Our favorite TikTok trends of 2021, from couch guy to bones day

Table of Contents0.0.0.1 Get the CNET Mobile newsletter1 10. Hacks 2 9. I understood the assignment 3…


James Martin/CNET

Humanity may have created its strongest weapon yet against both boredom and productivity: TikTok.

In yet another year marred by a seemingly endless pandemic, TikTokers used the ByteDance-owned social video platform to bring levity, absurdity and the occasional mystical pug to viewers binge-scrolling their way through reality. 

TikTok’s increasing cultural impact is hard to deny. It’s seen significant user growth over the last couple years and frankly, it’s how the cool kids (and *cough* adults) are passing the time–watching one useless but amusing trend spawn after the other. Companies and celebrities looking to reach a wider (read: younger) audience are flocking to capitalize on its popularity and partake in the latest fads, like Arbys’ take on the sea shanty trend. Meanwhile, Duolingo’s brand account introduced many of us to a large, green twerking owl in 2021.

Those trends can be fleeting. But oftentimes their intensity — and the opportunity they offer for random people to collaborate on making something entirely silly — can be a joyful reprieve. Even if that reprieve unintentionally lasts 3 hours. (Happiness comes at a price.)

Here’s our ranking for the top TikTok trends of 2021.

10. Hacks 

Some people use TikTok to offer tips they think could be helpful. Others use TikTok to make fun of those people.

Lawyer Erika Kullberg, who has 4.7 million followers on TikTok, posts “easy money tricks” to help users get things like free products at Sephora or a new pair of shoes from Nike. Some TikTok users have taken those “hacks” and turned them into hilarious parodies. 

In one such video, someone pretends to ask for a free entrée from Olive Garden. When the waiter says, “We actually don’t do that here,” he whispers to the camera and says, “She doesn’t know I know this hack,” then tells the waiter, “I have a gun in my pocket.” As he proceeds to place his order, the video ends with him saying, “Why are you calling the police?” In another video, someone pretending to apply for a US citizenship shares a “hack” in which they propose to their citizenship agent to expedite the process.

Imitation, even in jest, is the best form of flattery, I suppose. — Abrar

@omardiarr

let me know if this works !! #fypシ

♬ original sound – omar

9. I understood the assignment 

Saying a person “understood the assignment” has been a go-to slang term for describing someone who meets or exceeds expectations. If a celebrity shows up at a red carpet event in a stunning outfit, for instance, or steals the spotlight in an upcoming film, they understood the assignment. 

Thanks to a song released by Tay Money earlier this year called, well, “The Assignment,” the phrase has taken on a new life as TikTokers use the audio to flex their own skills or accomplishments. In one clip, for instance, a user shows off her weight loss. In another, an Amazon driver hides a package after reading a doormat that says, “Please hide packages from husband.” Even Taylor Swift has participated in the trend, posting a video before the release of Red (Taylor’s Version) acknowledging that she’s finally giving fans what they wanted with the 10-minute version of popular track All Too Well. With more than 686,000 TikTok videos using the sound, it’s become one of the hardest songs to get out of our heads this year. — Abrar

@pinkieberg

My Amazon driver understood the assignment 🤣🤣 best driver ever #amazon#amazondriver#mvp#understandtheassignment

♬ The Assignment – Tay Money

8. Olivia Rodrigo 

TikTok trends can appear, spike and dissipate with remarkable speed, but in 2021 pop singer Olivia Rodrigo managed to maintain a steady presence on the platform as three songs off her debut album Sour each went viral. Drivers License, Good 4 U, and Deja Vu all spawned at least a million videos each, not counting remixes and mashups. Though Deja Vu, combined with the inverted filter, made a whole lot of folks wildly self-conscious about the symmetry of their faces, all the ruckus around the songs constituted an incredible organic hype-machine for Sour, perhaps unlike anything we’ve seen from TikTok. The album went platinum twice as TikTokers were lip syncing “like a damn sociopath” to express shock at things like not liking cheese or storing bread in the fridge. But as much as TikTok helped push Rodrigo to popularity, the platform was also, in part, responsible for calling out similarities between Good 4 U and Paramore’s 2007 song Misery Business, leading to the addition of Hayley Williams and Josh Farro as co-writers. To borrow a line from Rodrigo, it’s brutal out here. — Erin

