TikTok made them famous. Figuring out what's next is tough
TikTok made them famous. Figuring out what's next is tough
Navigating the chasm between the instinctual charisma that fuels the app and the long(er) form seriousness and vision that might make for a stable, sustainable career in entertainment has been playing out across reality television, pop music, film, books, other social media platforms and even TikTok itself
By Jon Caramanica
Published: Dec 25, 2021
Sustainable career in entertainment has been playing out across reality television, pop music, film, books, other social media platforms and even TikTok itself (Credit: Shutterstock)
Before Charli D’Amelio became the most popular creator on TikTok — she currently has 132 million followers — she danced on the competitive contemporary-dance circuit in the Northeast, the sorts of theatrical styles you might know from “So You Think You Can Dance?” Once she began posting to TikTok in 2019, and especially after her videos began taking off and her family moved to Los Angeles to support the viral dreams of her and her older sister, Dixie (56 million followers), that sort of dance became an afterthought, a relic of an old life.The D’Amelios made a leap from the phone screen to the small screen this year with the Hulu docuseries “The D’Amelio Show,” which captures, in sometimes excruciating detail, the thrills and the wages of TikTok success. Its most curious subplot is about Charli’s side quest to return, at least temporarily, to her precapitalist self, squeezing in time to work with a coach to relearn what those old dances require of her body, and pushing herself to remaster them.
For Charli, TikTok stardom is a rocket ship, and potentially a ceiling, too. The past year or so has been a kind of testing ground for what the app’s biggest creators — the D’Amelio sisters, Noah Beck (32 million followers), Chase Hudson (32 million followers), Addison Rae (86 million followers) and others — might do next, either voluntarily and enthusiastically, or simply to satisfy the insatiable maw of demand that their sheer existence occasions.
It’s been a mixed bag, a chaotic blend of behind-the-scenes vulnerability, eager-to-please willingness, bro impudence and performed resistance. Navigating the chasm between the instinctual charisma that fuels the app and the long(er) form seriousness and vision that might make for a stable, sustainable career in entertainment has been playing out across reality television, pop music, film, books, other social media platforms — and even TikTok itself.
What’s become clear is that the skill set that led to big-tent triumph on the app in 2019 and 2020 is, by and large, sized to the medium.
Given more room to breathe in other formats, most of TikTok’s superstars are still figuring out how to create beyond the phone.
Throughout many of these projects, what you sense is the offscreen number-crunchers hoping to hang potential franchises on the heads and necks of these young people, who are less fully formed creative thinkers than fan-aggregation platforms in desperate need of content.
“Noah Beck Tries Things,” which appears on AwesomenessTV’s YouTube channel, is the ne plus ultra of this phenomenon: an entire series, two seasons deep, wholly devoted to figuring out what to do with this uncooked meal of a man.
Beck, 20, is a deeply affable former soccer player who, of all of the current crop of TikTok crossover stars, appears most baffled about how to amplify it. “Noah Beck Tries Things” is a slapdash trifle of consequence-free content production. It simply winds Beck up, places him in unlikely scenarios — cooking a steak, dancing the tango, recording a dis track — and watches him gulp for air. In one episode, when someone shows him how to do a handstand on a hoverboard, his awe is genuine — not the practiced “gosh!” of someone used to being filmed for reactions, but more like the off-the-cuff “derp” of someone who understands he has landed somewhere near the deep end and has no idea how to swim.
On his show, he’s mostly hapless, apart from the occasional athletic task. But what’s emerging as his calling card is his almost raging commitment to good-naturedness. The only times Beck’s brow ever genuinely furrows are in scenes in the D’Amelios’ Hulu show when Dixie, his girlfriend — she refers to him as a “golden retriever,” a familiar TikTok good-boy archetype — can’t quite muster the optics of a reciprocative relationship. In those moments, he looks frazzled, as if an Apple IIc is being updated with this year’s operating system.
Beck is genial and gentle — in short bursts on the app, he’s a palliative. But he never seems truly hungry. In stark contrast to that approach stands Addison Rae, or rather, revs Addison Rae. Of this generation of TikTok stars, she is the most intentional, the most iron-willed, the most determined. Off camera, she has been loosely adopted into the Kourtney Kardashian orbit. Her parents have been game TikTokers. (The D’Amelios play along, too, but much less so.) Even when Rae, 21, was focused more intently on her social media presentation — she’s now often comically late to trends on the app — she always appeared to have her eyes somewhere beyond the phone.
Unsurprisingly, Rae’s star turn in “He’s All That,” the updating of the 1999 teen rom-com “She’s All That” (itself an update of “Pygmalion”/“My Fair Lady”) is the most vivid post-TikTok performance of the year. That’s because Rae understands viral stardom not just as a job but as an archetype.
Like “The D’Amelio Show,” “He’s All That” is a metacommentary about the falsity of viral fame, albeit fictionalized. Rae plays Padgett (pronounced, more or less, “pageant”), a social media influencer falsifying her bona fides. After a fall from grace, she sets about remaking a surly outcast classmate (who wears a G.G. Allin T-shirt) as her new hottie. High jinks ensue, followed by love.
Beauty and popularity are inventions, and have been long before TikTok came along. “He’s All That” plays those constructions for chuckles and awws. And the end of the film savvily mimics the turn away from polished inaccessibility toward Emma Chamberlain-type relatability. Padgett returns to social media, but posting more naturalistic photos, taken by her new paramour: She found herself an Instagram boyfriend after all.
“He’s All That” still valorizes and reinforces Big Algorithm, even converting the punk skeptic. But the some of the young men who thrived on the app in 2020 decided to pivot in the opposite direction: refusenik. Most notably, this has been the direction taken by two stars trying to transition into music careers — Chase Hudson, 19, who records music as Lilhuddy, and Jaden Hossler, 20, who records music as jxdn.
