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The Gen Z-ness of TikTok Singers

How influencers have filled up our hours, one pop song at a time

As if TikTok hadn’t already taken over the world, it has now come to dominate Spotify too. The young faces seen silently “Renegade”-ing and “WAP”-ing have taken their talents to the studio, churning out some of the most popular pop songs of the past few months. 

Young internet personalities are shifting from dancing to music in pursuit of becoming the übercelebrity, à la the pop goddesses of the 2000s: Britney, Beyonce, Gaga. The ability to sing and dance well — and, for overachievers like the latter two pop stars, act —  has long been the mark of supreme talent. TikTokkers, most of whom were raised under the reign of these übercelebrities (if not Britney, then Gaga), have transplanted that golden benchmark to their own platform. To be able to dance (albeit in stilted jerks that require little bodily movement but a lot of hand motion) and sing (in off-key ballads overlaid onto a pre-made electronic sound(hell)scape) all under the honorific title of Influencer is the TikTok EGOT. It sets you apart from those with only a lowercase “i” influence.

The catch, of course, is that all TikTokkers are doing this. Loren Gray, Dixie D’Amelio, Josh Richards, Bryce Hall, Lil Huddy, Tayler Holder, Nessa Barett and a number of other youths under the age of 21 have recently taken to music as an outlet beyond the rectangular, infinite-scroll prison of TikTok. If you don’t know any of these names, you’re lucky. The songs, ranging from country-pop to rock-pop to hip-hop-pop, all carry the same Gen Z themes. They reveal — and, naturally, fail to investigate — the fraught nature of being born after 1999. 

To temporally position ourselves, Taylor Swift’s first album came out in 2006. Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s largest creator with over 100 million followers, was two years old. Dixie, her TikTokking elder sister who recently crossed the threshold into singing, was five. These are very young people raised in two politically tumultuous, culturally explosive decades. And their music suggests as much.

Fourth-wave feminism’s focus on empowerment and technology has produced melancholy but adamantly yearn-less ballads by TikTokesses like Gray, Barrett and D’Amelio. Barrett’s most popular single, “Pain,” is about pain. Dixie’s ironically titled “Be Happy” is also plainly sad. She speak-sings in the chorus: “Sometimes I just wanna be lonely / Don't need you to hold me / If I'm low, you don't need to care / Let me be sad.” In Gray’s “Alone,” yet another solemn single sung over impressively upbeat synthesizers, she exclaims, profoundly, “I could live alone in this room!” There’s a powerful loneliness to each of these singles. The solipsism inherent in wallowing, and also in TikTok, is intrinsic to each of these budding pop singers. They want to be sad, they want you to care that they are sad and they want to document their sadness for you. They don’t, however, “need you to hold” them, as Dixie cautions. They’re validated, questionably, in their own melancholy.

The boys, on the other hand, want desperately to be held. Tightly. TikTok’s archetypal “soft boy” aesthetic flourishes in the songs of these young men. Rings, earrings and nail polish abound as they sing about the hurt of being rejected by a fellow Gen Z-er. While Taylor Swift may have yearned after a blond-haired football player in “You Belong with Me,” Tayler Holder and Griffin Johnson now yearn after their realized softboy selves and their female TikTok counterparts in mawkish pop songs. As Johnson croons in “Convenient,” perhaps the most Gen-Z song to have ever been sung, “She took it out of context / Now my heart’s in the comments.” Holder boldly states of his detractors: “Who I am, who I am, who I am / No, they just don’t know who I am.” Finally, boys get to be sad.

But the boys are also mad. While the gratuitous swearing and risque music videos may suggest otherwise, these are all young, young people. “Convenient,” Johnson’s epic breakup song, is allegedly about Dixie, who suggested Johnson cheated. Reminding her of what he lost, he sings, “Yeah, I’m a f*cking glow-up.” Bryce Hall and Josh Richards wrote an entire diss track about Lil Huddy, ostensibly accusing him of attempting to cheat on Charli with Richards’ supposed girlfriend, Barett. 

The politics of TikTok echo the politics of a high school cafeteria. Unfortunately, nearly half of the U.S. is now invested in who sits where. And it’s become a musical.

If it’s not clear, the music is bad. Synthesizers work overtime to muzzle the still slightly pubescent voices of the artists. But the lyrics are where the songs ultimately fail. Lil Huddy, in his song “21st Century Vampire,” shout-sings that he’s “howlin’ at the moon.” Around age seven when the first Twilight movie came out, it’s possible he confused werewolves for vampires. It’s also possible he didn’t care enough to think twice. Gray, in her song “Cake,” pens an unusual compliment predicated upon an unlikely scenario: “Walk like you know where to go, even when you’re walking with your eyes closed.” Johnson, in rebuttal to Dixie, absolutely owns her by singing, “You don’t think I know, uh / But I know a little bit.” He knows a little bit indeed.

It feels almost unfair to do a close reading of the Influencer’s work because it was never meant to be understood; it simply doesn’t make sense. Like TikTok, it’s pure, styleless content absent any meaning. It fills a void.

HRVY (Harvey), a TikTokker with 4 million followers, writes in his song “Younger,” “When we were 17 / feels like just yesterday / Living a lucid dream / those years fall away / One day we’ll be 33, before we’re old and gray / Let’s still be 17, like yesterday.” In quietly suggesting the age 33 is geriatric and reminiscing about being 17 to, presumably, an audience of many 15-year-olds, HRVY condenses time, erases years and deletes the days, months, weeks in between. You’re 17, then you’re 33, then you’re dead. In a TikTok world, that timeline feels less like a lucid dream and more like reality. The app is a noise machine filling in the hollow boredom of Gen Z-ness, the generation most notable in its devotion to the perpetually empty phone and Influencer. 

Boredom has peaked in the pandemic. Catchy electronic beats allow for restrained dances to be performed at home, or six feet away from a masked friend. Nostalgic lyrics imagine a teenagedom that never crystallized, proms that never happened and crushes never Snapped. TikTok and its music spawn have created dance upon dance and sound upon sound to pretend that being bored is fun, and that having nothing to do is exciting. “Let’s stay younger, together” HRVY sings. Let’s stay bored, longer, his fans reply.


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