@theashleycooke

doesn’t everybody? 😅 #likeadamnsociopath

♬ good 4 u – Olivia Rodrigo

7. Good soup

Sometimes, there’s no easy way to explain how or why a TikTok trend gets popular, or from which depths it’s ascended. The good soup trend comes from a 2017 clip from the HBO show Girls, where Adam Driver takes a sip of soup, makes an OK sign and says, “Good soup.” The original TikTok which featured the clip has more than 36 million views. TikTokers used the sound on a wide variety of videos showing everything from a cat drinking its owner’s water, to someone catching their own tears in their mouth after having a breakdown. The combination of the clip’s sheer randomness, its versatility and the intensity with which it consumed many a For You Page makes it one of 2021’s signature trends. — Erin

@mochapom

Good soup 👌🏽

♬ good soup – MARVEL FANS

6. Oh no! Our table! It’s broken!

TikTok has the incredible ability to take something old and make it new again. In July, user @chefsbrim posted a clip that had initially aired on America’s Funniest Home Videos in February 2016. It shows a child stacking bricks on a glass table, which then (not surprisingly) shatters under the weight. Startled, the boy jumps away from the table and looks on in dismay as he says the now iconic line: “Oh no! Our table! It’s broken!”

Because the whole scenario is bizarre (why was he stacking bricks on a glass table??) and his tone is hilarious, TikTokers turned the sound into a challenge in which they try to record over the audio without laughing. Most people aren’t successful, bursting into laughter once the boy in the original video starts talking. 

The trend has spawned an oft-repeated comment seen all across the platform: “Oh no! Our humor! It’s broken!” — Abrar

@imnotyournicegirl

It’s hard yallll it’s the little boy bruh #fyp#viral

♬ oh no our table – goompa

5. Berries and cream

Given the ephemeral nature of the internet, it’s almost hard to believe a meme could survive 14 years. Back in 2007, Starburst released a bizarre commercial for its berries and cream flavor featuring a “little lad,” a dude with an awkward bob wearing a velvet shirt and short pants with lace trim. He danced around saying, “I’m a little lad who loves berries and cream.” According to Know Your Meme, the little lad floated around the internet for years, being remixed and reinvented in the way memes often are, but after a lull, he finally made it to TikTok. Some videos show people doing the little lad dance, or feature people with similar questionable haircuts. The real strength of the trend, though, is how entirely weird it got. If you were looking for a mashup between Lil Nas X’s Montero or Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and berries and cream, you got it. The little lad himself, Jack Ferver, even got on TikTok to join the spiraling chaos and helped bring something from a very specific corner of TikTok to a broader — and no doubt, confused — audience. — Erin

@thereallittlelad

1 million ! on TLL day ! WOW! Thank you #berriesandcream#littlelad#dance

♬ original sound – The Little Lad

4. Mama said that it was OK

The Mama Said trend started with a clip from the 2015 song of the same name by Lukas Graham. The audio turned up in many variations, but the most wholesome branch of the trend came from people posting a video with a caption, often a criticism someone might have of them or something they do, followed by images of a person who gave them “permission,” so to speak. One video, for instance, featured the caption, “Why are you so goofy and childlike?” followed by a montage of Robin Williams photos. Another said, “You’re 33, why don’t you have kids?” and showed Jennifer Aniston. TikTokers paid tribute to the folks who they felt made it OK to be who they are on a variety of fronts, from body image to gender identity and lifestyle choices. Taylor Swift even got in on the trend, posting a video with the caption, “Country girls can’t go pop” and following it up with images of Shania Twain. — Erin

