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Here’s the Story of the Bizarre 80s Rowboat Song That’s Blowing Up TikTok

6 min read
The short-form video app TikTok has a strange relationship with time. Clips that might have once been subject to the cyclical lifespans of Vine and YouTube now drift through feeds without record of when they were posted, each with the same viral potential as videos uploaded weeks, months, and even years ago. Obscure singles from…
Here’s the Story of the Bizarre 80s Rowboat Song That’s Blowing Up TikTok

The short-form video app TikTok has a strange relationship with time. Clips that might have once been subject to the cyclical lifespans of Vine and YouTube now drift through feeds without record of when they were posted, each with the same viral potential as videos uploaded weeks, months, and even years ago. Obscure singles from 80s Russophilic Eurovision contestants play alongside recent hits from Roddy Ricch and Lil Nas X as enterprising teenagers riff on memes, dance along to their latest musical obsessions, and ultimately dictate the sounds that drive the musical conversation.

Since its North American debut less than three years ago, the app has granted pop classics like Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” and the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” an unexpected second life, introducing them to a younger generation of listeners and pushing them back into the charts for the first time in decades. But sometimes these blasts the past can be even more unexpected—such as a song that never really got the credit it deserved in the first place. Most recently, that happened to the New York-born, Los Angeles-based songwriter and producer Matthew Wilder, whose 1983 single, “Break My Stride,” has become one of the most popular songs on TikTok in recent weeks after languishing in obscurity for nearly forty years. A surrealist, spaced-out synthpop single that tells the story of a fantastical dream about sailing to China in search of unrequited love, the song has climbed to No. 11 on Spotify’s Viral 50 charts after being featured in over 750,000 TikTok videos.

In its most popular incarnation, TikTokers film themselves texting lyrics from the song to unsuspecting friends, whose earnest responses to words about dirty laundry and intercontinental rowboat journeys are almost guaranteed to prompt a reaction. Soon enough, these unwitting participants realize they’re the subject of the gag and the entire clip dissolves into a goofy dance jam. It’s a pretty tame trend as far as viral formats go, with an easily reproducible format that encourages mass participation.

Given its sudden popularity, one of the ironies about “Break My Stride” is that it was something of a last-ditch attempt to break through in the record industry. As Wilder tells it, the song’s defiant hook—”Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride”—was at least partially inspired by his experiences at Arista Records under founder and president Clive Davis. “I spent two years on that label, some of which was very frustrating because I couldn’t convince Clive that anything that I was doing was worthy of being released,” he told VICE over the phone. (Reps for Davis did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.)

“Break My Stride” became a kind of a “swan song” for Wilder; after he failed to sway the folks at Arista with it, it was his first release following his departure from label—and the inaugural single for a new label called Private I Records, which went on to release his 1983 debut album, Don’t Speak the Language. “If Arista couldn’t believe in [the single] the way that I did and that a few people that were close to me felt about it, then [there was] no sense in treading water; it was time to move on,” he says. “I really believed in it at the time, so there was something to be said for that.”

Roughly six months after he left Arista, “Break My Stride” became an unexpected hit: peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, it became one of the biggest radio singles of 1984. Later, in 1997, it re-entered public consciousness after it became the chorus for Sean Combs’s breakthrough single, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” with Mase.

But while its bright synths and infectious hook did make it undeniably catchy, its original success wasn’t necessarily based on any sonic qualities inherent to the track itself; instead, according to Wilder, the song immensely benefited from a network of 80s indie radio promoters who paid off stations to have their songs played on air. In 1990, Private I founder Joe Isgro found himself at the center of one of the biggest payola scandals in music history when he was indicted on 51 counts of payola, drug trafficking, tax fraud, racketeering, and obstruction of justice, though the case was ultimately dismissed for what the judge termed “outrageous government misconduct.”

“Isgro was the guy that single-handedly broke ‘Break My Stride,’ but it was—with all due respect—it was dealing with the mob,” Wilder says. “There’s no way to put a pretty face on it. All of the labels were doing it, some of which were not happy about having to pay these guys who were the gatekeepers to radio.” (Isgro did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

While the song was initially positioned to see modest success on the Billboard pop charts, Wilder says that Isgro helped the process along by paying off R&B radio stations to boost its numbers, which ultimately enabled it to break into the Top 40. “Joe went and papered the R&B charts with ‘Break My Stride’ to create the illusion that the record was crossing over and becoming a massive R&B record, which couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Wilder says. “The pop stations bought into that story, and then once [it] hit the Top 40, what do you know? Miraculously, it fell off the R&B charts, and then ‘Stride’s’ destiny was cemented to go to the Top 20, or this case, Top 5.”

Over 35 years since the song’s initial breakthrough, Wilder says he became aware of the song’s sudden resurgence on Tiktok after his brother, who keeps tabs on Wilder’s music career with the help of a few Google Alerts, hipped him to the news. “People [began] forwarding me one thing after another til it became apparent that something was virally happening,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m thrilled. You can’t plan these things—It’s one of those happy accidents,” he says. “Back when I was growing up, ‘viral’ was not a good word, but it’s taken on a whole new meaning.”

While the song’s resurgence on TikTok appears to be completely organic, it’s worth noting that today’s streaming economy has opened up new avenues for artists looking to game the system in their favor. Last month, Justin Bieber came under fire after he encouraged international fans to stream his new song “Yummy” with a VPN and play the track at a low volume while they slept to help boost its performance on the charts. Fans of the K-pop supergroup BTS found themselves in a similar situation in 2018, after getting caught making multiple Spotify accounts in an attempt to elevate the group’s presence on the Billboard Hot 100.

The shift from physical media sales, digital downloads, and radio plays to stream-based systems has placed a new burden on institutions like Billboard, which now has the difficult task of determining which metrics constitute a fair indication of a song’s popularity. While Billboard has deemed the trend of bundling album downloads with physical merchandise a perfectly legitimate promotional move, the organization has since announced plans to refine their approach to the charts, weeding out precisely the kind of questionable tactics taken up by fans of Bieber and BTS. Trying to make sense of this increasingly confusing landscape—one where listening itself inches closer and closer to potential click fraud—is enough to make you feel nostalgic for the clear-cut days of payola, when entire institutions weren’t marred by an ongoing crisis of legitimacy.

Still, Wilder’s recent success feels like a unique example of a song genuinely connecting with a new generation of fans in ways that seemed practically impossible before TikTok. “It’s a whole demographic that didn’t even know about me, didn’t know about the song—they’re discovering it for the first time,” he says. Beyond a vindication, its success is proof that a song can escape being defined by its circumstances. Maybe that in itself will prove to be “Break My Stride”‘s lasting legacy.

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