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Benson Boone's 'Beautiful Things,' the TikTok hit we just can't quit

Benson Boone's song "Beautiful Things" has crossed over from TikTok phenomenon to full-on global chart hit.
Dennis Leupold
Benson Boone's song "Beautiful Things" has crossed over from TikTok phenomenon to full-on global chart hit.

This essay first appeared in the NPR Music newsletter. Sign up for early access to articles like this one, Tiny Desk exclusives, listening recommendations and more.

Today I have a song stuck in my head. Actually it's been in there for weeks, resurfacing, irritating me as much as it gives me pleasure. In truth, only a fragment of Benson Boone's "Beautiful Things" won't let me go: the moment when this TikTok-turned-global-chart-hit takes off like a bottle rocket from the warm grassy field of its strummy beginning and explodes, busting open the heavens as Boone shows off the bare-chested Chris Cornell physique beneath the Noah Kahan Pendleton. "Don't ... take ... these BEAUTIFUL THINGS that I've GOT," Boone wails as the crescendo hits. Seconds before, the song was a warm bed where Boone lay with the girlfriend who'd gained his parents' approval; now the whole room is on fire.

I love "Beautiful Things." I also kind of hate it. It's a song of uplift with a bitter core, one that feels more than a little threatening to the object of Boone's adoration — that girlfriend who is allowed to spend the night in his family home, but who could walk out just as easily, wreck everything, leave him screaming into the void that that explosive chorus opens wide. The song is definitely grounded in contemporary Christian music — something my niece Meghan, my advisor on all things Kahan-adjacent, noticed before I did, texting me that American Idol dropout Boone "kinda sounds like a very talented megachurch singer." I have been to such services, and know the feeling of being enraptured by thousands of voices climbing scales in unison; it felt amazing, but I knew I was being manipulated. "Beautiful Things" does the same thing: It soothes, pins you to the ground, comforts again. Positively John Donne! Batter my heart, cute Benson Boone! Who can resist? I can't, and that's a little off-putting.

But I'm fascinated by the twist that Boone's leap toward grunge glory presents. Probably unintentionally, the song's chorus offers a window into masculinity on the verge of turning toxic. Boone's persona is pretty much sweetness and light; he's a Mormon, the only boy in a family of four sisters who spent his childhood in Washington State backpacking and perfecting his backflips. I appreciate that his breakthrough hit reveals another side of this simple soul, the existential insecurity that, in any person, can become furious if it festers. The song's gentle verses tell of the narrator's troubled mind, his inability to trust someone who offers him companionship and his tendency to be passive-aggressive, to "sit and wait till it's gone." The climactic chorus brilliantly captures what can happen when a boy who's used to getting what he wants suddenly realizes the entire world wasn't built for him.

The thing is, though, you need to hear the whole song to grasp this complexity, and most people didn't, at least initially. As a TikTok favorite, it was reduced to the chorus, clipped to just a little over eight bars, the climax without the foreplay or the afterglow. "Beautiful Things" loses a lot when it's excerpted. But even as its deeper potential fades away, it gains the flexibility TikTok requires: It's no longer about a specific — if widely relatable — form of emotional instability. Now it can be applied by anyone who wants to convey catharsis.

TikTok teaches us to focus exclusively on hooks and choruses. This isn't a radical shift from previous listening practices, exactly — in many settings before the internet age, hooks and choruses leapt out and were repeated, embedding themselves in fans' heads. Reach for a memory with me: You're at a show by your favorite band ... let's say it's My Chemical Romance. Frank and Ray are furiously riffing, the rhythm section pummels out that primal rock beat to "I'm Not Okay." Gerard screams out the first few words, but as he does you're yelling in your pal's ear, eyeing the hot goth a row away from you, dodging the empty beer cup some a**hole just threw. Then the chorus comes, and you're shouting, utterly swept up: "I'M NOT... O.... KAAAYYY!" You're immersed. This is your favorite song, for at least the lengths of that outburst. The chorus called you to attention.

The same thing can happen as you weave through traffic on the freeway, do reps at the gym or julienne carrots for dinner. The chorus is usually what grabs you. Sometimes it's another song element, a phrase or sound that jumps out — even sound effects, like the gunshots that give way to a cash register ding in M.I.A.'s classic "Paper Planes." (My hands involuntarily signal a stickup when I hear it.) In cases like this, the whole song still registers, but that arresting element is what grabs you and what lingers. Think of it this way: The song is a face with which you fall in love. When someone asks you what captured your heart, you'd likely say, their mouth. Their eyes. Love that lasts embraces another person's whole being, but attraction is a laser.

TikTok is all attraction, no big picture. The many who've soundtracked their TikToks with "Beautiful Things'' have used it to signify appreciation for the song, but also to commemorate the thrill of becoming engaged, show off the unregulated enthusiasm of their toddlers, share the satisfaction of a good workout routine and much more. That's what makes "Beautiful Things" a great pop song: At exactly the moment when its distinguishing power emerges, it also empties out to accommodate whatever a listener brings to it. What it doesn't do is guarantee that the song will last. Something has to create a foundation from musical and lyrical detail. The tremble in Shirley Alston Reeves' voice in "Will You Love Me Tomorrow"; the choir hollering "let it rock, let it roll" that Mick Ronson persuaded John Mellencamp to add to "Jack & Diane"; the swirling reggaeton percussion in "Hips Don't Lie" — these particulars make a pop hit influential, beloved or both, and help it live beyond its season.

It sounds like I'm talking about what stands the test of time here, and wondering if Boone's rock rant has that potential. I actually don't totally believe in the test of time, at least not as that cliché is usually deployed. There is no pure space of listening apart from the present context — not now, not in five years or 50. That's another reason it can be difficult to know if a popular song is awesome or awful. It can hit just right when the culture needs it and fall flat a year later. Or it can come back around. Twenty years ago I would not have laid a cent on a Creed revival; the Florida band, whose swooping ballads offer a frisson not dissimilar to the one offered by "Beautiful Things," was as uncool as music gets, absolutely reviled by critics as harbingers of a rock and roll generation's slide from the vanguard to the clearance rack. (Creed was genuinely popular; I tried to grasp the band's appeal back then, while reviewing for The New York Times.) Now, with help from not only the Texas Rangers but from innovators like SZA, Scott Stapp's glory engine has been refurbished and is mounting a huge comeback tour. This development doesn't mean Creed's music is timeless, just that there's room for such unapologetic bombast — I mean passion in music again. Or do I mean bombast? It depends on your ears, your circumstances, your idea of what goes into making a beautiful thing.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR.org and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music podcasts.