In an unsurprising move, TikTok star Addison Rae released her debut single “Obsessed” this month, a short song that highlights self-love and empowerment (though Rae herself asserts in her Rolling Stone interview that “it’s not as deep as people will think it is”).
If you’re feeling déjà vu, it’s not just you. Rae is following closely in the footsteps of Dixie D’Amelio, the world’s eighth-most followed TikToker, and actress Olivia Rodrigo, who released debut singles “Be Happy” and “drivers license,” respectively, in recent months. These songs, made by and for TikTokers, became instant hits, though these creators previously weren’t famous for music.
The influencer-to-singer pipeline is created by the confluence of two movements: entertainer despecialization and the rise of music production technology that can sell almost anyone as a pop star. As a new generation of influencers establish fame on TikTok, it’s only natural that they expand their careers into music, especially considering the app’s merger with Muscal.ly in 2017.
This phenomenon goes back further than TikTok. Tana Mongeau, famous for storytime videos on YouTube and Snapchat, released her debut single “Hefner”in 2017 as a fulfillment of her longtime wish of becoming a rapper. The song proved to be her most lasting contribution to the music world, though she releases a new single almost every year. Ex-Viner Jake Paul began his rap career in earnest with the comically awkward “It’s Everyday Bro” in 2017. Diss tracks gave way to more polished songs like “Fresh Outta London” and “23” in 2020. Paul’s output consists of about 20 singles, and through his music and boxing stints, he has diversified his influencer portfolio. Athletes like Kobe Bryant, Deion Sanders, and Shaquille O’Neal all released music during their careers with varying degrees of success. As did the premier influencer, Kim Kardashian, in “Jam (Turn It Up),” a song she said was her biggest regret and one that producer The-Dream said “wasn't about kicking off a singing career; it was us really having the power of TV and goofing off."
So, can anyone with enough money and fame pay to be a pop star?
10 years ago, that question came to the fore when Rebecca Black released “Friday,” a thoroughly vapid piece that raised questions about the state of the pop music industry. Her mother paid a music production company $4,000 for the song and accompanying music video. For a song poorly received by many, its paradoxical legacy as the best of the worst made Black a household name and fascinated the music world — all because of a vanity project (She and others released a 10-year anniversary hyperpop remix last month).
As the music industry continues to add more and more middlemen to its professional ranks — the average three-minute song on the pop charts now takes five writers, not counting producers, engineers, musicians, and their agents — the distance between the song and the singer widens. Already well on its way, songs may soon become completely commodified, produced by career songwriters and sold to singers, who release it under their own name. Though some lament the commercialization of music, it’s certainly not new. As soon as written music became secularized in the late middle ages, the wealthy could buy access to musicians and composers for their own entertainment. TikTokers’ debut singles are simply the most recent demonstrations of this system.
Singing is one of the easiest forms of music-making, and everyone has a song to sing. Some release their new album in the shower, and others have access to the music industry mainframe. Access to musical instruments and the tools of the music industry has always been unequal, and as long as there is fame in this world, the influencer-to-singer pipeline will continue to operate.