If you were on the internet over the weekend, you likely noticed an oddly lethargic video of a woman performing a series of hand motions and dance moves in front of a blue curtain, a man behind her holding up a large sign. This was Addison Rae Easterling, very famous 20-year-old TikToker, and Jimmy Fallon, perpetually giggling 46-year-old Tonight Show host.
Addison was demonstrating, theoretically, the reason she became a household name: by dancing on TikTok to popular hip-hop songs. Yet on TikTok, Addison appears cool and confident, her dancing smooth and her face joyful, expressive, and usually enhanced by excellent lighting. On network television, she was none of those things.
Most of this isn’t Addison’s fault. Whether or not she and other TikTok stars such as Charli D’Amelio “have talent” is not my place to say, has already been debated enough, and perhaps isn’t even that important (kids like them not just for their skill but their charisma, looks, personality, style, or any number of things that make someone famous). Also, this week alone Addison has already been the subject of mockery on TikTok over her new single “Obsessed,” which was the reason she was there in the first place.
During her appearance, however, the show had her demonstrate a series of eight TikTok dances to songs like Cardi B’s “Up” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” but without any of the elements that make watching TikTok dances fun. Namely, the actual music (I assume this was because of copyright issues; instead, The Roots played beats similar to the actual songs), yet the performance also lacked the camera angling and intimacy that comes with watching a close-up of someone’s face making eye contact with you through a screen. The result was the worst thing you can possibly be in the parlance ofTikTok: cringey.
The greater failure on the part of the Tonight Show’s producers, however, was the lack of acknowledgment of the conversations that have taken place over the past year about crediting Black choreographers whose dances get swallowed up by the TikTok algorithm. Addison and other creators who compose “straight TikTok” (a.k.a. traditionally attractive people dancing and mugging for the camera) are sometimes credited for a trend or a dance that they learned from someone else simply because their audiences are astronomically large; very often, those dances are the work of Black teens. The most famous example is Jalaiah Harmon, the then-14-year-old creator of the Renegade, who received little credit until a New York Times profile from last winter.
The problem is that potential Jalaiah Harmons are going uncredited all the time now, as the rate of TikTok trends has certainly accelerated since last year. There are all kinds of conversations happening on the app about how best to credit someone who maybe came up with one idea or piggybacked on another, but the chain often becomes too long and convoluted to possibly trace back to a single person. Determining who owns a piece of intellectual property on TikTok is a tricky game, one that’s made more complicated by the company’s propensity to randomly remove videos for dubious reasons (particularly those made by Black people, creators say).
It’s much easier to, say, book an already profitable TikTok star with a Hollywood management apparatus behind her for an appearance on your late-night show. It’s easier, but that doesn’t mean people will like it: For viewers who were already tuned into the world of TikTok, the segment came off as tone-deaf and insensitive; for those who had no clue what they were watching to begin with, well, I can’t imagine this would make them interested in learning more.
This is going to keep happening, by the way. TikTok is inherently collaborative (take the Ratatouille musical or the endless sea shanty duets from a few months back), but mainstream audiences are only really ever going to have room in their brains for a handful of breakout stars. Even if Addison Rae gives you credit for your dance on her TikTok post (they’ve all been getting better about this!), that doesn’t mean much to a marketing executive or a talent booker who comes across her video as an example of why she’d be good at selling lip gloss. The same mechanisms of celebrity, the ones that favor “family-friendly” faces (a.k.a. young, beautiful white kids from middle class backgrounds), are still very much in play here, especially when that fame is largely driven by algorithms that serve people what they already want. So yes, that Addison Rae video is cringey, but there are more important things to criticize here.
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