The secret to TikTok stardom? Don’t be yourself

By Nick Bonyhady

Tom Cardy: musically and physically dextrous.Credit:Anna Kucera

It starts with a few seconds of mouth harp, warbling metallically. But Tom Cardy, who has 1.1 million followers on TikTok and 491,000 on YouTube, is moving fast in his Sydney studio. Now there’s a kick drum. Now it’s sidechained, an effect where one signal is compressed by another. Now the digitally manipulated sound of the mouth harp, an instrument thousands of years old, is the base of a thumping techno beat ready for one of Cardy’s profane, zany musical comedy bits to go over the top.

It might take aim at self-professed woke soft boys who hit on their partner’s friends, the Tinder match obsessed with ambiguous messages or the mate who won’t help you find your keys. If it were to equal Cardy’s most successful tracks, it could crack the pointy end of the Triple J Hottest 100.

“Overnight success?” I offer. “Shut the f— up,” Cardy shoots back. Then a bit ruefully: “Yeah, overnight success, I suppose. You put out enough stuff, someone’s gonna like one of them.”

His story is one of the grind, of having the resources to do it, and of the interdependence of social and traditional media. He started playing around with Apple’s Garage Band software, which is a rudimentary but useful way of making music on computers, at the age of 12 or 13. Fast forward to 2013 and Cardy was starting a degree in music and psychology at the University of Sydney. He was heavily into the comedy scene.

A couple of years after he graduated, Cardy was back studying at TAFE to hone his musical production. “Have a look at the guy behind the sound desk at a gig. And sometimes it’s a surly sort of old dude who has been annoyed by that many punters who have wanted something to be turned up, so he’s justified in being like angry. But I just had that exact guy teaching us and I was like, ‘that’s so sick’.” But Cardy also reckons the old fellow should’ve been nicer to the fresh-faced 17-year-olds in the class.

There’s something revealing in that. For all Cardy plays dropkicks and bad men in his comedy, he’s self-consciously nice in conversation. He doesn’t want to be mean to the old teacher, even though he was clearly surly. He doesn’t want to revel in the teacher’s anger, even though it neatly fit a type, because the other students didn’t enjoy it. So, I ask why he plays the asshole in his songs (sometimes, in his cruder work, almost literally), thinking perhaps it might be an outlet for some deep-seated rage. It’s not. “I don’t like making fun of other people so much, except for Novak Djokovic,” Cardy says. Better to punch himself than risk punching down is Cardy’s philosophy.

Cardy has craft too. His hands race across the decks of synths that adorn his studio, turning this dial up or that down. It’s an almost windowless room with a bit of a sharehouse aesthetic that on second glance is actually carefully planned. There are sound absorbing boards placed just so. Unlike the rest of the house, the studio feels like Cardy’s space and he adopts two modes as we chat. There’s his extravagant comedian persona and then a more reflective side, in which he is a thoughtful analyst of his own work. Overall, Cardy seems happiest talking about the tones, presets and history of the instruments. But the gear doesn’t come cheap and Cardy counts himself lucky that he was in the financial situation where he could spend time in lockdown making music.

How to make it big in comedy on TikTok

  • Bring audiences from other pages and channels
  • Find an under-appreciated genre
  • Tap into tropes everyone knows to be true but doesn’t make fun of enough
  • Remember overnight success takes years

Tracks take days. It’s clear when Cardy presses me into laying down my best impression of an Aussie rapper. Even with layers of autotune and a backing track, it sounds bad. “I don’t do this very quickly,” Cardy says. “Usually it’s me in here with a big coffee. And I’m just slurping that down and getting serotonin, dopamine from one single thing. I’ll literally just find something and be like [he hits a sample with a bassy, tinkling sound] and then I’ll just replay it again and again.” When the sound is worn thin from overuse, he’ll move on and keep building. Some tracks have seven or eight clips of his own voice overlaid, a solution to Cardy’s insistence that he can’t sing.

Ideas on the other hand seem to come quickly to Cardy. It’s a product of the “yes, and” approach in improvisational comedy, which Cardy teaches, where zany ideas are not met with rejection but a pivot to something related and often even more outrageous. “One song I was just thinking about, ‘Don’t touch my monster truck’,” Cardy says. “I just thought that was just a funny thing to sing with a lot of emotion.”

This is Cardy’s process from there: Who would say such a thing? An annoying child. What else would they say? My dad lets me drink coke but yours doesn’t let you. My dad is John Cena, the wrestling star, he could beat your father up. And then on another level: “Your parents are divorced, haha”. “So it became like this mean kid who was doing this stuff which people could relate to a little bit.” It is a practised zaniness, one that shows Cardy’s years of preparation and manifests in his physicality as well as his lyrics. The sexy eyes or hip thrust that Cardy does in a highly affected way are trademarks of his style too.

Then came the overnight success. Early last year Cardy set up his TikTok account, like so many others bored in isolation. He uploaded a few videos and put some on Instagram too. With “no confidence”, Cardy sent one to Brown Cardigan, the huge Australian Instagram meme page. The operators liked it and posted it. “Talk about overnight success, I did get like 20,000 followers in the next two weeks. And I was like, boy, I’m glad I had a few other videos out before because otherwise people would come to the page and then go, oh, this is just a normal account.”

The video that Brown Cardigan posted was a parody of Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams with the brief lyrics “I’m a c—“. It does not translate well to text but the musical parody genre has been stellar for Cardy. Michael Hing, co-host of Triple J’s drive show, is largely responsible for Cardy entering it, convincing him to do parodies in the form of a regular “Song Sequels” section on his show in February 2021. “When they offered me that gig, there was a voice in the back of my head saying “it’s a bad idea, don’t do that, don’t do parody songs”. “I was assuming they were a bit hacky.”

Cardy was wrong.

There was a gap in the market, after a long tradition of comedy songs doing well on Triple J. The first Hottest 100 winner in its current annual format was Dennis Leary’s 1993 track Asshole but it plays well on TikTok and YouTube too, where the songs are recognisable quickly enough to hold attention but the comedy differentiates Cardy from legions of other dancers and singers.

Since that breakout in early 2021, Cardy’s star has risen quickly. Instagram has played off YouTube, which has played off Triple J, which has played off TikTok in a self-reinforcing cycle between the different media platforms. That’s a bit unusual, where success on a platform like TikTok that prioritises very fast videos do not always translate to YouTube, where longer content and higher production values are popular.

Some of that is due to Cardy’s work with other artists, like the singer Montaigne. Another factor is that TikTok’s relentless algorithm, which shows popular content to more people regardless of whether they follow a user or not (unlike Instagram, for example), makes the platform a bit like New York. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Who is Tom Cardy?

  • Age: 27
  • City: Sydney
  • TikTok: 1.1 million followers; 15 million likes
  • YouTube: 490,000 followers
  • Instagram: 284,000 followers
  • Biggest hit: H.Y.C.Y.BH (11 million TikTok views; #11 in the Hottest 100 2021)

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