@laura88lee

#greenscreen 🤷‍♀️ #mamasaid#mamasaidthatitwasok#foryou inspo: @sunleopard 🥰

♬ Mama Said – Lukas Graham

3. Couch guy

This trend should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who intends to post a cute relationship video on TikTok. What started as a supposedly heartwarming clip of a couple’s reunion devolved into TikTok’s biggest investigative assignment. It started when TikTok user @laurenzarras posted a video about surprising her boyfriend at college. In the clip, her boyfriend is sitting on a couch with three other girls, and slowly gets up to give her a hug. (Hence the name “couch guy.”)

His lukewarm reaction and the presence of three other girls on the couch with him set off a storm on TikTok, with many users suspecting he may be cheating on her. TikTokers not only flooded the video with comments about these apparent red flags, but also posted breakdowns and play-by-plays of the original clip to analyze every second. Some users pointed out that it looks like the girl next to couch guy had his phone and slyly slipped it to him as he hunched over before getting up to hug his girlfriend.  

Perhaps the best part of this trend was the parodies it spawned, in which users reenact scenarios where it’s obvious their partner isn’t thrilled to see them or is guilty of cheating. In one clip, for instance, a girl walks in on her boyfriend proposing to another woman. In another, a man sits on a couch with several other girls cozying up to him, until his girlfriend walks in and he awkwardly hugs her with his hands full of phones. 

If there’s one thing TikTok does well, it’s turning a tender moment into one of the biggest inside jokes of the year. — Abrar

@sexyschoolteacher

robbie had no idea ##couchguy

♬ still falling for you – audiobear

2. Sea shanties

Having already been adrift in choppy waters for nearly a year, it shouldn’t have been surprising that one of 2021’s first strange internet fixations was sea shanties, thanks to a Scottish singer named Nathan Evans. Evans went viral with his video performing a New Zealand shanty called Wellerman, which folks quickly expanded upon, adding instrumentation, harmonies and even a pounding bass for a club remix. #ShantyTok became the home for anyone wanting to vibe with 200-year-old tunes intended to ease the drudgery of labor aboard a merchant vessel — you know, relatable stuff. Thanks to Wellerman’s success, Evans quit his job as a mail carrier and got a record deal with Polydor. Surely the burgeoning of #ShantyTok was an indicator that 2021 would not, in fact, be the year life went back to normal. But what a glorious distraction it all was. Stirring harmonies and the pure absurdity of signing about impending rum restocks proved to be a balm for many a weary TikTok sailor. — Erin

@jonnystewartbass

#duet with @the.bobbybass SHANTY TIME once again! Adding a lower middle harmony 🙂 @nthnevnss @_luke.the.voice_ @apsloan01 #shantytok#wellerman

♬ Wellerman – Sea Shanty – Nathan Evans

1. Bones day

There is perhaps no better metaphor for our collective mood this year than the trend known as bones day. TikToker Jonathan Graziano regularly posts videos of his pug Noodle in the morning to see “whether Noodle has bones” — in other words, whether he stays standing when propped up in his dog bed or flops back down when let go. Noodle’s decision on whether or not to “have bones” that day has become a supposed prediction for how everyone’s day will go. If Noodle stays standing, it’s a bones day, meaning you should seize the day. But if he falls back into his dog bed, it’s a no-bones day, meaning you have permission to take it easy. 

Graziano began posting the videos on TikTok last year, but they really took off and became a trend this fall. People now use bones day to justify whether they want to go to that hangout they said they’d go to or just stay home and order takeout. After all, you can’t argue with someone who cancels plans on a no-bones day. They’re simply following Noodle’s decree. 

In other words: Yes, we’re all broken inside. — Abrar

@jongraz

hope you all have the best Monday! 🔮🦴 #nobones#bonesday#pug#noodletok#monday

♬ original sound – Jonathan