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The blandness of TikTok’s biggest stars

Or, how algorithms reward mediocrity.

Addison Rae’s Instagram.
Instagram

When TikTok first launched, it felt like the world’s first algorithmically driven talent show. Whether they were beatboxing or shuffling or roller skating to J. Lo, the people on my For You page — most of them still yet to graduate high school or college — all seemed impossibly gifted. (Naturally, that made the rest of us feel like shit, and early on, some of the most popular TikTok trends were about confronting one’s own unspecialness.)

It’s curious, then, that TikTok’s biggest breakout stars are not the musical theatre belters, nor the hip-hop choreographers, or the rhythmic gymnasts. Much like at an actual high school talent show, the biggest stars are the popular kids.

What I’m talking about here is “straight TikTok,” the side of the app that can be described as “pretty people filming themselves being pretty.” On straight TikTok, you can be an okay dancer with an expressive face, and one year later, you get a beauty brand, a publicist-concocted friendship with a Kardashian, and the starring role in the gender-swapped Netflix adaptation of She’s All That. You can land a guest spot on the Tonight Show, perform the TikTok dances that made you famous, receive tons of backlash for not crediting the original choreographers, and emerge mostly unscathed, because to criticize you for “not having talent” or piggybacking on the creations of others is to miss the point entirely: No one follows you because they expect you to be talented. They follow you because they like you.

We’re now at the stage of TikTok fame where its influence on the realm of traditional entertainment is undeniable. TikTok stars are making real headway in Hollywood, and vice versa — like, even Anthony Hopkins has a TikTok. That also means we’re at the stage of the relationship where we can finally start to suss out its effects: Namely, that pop culture is being increasingly determined by algorithms (not a new thing, but no platform’s algorithm is more powerful at surfacing tailored content than TikTok’s). This also tends to mean that what we’re seeing is the lowest common denominator of what human beings want to look at, appealing to our most base impulses and exploiting existing biases toward thinness, whiteness, and wealth.

The result is, well, mediocre. That’s the subject of Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge’s first Substack column this weekend, which makes some really salient points on the rise of Charli D’Amelio, Bella Poarch, and their peers. Poarch, who once held the title of most-liked TikTok video ever for bobbing her head to the beat of a song, just made her industry debut with a song called “Build a Bitch,” the video for which imagines a dystopia in which men can order a custom girlfriend from a factory a la Build-A-Bear. It’s a clever (and extremely catchy) song with a slickly produced video that ironically criticizes the very same system that created Bella Poarch, the one that rewards thin girls with pouty lips and doll eyes who make kawaii and ahegao facial expressions. In other words, if the internet could “build a bitch,” it would look exactly like Bella Poarch.

Tenbarge questions this irony, noting that before now, Bella Poarch has done little to suggest she might have what it takes to become a great pop star. “The Bella Poarch effect is the fascinating inverse of an industry plant — she’s going to be built into an aesthetic and personal brand meant to be sold to millions,” she writes. “And rather than be hand-picked by a music label executive, she’s been delivered to them by millions of 18- to 25-year-olds who found her appealing on TikTok.”

One might argue that this is a win for populism, the idea that regular people rather than professional talent scouts get to choose who becomes the next Britney Spears. But instead, this system culminates in the muddled median of everyone on earth’s most average tastes. Take, for instance, the rise of Sarah Cooper, whose hacky lip syncs to Trump speeches made her beloved among resistance boomers and landed her a Netflix standup special, despite TikTok hosting some of the most talented up-and-coming digital comics on the planet.

Or consider the recent slate of TikToker docuseries, wherein Netflix and Hulu and Facebook Watch aim to turn people who’ve gotten famous from dancing in front of iPhone cameras into reality stars. Of the three — Netflix’s Hype House series, Hulu’s D’Amelio family series, and Facebook Watch’s Sway House series — only the latter has been released, but if the previous docuseries-style content from the D’Amelio family or the Hype House is any indication, these are not subjects suited for reality television. Reality TV requires being a little messy, a little shameless, and above all interesting, and the appeal of so many straight TikTokers is that they’re blank slates. Compare that to, say, Jersey Shore, a genius feat of reality TV casting of fame-hungry young people that sparked decade-long careers.

On an individual level, mediocrity is a wonderful thing. The idea that anyone needs to be the best, the most successful, the smartest, the hottest, whatever, is a phenomenon people are finally beginning to push back against as a tool of capitalism and the patriarchy, a system designed to keep us working and buying and miserable. You could argue mediocrity is even aspirational — the person who doesn’t feel the need to constantly improve themselves is likely far more self-possessed and well-adjusted than the people who do.

TikTok fame celebrates a different kind of mediocrity, though, the kind where “relatability” means adhering to the internet’s fluctuating beauty standards and approachable upper-middle-classness and never saying anything that might indicate a personality. This, as opposed to the kind of relatability you get from hearing someone articulate a specific feeling or watching someone else experience a similar kind of mundanity you recognize in your own life. The songs, the shows, and the specials to come out of TikTok fame feel hollow, the opposite of good art, which has a point of view and a meaning beyond itself.

It’s no wonder that TikTok stars and other influencers have had to hunt out new ways to monetize their followings: They’re not built for existing industries, and so they’re embracing apps that let fans “control their every move” or selling their content as NFTs. As Vanessa Grigoradis wrote in her profile of Addison Rae, “Rae had found herself in a strange and modern predicament: She had become very famous and needed to get paid for it.” This, of course, is a failure of institutions rather than individuals: A country where people must cobble together multiple hustles in order to live a comfortable life is not one that properly cares for its citizens.

This isn’t about who “deserves” fame, because celebrity has always been a rigged game. It’s more about what we should expect from the people we make famous. Just because someone has gained millions of followers on a particularly captivating and buzzy app doesn’t mean they should want or need to then translate that success into something else (most of the time, it doesn’t work anyway). They shouldn’t have to force their fame into every possible shape or be expected to speak out on every single political issue once they hit a few million followers. TikTok stars, in other words, shouldn’t have to become everything to everyone. Being professionally likable might work on TikTok, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything else.

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