TikTok Killed the Video Star

MTV turned music into spectacle. The app is doing the opposite.

an MTV Moonman statue scratched out with TikTok's pink and turquoise colors against a black background
Getty; Alex Cochran

The defining music video of the past decade is probably the one in which Beyoncé showed off her laundry pile and Lubriderm. In 2014, about a year after the pop queen popularized the term visual album by surprise-releasing 17 expensive-looking music videos all at once, she dropped a lighthearted B side: “7/11.” It came with a clip of the singer shimmying in drab hotel corridors, on a rumpled bed, and between bathroom counters cluttered with products you might find at CVS. Every shot could’ve been captured by Beyoncé herself, using an iPhone. Giggles and apparent mistakes were plentiful. The goddess of #flawless was loosening up.

Or at least, that’s how it appeared. Packed with details and quick cuts, “7/11” had no doubt been sweated over like any other Beyoncé product, to clever effect. The video let viewers indulge deep-seated human desires to pry into other people’s bedrooms and to connect with celebrities as if they were siblings. It also gave the public yet another chance to marvel at this particular celebrity’s fabulousness: her vision, her body, her work ethic. Everyone knows they can’t be Beyoncé—but when watching this easy-breezy video, they might forget that.

Today, the most important pieces of visual media in music resemble “7/11.” On TikTok, new songs surge or flop based on how effectively they entice users to perform some slapdash feat: a simple dance, a costume change sourced from the bedroom closet, a cute or cringe confession. With a booming, young user base, TikTok has become a music-promotion ecosystem of extreme importance. That ecosystem thrives on calculated messiness—producing the feeling, if not the fact, of seeing people how they really are.

One might guess that pop stars would be relieved by TikTok’s ostensibly humble demands. Rather than being asked to flaunt their bodies on a battleship for a big-budget video, they can just act silly in their bathrobe or backyard. Some artists are great at doing that sort of thing. Lizzo seems happy to film herself strutting on a treadmill. Lil Nas X appears addicted to wielding his selfie camera while shirtless. But recently, a crop of established artists has made clear that the platform can be a drag—and that the job of entertaining the masses is changing in exhausting ways.

A popular tweet last month featured screenshots of TikToks in which Halsey, FKA Twigs, Charli XCX, and Florence Welch each alleged that their record labels were nagging them to use the platform more. XCX lip-synched to audio saying “I didn’t really want to be here” over the caption “When the label asks me to make my 8th tiktok of the week.” With a sigh, Florence Welch sang a song a cappella to fulfill her label’s supposed demands for “low fi tik toks.” Halsey reported they weren’t allowed to release their new single until they’d engineered a viral moment. FKA Twigs said, in a now-deleted video, she’d been scolded for not putting in enough effort on the platform.

Some commenters scoffed at the sight of celebrities carping about the work of being famous. But these artists have hardly been lazy or reluctant to play the music business’s games. Each of them is known for elaborate music videos, spectacular stage productions, and otherworldly fashion. They’ve hustled, for all of their careers, to seem larger than life. Now audiences—or at least the industry that markets to them—want stars to be smaller, more normal. Is there any clearer sign that we live in an age of disenchantment?

A paradigm shift in pop may be happening—and not for the first time. When MTV arose in the early ’80s, popularizing the music video as a promotional tool, many people fretted about the deeper effect of music becoming so tied to visuals. In a 1984 Rolling Stone essay, the film critic Kenneth Turan wrote of the creation of “a generation of gratification-hungry sensation junkies with atrophied attention spans.” (Sound familiar?) Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s 2011 book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, quotes the producer Rick Rubin saying, “In some ways, MTV hurt music, in that it changed what was expected of an artist. The job changed. It became a job of controlling your image.”

Image, of course, had already been part of pop—ask David Bowie or Andy Warhol. But music videos heightened the tension between revelation and mystique. Landmark clips by Michael Jackson and Madonna centered the telegenic star, inviting crushes and curiosity while also transporting the viewer to another reality—one of zombie dancers or messianic lovers. As decades went on, the format proved itself a modern art form. Whether the example is Sinéad O’Connor’s stark montage, Nirvana’s sleazy pep rally, or Missy Elliott’s CGI wonderlands, the great music videos have been as carefully composed as their songs are.

The internet—coupled with MTV’s turn to reality-TV programming—might have seemed likely to kill the music video in the 2000s. But YouTube kept the form vibrant as audiences moved online. Stars such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé threw back to the ambition of ’80s MTV while adding details and micro-moments designed for endless pause-and-replay analysis. As Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook opened new avenues for artists to commune with fans, music-video aesthetics preserved a sense of stars as strange and unreachable (the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards looked like a Halloween party). Even today, as TikTok gobbles up attention, artists continue to treat the music video as a canvas for stylized, imaginative storytelling.

