than the man behind it all, chief Mountain Goat John Darnielle, who found out about “No Children”’s skyrocketing popularity only after people started tweeting at him, and who graciously agreed to sit for a phone interview about an app he doesn’t use. “Obviously, when something like this happens you think a little bit and you laugh,” he says of how it felt when he saw how Spotify streams of “No Children” were closing in on the band’s biggest single, “This Year” (they’ve now surpassed it).

I wondered whether he’d been prepared for the likelihood that one of his songs would get big on TikTok, as so much of the music industry is now determined by its algorithm. “I kind of have some fairly old-fashioned dad-like values about what an artist ought to be thinking about,” he said. “If I’m sitting here thinking about my own virality too much, then I’m going to wind up stewing in an ocean of self-contempt.”

He also acknowledged the implicit pressure that artists must then capitalize on their virality. “I think many artists in our shoes would have said, ‘Maybe it’s time for us to start making our own TikToks.’ And I would say, ‘No, I’m not going to be the 54-year-old sidling up to the cool party with you kids. I’m not going to do the Steve Buscemi-with-the-skateboard thing.” The idea that an artist can completely sit out a meme cycle is increasingly novel (consider Taylor Swift immediately releasing her re-recorded version of “Wildest Dreams” as soon as it became a TikTok trend, or Fleetwood Mac joining TikTok in response to the viral video set to “Dreams”).

“Both the culture industry and the music industry have a lot invested in the idea that the music of today is for the youth, and youth will buy it and give us money for it,” Darnielle said. “But if the youth land on a Steve Miller Band song, they go, ‘This is a good song. I like this one.’ If they find songs in the public domain, I think the industry has a great fear of that.”

As the internet has allowed folks of all ages, but especially tech-literate young people, to rediscover cultural artifacts from the past, fans of the band told me they’ve noticed an increase in the number of teens and 20-somethings at their shows. “It’s really cool to have it affirmed that music is a gigantic conversation between all generations,” Darnielle says. “I am a father of two. There is a certain joy in sort of feeling like, well, the kids have got a thing going on that I’m not going to fully get. But I can just enjoy watching. I think people fear getting older and fear that they’ll feel left out, but there’s a kind of buoyancy in that left-out quality sometimes, if you ride it the right way.”

In recent performances, Darnielle has addressed the elephant in the room before playing “No Children.” “He said something to the effect of, ‘And now for the uncomfortable tension of whether the old man knows about the TikTok thing’ while winding up with the intro, then made a few jokes about how no one needs a 54-year-old on TikTok claiming they have something to say,” a concertgoer in Boston told me. The irony is, of course, that it’s precisely that kind of self-awareness and humility that TikTok could use more of.

The way Darnielle sees it, going viral doesn’t diminish the value of the song, it only spreads its influence. “Everybody who’s been enjoying the song should know how grateful it makes us feel that our stuff is entertaining somebody,” he says. “For any entertainer, that’s the highest prize. You cannot ask for anything more, right?”

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