Unlike Rae, who this year released a peppy club pop single, “Obsessed,” a perfectly textureless workout anthem, Hudson and Hossler (9 million followers) swerved hard into dissident territory, embracing pop-punk and, in places, the grittier textures that emerged from SoundCloud in the late 2010s. They’re heavily tattooed, wear haute mall-goth clothing and paint their fingernails — their pushback against TikTok’s centrism is highly aestheticized (as opposed to, say, Bryce Hall, he of the COVID era partying, drug arrest and boxing match, whose post-TikTok direction seems inspired by Jake Paul).
For creators determined to make it clear they are not bound by TikTok’s cutesy videos and algorithm, it is a purposeful choice. Hossler’s debut album, “Tell Me About Tomorrow,” traverses anxiety and addiction. He has a reedy voice, and when he’s singing self-lacerating lines like “I don’t like taking pills, but I took ’em anyway,” he still sounds like an accessible teddy bear, albeit one whose stuffing is coming undone.
By contrast, Hudson comes off as if he’s spoiling for a fight on his debut album, “Teenage Heartbreak.” He’s a sneerer: “I’m not sorry that I crashed your party.” In “Downfalls High,” the surprisingly puckish long-form music video-film that accompanies Machine Gun Kelly’s latest album, “Tickets to My Downfall,” Hudson plays Fenix, a ghoulish loner with punk charisma — basically, the kind of guy Padgett tries to clean up in “He’s All That.” When his girlfriend, who is popular and rich and slumming it, asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he replies sullenly but not terribly convincingly, “Dead.” It all feels like one long elaborate Halloween performance. (Hudson is also one of several TikTokers featured in the long-simmering reality show “Hype House,” which will have its premiere on Netflix next month.)
Hudson’s and Hossler’s albums kill two urges with one groan: the need for these TikTokers to find a viable path forward in music, and the music industry’s need to amplify and reinforce the still-emergent revival of pop-punk, the music of white rebellion most readily available to new arrivals with little history or experience.
Given the apparent craving for safe spaces, it’s notable how, on both “The D’Amelio Show” and in “He’s All That,” nonwhite characters are deployed as foils who are far more knowing and worldly than the white protagonists. Deliberately or not, they serve as reminders that the world beyond the app is far more diverse and complex. “Noah Beck Tries Things” undertakes a version of this as well with queer collaborators, striking given that one of the most frequent critiques of Beck during his rise has been of queerbaiting. (That said, the show’s first episode, where Beck learned how to apply makeup from James Charles, appears to have disappeared from the internet.)
It’s tough to know how purposeful these indictments about privilege are — they generally serve the narratives of the shows while reifying their stars, who are presented as being open to personal growth.
“The D’Amelio Show,” however, often comes off as quietly ruthless toward its stars, whether in its array of more-experienced secondary characters, its lingering on the excruciating challenges of growing up in public on the internet, or even in the fish-out-of-water talking head shots juxtaposing the relentlessly normal family members against their relentlessly grand Southern California mansion.
Ultimately, “The D’Amelio Show” is about the toxicity of viral fame and also about child labor. (Charli is 17 now, and was 15 and 16 when the show was taping. Dixie is 20.) It is presented as a moral victory, near the end of the season, when after a period of deep decompression by Charli it is determined that she will only work three days a week, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
On TikTok, though, life itself is labor. You feel that burden perhaps most acutely in how Dixie navigates the fame that has arrived at her feet in the wake of Charli’s breakthrough. Dixie is older, a little more cynical and a lot less comfortable. For her next step, she chooses music, and the show captures, with discomfiting intimacy, just how challenging that decision is, artistically and emotionally. Her voice is rough, her confidence is low and she is besieged by online naysayers. (The persistent Greek chorus of negative online comments, represented on the show in on-screen pop-up graphics, is both effective and perverse.) Her worldview is encapsulated in the opening lines of her first single, “Be Happy”: “Sometimes I don’t want to be happy/ Don’t hold it against me/ If I’m down just leave me there, let me be sad.”
Perhaps heartbreaking transparency will be the ultimate legacy of this era of TikTok crossover. It’s there in Charli’s book, “Essentially Charli: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping It Real,” which came out in late 2020, which juxtaposes workbook-esque pages about friendship and style with confessions about anxiety and therapy. (An even more involved discussion of this fundamental viral-stardom tension is in “Backstory: My Life So Far,” the memoir of TikTok superstar Avani Gregg, 19, a close friend of Charli’s (with 38 million followers). Gregg’s book is striking for its matter-of fact-conversations about self-doubt and mental health.)
Charli’s anxiety is a recurring topic on “The D’Amelio Show,” which can often feel like crisis footage: Charli having a panic attack in the car when she spies paparazzi waiting for her, or Dixie breaking down after being bullied online.
But Charli’s most revealing content may well be in the form of her secondary TikTok account, @user4350486101671, which she began in April during a trip to Las Vegas for, of all things, a Jake Paul boxing match. It has a mere 15 million followers, and Charli treats it far more casually. The videos are in general looser than those on her main account, with a broader range of emotions, from exuberance to exasperation. The dancing is a little smoother, a little less performed.
Sometimes the gap between the two accounts is as vast as the one between burden and freedom, and sometimes it’s just enough for her to zestily lean into lip-syncing a curse word that might not fly on her main account. She might owe the most commodified version of herself to TikTok, but here she’s trying on different selves, and in nearly every video, her smile is broad and relaxed. She looks like someone fully at home.
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