TikTok stars like Bella Poarch can turn random songs into hits. So why not make ’em themselves?
Two Friday nights ago, amid the manmade waters of Mandalay Bay Beach in Las Vegas, Jxdn gave what he called his “first performance ever” — a real thrill, to judge by a video clip the 20-year-old social media influencer posted on Instagram, in which he flung himself around the stage as he yelped his wounded pop-punk song “Think About Me.”
“Wow,” he wrote later in the video’s caption. “Never felt this type of feeling.”
Yet the gig was hardly his first time in front of an audience. Born Jaden Hossler, Jxdn is an established star on TikTok, where he developed a following of millions as a member of Sway House, the L.A.-based bad-boy creator collective known for its bite-size videos of good-looking (if hard-to-distinguish) Gen Z guys doing … well, whatever.
Now Jxdn is looking to use his newfangled celebrity to launch an old-fashioned music career — and he’s not alone.
Last month Bella Poarch, whose video of herself lip-syncing to a British grime track is the most-liked TikTok clip of all time (49 million at last count), released her debut single, the droll “Build a Bitch”; not long before that, the app’s second-most-followed personality, Addison Rae, dropped her first song, “Obsessed.” Other high-profile TikTokers who’ve gotten in on the act include Dixie D’Amelio, Chase Hudson (a.k.a. Lil Huddy) and Nessa Barrett, who’s reportedly dating Jxdn and has a pair of sexy-gloomy trap-grunge duets with him.
The result is an inversion of what happened on TikTok in 2020, when any musician who wanted to get near the Billboard Hot 100 took to the ultra-popular video-sharing platform in the wake of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which broke chart records after countless kids posted clips of themselves dancing to the song in their bedrooms. COVID-19’s shutdown of the concert business attracted even veteran musicians — think Mick Fleetwood glugging from a bottle of Ocean Spray — suddenly in need of a way to keep in front of content-hungry fans. But given that the Ocean Spray meme that put Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” back on the chart was launched by a random dude on TikTok, it’s no wonder that influencers would eventually try to make hits themselves.
Chase Hudson, aka Lil Huddy, is best known as the TikTok influencer who dated Charli D’Amelio. Now, he’s reinvented himself as a fledgling pop-punk star.
As modern as the particulars are, this attempted crossover has plenty of historical precedent. If TikTok is the new reality television — a short-attention-span blend of “The Real World” and “America’s Got Talent,” let’s say — then perhaps these young pop hopefuls represent the 2020s equivalent of Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, each of whom took a stab at becoming a singer as just one more way to extend her brand. And don’t forget Bhad Bhabie, the irascible teenage rapper who parlayed a viral appearance on “Dr. Phil,” of all shows, into a major-label deal.
Of course, pop music — long a destination for cultural carpetbaggers thanks to the low barrier to entry — is less easily monetizable now than it was back in Hilton’s and Kardashian’s pre-streaming heyday. The former sold 77,000 copies of her self-titled 2006 debut in its first week of release, according to Billboard — more than many acts sell over the entire life of a project these days.
Yet the shift from $13 CDs to $9.99-a-month Spotify has done nothing to diminish the perceived cool of rappers and pop stars, which helps explain why marketing-minded TikTokers — already reasonably close to music thanks to the app’s foundation in lip-sync and dance-challenge videos — are so eager to make records that will bring in only a fraction of the money they can make hawking branded hoodies or cosmetics.
Only a churl would lament the existence of these testaments to the out-of-nowhere potential of a great pop hit. (Friendly reminder that Cardi B got her start on Instagram.) But believing in pop’s glorious exploitability doesn’t mean you can’t separate the ridiculous from the sublime.
So is this stuff any good? For Rae and D’Amelio, charter members along with Hudson of L.A.’s Hype House collective, the answer is a soft no. Rae hits all the right marks in “Obsessed,” in which she recounts a sensual date-night drive down Sunset; the beat throbs satisfyingly as the 20-year-old, wearing a “dress so tight you can’t even speak,” competently cribs Selena Gomez’s breathy coo. As an emotional experience, though, “Obsessed” — like D’Amelio’s similarly blank “F—boy” — is almost comically empty, with zero feeling that anything is at stake for the narrator.
Poarch’s “Build a Bitch,” in which she informs a guy that women aren’t designed to a customer’s specifications, is much more interesting; the lyric is witty and detailed, while Poarch — a 24-year-old Filipino-American woman who served in the Navy before hitting it big on TikTok — sings in a high, lilting voice that goes right to the edge of Barbie-girl parody. On YouTube the song’s creepy-funny video has already been viewed more than 100 million times, enough to secure “Build a Bitch” a slot on the competitive Hot 100. Barrett’s “La Di Die” is effective too, with dark thoughts on fame and depression that she delivers with understated despair.
‘Sour’ is 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, following the chart-topping success of her first-ever single, ‘Drivers License.’
Differences in quality aside, these songs are linked by a preoccupation with self-esteem and mental health — “I can love myself as much as you love me, and that’s important,” Rae told Vogue of her song — that bespeaks a certain faith in the algorithm: Where Hilton and Kardashian modeled their throwaway singles on Nelly Furtado and Katy Perry, today’s TikTok wannabes look to Billie Eilish and Tate McRae.
The male influencers are doing the same with the nth-wave emo that has resurged in popularity lately thanks to acts like Machine Gun Kelly; indeed, MGK’s producer, Travis Barker of Blink-182, is working with Jxdn on a debut album expected soon. (Other proven writers and producers who’ve thrown in their lot with TikTok talent include Benny Blanco, who oversaw “Obsessed,” and Salem Ilese, who co-wrote “Build a Bitch” after scoring a TikTok hit of her own last year with the sly “Mad at Disney.”)
There’s something of a ready-made vibe to melodramatic pop-punk songs such as Lil Huddy’s “21st Century Vampire” and Jxdn’s “Think About Me,” as though these guys had simply shown up at someone’s studio at the appointed hour and done what they were instructed to do. Here in the era of the pop auteur — of Taylor Swift and the Weeknd and Olivia Rodrigo — we tend to think poorly of that plug-and-play approach (as “Obsessed” shows us we should).
But assuming the style is right, sometimes the process can free a singer from the burden of taste, like a private-school kid rolling out of bed only to put on his uniform, in a way that gives the music real energy.
“Never in my life would I have thought this would happen to me,” Jxdn wrote last week on Instagram after his song “Angels & Demons” racked up its 100 millionth stream on Spotify. Then he offered a heartfelt guarantee emblematic of a cohort raised on likes: “I’m forever grateful and forever determined to always make music that people love.”
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