How TikTok helped Gen Z discover the brilliance of Bossa Nova
A testament to TikTok’s revitalizing powers, Brazilian Bossa nova is making a surprise reemergence in today’s music scene through artists like Billie Eilish with her song “Billie Bossa Nova.”
Coming to prominence in 1950s to mid-60s Brazil during a brief period of democracy, bossa nova — a blend of jazz, samba rhythms, and pop sensibility — has remained one of the country’s most eternally beloved cultural exports. Popularized by Brazilian musicians like Antônio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, and João Gilberto, the genre became a crossover sensation in the 1960s, when American jazz musicians like Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd started collaborating with bossa nova’s progenitors. Together, Getz and Gilberto birthed one of the world’s best-known bossa nova songs, the 1964 hit “The Girl From Ipanema,” featuring vocals from Gilberto’s wife, Astrud. The song went onto chart highly in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and the UK, and won the 1965 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
Only a few weeks after “The Girl From Ipanema” was released, Brazil’s democratic government was overthrown in place of an authoritarian regime, and bossa nova’s breezy stylings suddenly went out of fashion in the country, making way for a new style known as música popular brasileira, or MPB. While there are Brazilian musicians who make bossa nova today, there’s not a huge market for it, since listeners both domestically and worldwide prefer to retreat to the genre’s originators. Perhaps due to its fleeting popularity, the bossa nova music made in the ‘50s and ‘60s has maintained a romantic sheen, evoking bygone times.
Yet today, the genre is finding new global popularity through popular Gen Z artists influenced by the sound, fueling hits with millions of plays on TikTok and Spotify. Laufey, a 24-year-old Icelandic-Chinese pop artist influenced by jazz, musical theater, and classical music, is one such rising star, popular on TikTok, inspired by bossa nova’s slinky syncopated rhythms and gentle guitar strumming. She first toyed with the genre on 2021’s “Let You Break My Heart Again” (117.1k videos), and again on her breakthrough 2022 debut album Everything I Know About Love, which brought her first TikTok hit “Valentine” (74.3k videos). But this summer, she scored her biggest viral smash with the bossa nova-inspired “From the Start,” which has collected 213.6k TikTok videos and 151.8 million Spotify streams since its release in May.
“From the Start” confirms an emerging trend of bossa nova-inspired pop music that has boomed on TikTok, primarily among audiences in their teens and 20s, in recent years. Though released in 2021, Billie Eilish’s “Billie Bossa Nova” continues to climb on TikTok with 56.1k videos, as is Beabadoobee’s “the perfect pair,” whose sped-up version went viral last summer and is now clocking in at 87k total videos. But how did this sentimental and slinky subset of Brazilian jazz — which was once relegated in the Western consciousness as “easy listening” or “elevator music” — become a Gen Z favorite all around the world?
Bossa Nova reenters the U.S. mainstream through hip-hop and R&B
Following the wild success of “The Girl From Ipanema,” American groups like the Beatles and the Beach Boys found inspiration in bossa nova throughout the 60s. Since, the genre has largely remained a relic of summer lounge parties and chic beaches in the American imagination—despite some instances of its influence within alternative rock (see Everything But the Girl’s 1984 album Eden), as well as hip-hop, with J-Dilla and Pharcyde sampling Getz and Bonfá’s “Saudade Vem Correndo” for their 1995 song “Runnin’.”
In March 2019, Juice WRLD became the unlikely figure to pull bossa nova back into the American mainstream. That spring, the rapper released Death Race for Love, one of the year’s biggest hip-hop records that later became immortalized as the last album released in his lifetime, featuring the genre-collapsing hit “Make Believe,” which also samples “Saudade Vem Correndo.” Proving that the breezy rhythms of bossa nova could fit well with trap production, while the genre’s sentimentality underscored his emotive delivery, “Make Believe” racked up 47 million streams in the U.S. within the first three months of its release and peaked at No. 42 on the U.S. Hip-Hop/R&B charts. Though it never became a TikTok hit, it’s now been streamed more than 234 million times on Spotify.