But pop’s ideology shifted a bit over the course of the 2010s. The dishy lyrics of Taylor Swift’s catalog and perhaps of Beyoncé’s last two albums—plus the influence of social media—led the way for stars to become more confessional, more knowable. Olivia Rodrigo’s and Billie Eilish’s conversational writing style, for example, project chatting-with-your-bestie intimacy. Today’s young stars still create pop-star spectacle with their clothes, stage shows, and, yes, videos. But many of those offerings seem subordinate to revealing documentaries, tabloid-baiting lyrics, and oversharing TikToks.

Glaringly, the prominent artists complaining about record labels demanding TikToks tend to be Millennials who love a good music video—or at least seem to appreciate the power of cultivating distance from their listeners. Halsey’s last album arrived with a tie-in film that screened in IMAX theaters. Welch’s band, Florence and the Machine, has long projected a mystical aura (you can’t really imagine her livestreaming from the grocery store). Charli XCX’s work tries to revive the archetype of the highly constructed pop diva. Earlier this year, she temporarily left Twitter because of the toll social media was taking on her mental health.

The most poignant objector to TikTok pressures may be FKA Twigs, an experimentalist in the vein of the MTV auteur Björk. For her excellent January 2022 mixtape, Caprisongs, Twigs filmed a slew of gorgeous music videos. (One of them even references TikTok, featuring guerrilla choreography.) She has been sharing clips of those videos on TikTok. But they tend to get a lot fewer views than when she posts jokes about her relationships, a sensitive topic that she has found painful to have scrutinized in the past. In May, a day before she published (then deleted) her complaint about TikTok, she released one of her most-viewed creations of the year: a five-second clip about loving skinny men with mommy issues.

If TikTok makes the music world look and act more banal, it also, in some cases, makes it sound that way too. One fad is songs that take kindergarten-friendly gimmicks—a countdown, a sound effect—and add adult profanity, making for a cocktail of relatability. Gayle’s “abcdefu,” a Billboard Hot 100 smash, is the sharpest example: It rewrites the alphabet as a snarling breakup note. Tracks such as Bella Poarch’s “Build a Bitch” and Leah Kate’s “10 Things I Hate About You” have such view-baiting formulas that they have spurred backlash and parodies.

“Abcdefu” is on trend in another way too: Its origin story has made people question the nature of their reality. Last year, Gayle, then a largely unknown songwriter, had asked her followers for song ideas. One commenter suggested she write a tune based on the alphabet, and Gayle obliged, singing on acoustic guitar from a bathroom. Amazing backstory for a global hit, right? Not quite. Other TikTok creators eventually “exposed” the fact that the alphabet suggestion had come from a marketing manager at Atlantic Records, which had recently signed Gayle. The label told Newsweek that the initial TikToks had indeed been made after the song was recorded, as a “playful” in-joke.

Similar stories have played out again and again on the platform: Artists appear to get real, and then their audiences debate whether they’ve been hoodwinked. Even when Halsey complained about TikTok, viewers speculated that the griping was meant to fabricate the very viral moment that the star’s label had wanted. Halsey pushed back against such allegations, only further building intrigue around an unreleased song. The cycle is dizzying and numbing: The allure of authenticity invites fascination and then, inevitably, skepticism. All along, truth and trust aren’t celebrated; they’re destabilized.

Perhaps the old notion of pop being a home for unapologetic artifice is just evolving. The feed of Charlie Puth, a 30-year-old maestro of radio-ready cheesiness, feels a bit like postmodern performance art. His videos blend abject nerdery (he’ll identify the musical tone of everyday sounds), objectification, and promotion so frantically that Puth seems to wobble between actual human being and caricature. For months, he looped viewers in as he built a song around the sound of a light switch being flicked. Was that just a staged ploy to amass hype for a single that was already written? His puppy-dog excitement on camera did not so much answer that question as revel in the extent to which it does not matter.

The purer dream of the music video—a dream of moviemaking supercharging music—does still live in some corners of TikTok. The wonderful indie-pop duo Magdalena Bay have built a following on the platform with a visual aesthetic that matches their musical one: hallucinatory, retro, deadpan, and lovable. Using VHS camcorders and other old equipment, they offer a meta take on TikTok, showing how past generations of televisual technology hypnotized people too. But even so, TikTok’s anarchic algorithm isn’t reliably keeping the focus on the group’s music. One of Magdalena Bay’s most-played clips is an explainer about a weird park they found in L.A.

The artists complaining about TikToks aren’t exactly condemning the platform. But they are showing that being on all the time, influencer-style, takes effort and talent that is different from the kind it takes to perform a great song. Do we really want our entertainers demystified and desperate? Are we too cynical and distracted to enjoy wide-screen musical escapism? Beyoncé, for what it’s worth, has not put out a solo studio album since 2016, the year TikTok began. She has an account on the platform, but as of now, she has not posted to it.