Kirsty Liu's Unexpected Journey to Going Viral on Chinese TikTok
Has this ever happened to you? You’re studying for midterm exams and you get a text from a friend saying that a song you wrote at age 15 has gone viral.
No? That’s not universal? In the case of first-semester student Kirsty Liu, that’s exactly what happened this fall when her song “若把你 (Ruò bǎ nǐ)” started racking up millions of views on Chinese TikTok after it was used as the backing track to a dance video. The popularity led to Liu being invited to film a performance of the song on Chinese television that will air on New Year’s Eve.
Listen to "Ruò bǎ nǐ" by Kirsty Liu:
Liu says that the song’s title means “Metaphor” (though literal translations also define it as “If You”), and that she wrote it in 2015 when she was 15 years old as a tribute to her best friend and musical collaborator. She recorded it at a nearby studio in her hometown of Chengdu, China, using allowance money she’d been saving up, a trend that she continued until she left to finish middle and high school in Michigan, Illinois. She eventually released the song in 2017, and that, she thought, was that.
After high school, music remained a passion, but took a backseat to what she thought would be a more suitable career in international law. She completed a year of studies at Lehigh University in 2019, but ended up going back to China for two gap years during the height of the pandemic. It was during this period that she was invited to compete on the reality show 我的音乐你听吗—which literally translates to “Do you listen to my music?” but the show is more commonly known as The Next Banger. Unlike similar music competition shows such as American Idol, The Next Banger focuses on discovering artists that write original music.
Watch Liu perform her song "白色面包车" (tr. "White Van") on The Next Banger:
Despite performing “Ruò bǎ nǐ” live on the show—and ultimately placing second in the competition—the song still hadn’t caught on. However, one of Liu’s fellow contestants and roommate during the show’s run, Runyu (Georgina) Qian ’21, a singer and pípá player who had attended Berklee, noticed Liu’s potential. “She saw me sing; she’s like, ‘Kirsty, why are you not doing music? You should put yourself more out there musically,’” Liu said. “I just really started thinking what my true passion was. I thought I had a different focus. So after the competition, I dropped out of Lehigh and I started my application to Berklee.”
While Liu is only in her first semester at Berklee, being grafted into a musical environment has already helped provide a foundation for her passion. “Now, I still write songs. I draw inspirations from life as always,” she said. “But now I can play around with the chords differently, instead of just, like, the basic standard chords. I can apply what I learn in class.”
And that brings us back to the moment where Liu’s studying for midterms only to discover that “Ruò bǎ nǐ,” this song that was inspired by her first musical connection, had blown up on Chinese TikTok. At the time, she didn’t even have a TikTok account, and promoting the song just wasn’t her concern. “Ever since I released the song, I just kind of, you know, put it aside. I continued writing, and then that song was just online for people to listen to,” she said. “Cause you know how, I'm sure in like Western industry as well, you're trying to make [a] song go viral, but sometimes your intention doesn't necessarily match your outcome.”
It’s almost as if the world knew that Liu’s journey from a school music club in Chengdu to Berklee was complete, that she’d finally found a place where she could accept her identity as a musician.
For Liu, it all goes back to community. “Every time there's a community, I hold onto it, and my music ability improves exponentially every time I'm immersed in a musical community. And then it [would] stop because I’d have to do school academics. And now I’m at Berklee. I just get to take advantage of this community, infinitely so.”