A couple of months later, Cuco would release one of the first bossa nova-influenced songs to go viral on TikTok in the form of the Jean Carter-featuring “Bossa No Sé,” a buoyant mix of syncopated guitar, trap drum patterns, and feel-good bedroom pop synths. The Mexican-American indie pop artist had been known for being influenced by Mexican regional music, as well as Chicano rap. But this was his first foray into the Brazilian jazz genre—though it was not an unexpected match-up given his predilection for making chill music that essentially emerged as Gen-Z’s form of easy listening. Now boasting 181.5 million Spotify streams, “Bossa No Sé” is still Cuco’s biggest TikTok hit to this day, with 130.3k videos posted, peaking in 2019.
Coincidentally, Juice WRLD and Cuco both released these songs around the time of João Gilberto’s passing in June 2019, leading to a resurgence of bossa nova discussion in the media. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, also passed away this June, amid the bossa nova revival in full swing.
Bossa Nova emerges as meme music
Another unexpected factor that helped bossa nova come into the TikTok mainstream was the fact that the theme music for Nintendo Wii — including the bossa nova-inspired Mii channel theme — started trending online among Twitch streamers the year before. The jazzy electronic song had been bubbling up as meme fodder since 2015 through Vine, but Nintendo’s announcement that the Wii shop would be closing, as well as well-timed nostalgia, resulted in a sudden Google search spike for the song in February 2018 that continued throughout 2020. The Mii channel theme sound is still insanely popular on TikTok, as one live rendition created by jazz cover artist @julieontheinternet has garnered over 1.3 million videos since December 2022.
“Castaways,” a bossa nova song originally created for the children’s cartoon The Backyardigans, also started doing numbers in 2021 due to its association with memes and has become a TikTok mainstay ever since. That May, it debuted at #1 on US Spotify’s Viral 50 chart due to its sudden popularity on TikTok, where it now has 618.5k videos. Like how “The Girl From Ipanema” became so well-known to the point where it was eventually regarded in the US as equivalent to muzak that you would hear in the elevator, it seems that bossa nova — which can be equal parts stirring and relaxing — has again emerged on the internet as a sort of ambient soundtrack to peoples’ lives and fun observations.
Bossa Nova as a soundtrack for nostalgia and modern heartbreak
Despite the “everything goes” vibes that bossa nova meme music has taken up in the TikTok-sphere, the pop artists today who are inspired by bossa nova seem to have tapped into one of the genre’s original intentions. While not all bossa nova songs reflect on the feeling of the uniquely Portuguese word saudade — which can be roughly translated as a melancholic and nostalgic longing — the genre’s first track to be recorded, 1957’s “Chega de Saudade” composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim, is a reflection on the complex emotional state.
When looking at all the recent bossa nova-influenced tracks from Juice WRLD, Cuco, beabadoobee, Billie Eilish, all of them capture a specific kind of heartbreak and yearning for a romance that can never quite be — one that seems to be clicking with a generation learning how to love in an age of alienation amid digital hyperconnection. It’s also befitting that bossa nova, a genre that was only prominent in its home country during such a short period of time, has become the time capsule through which Gen Zers are expressing their love-sick emotions. After all, Gen Z are enamored by anything pre-digital age and the genre has already shown itself capable of crossing over internationally — to the behest of many Brazilians in the ‘60s.
As non-Brazilian pop artists carry the torch of bossa nova today, it’s uncertain whether Brazilian listeners and musicians are welcoming its popularity. (There is at least one Brazilian NPR interviewer who was enthralled by Eilish’s incorporation of bossa nova.) Though even as it has been reappropriated, it seems that most of these Gen Z artists are happy to pay respects to the genre, specifically naming it as an influence and even incorporating it in the song titles themselves. In Laufey’s case, her “main goal as a musician” is to “introduce jazz as something new to this generation and as something that is ours,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. If it’s because of artists like her, digital natives know that bossa nova is a legit music genre instead of just meme or elevator music; it’s a relief.
Graphics by Sarah Kloboves and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of Oct. 27, 2023.