YouTube rocketed a young, fresh–faced Justin Bieber to the forefront of pop culture and music in 2009. Vine produced Shawn Mendes, who went from seven–second song cover videos to four full–length albums. Now, TikTok is offering … Addison Rae?
Social media’s ability to function as a star factory has been well–documented over the years with the rise of several artists who got their start on YouTube, such as Halsey and Troye Sivan. As our attention spans have shortened from consuming lengthy YouTube videos to minute–long TikToks, the star factory for young musicians too has shifted its attention accordingly. Small artists are now able to find a platform where their talent and the algorithm can serendipitously align to shine some light on their music, which might be unlikely to break through into the industry scene without the virality TikTok has made widely accessible.
What's the difference between those small artists and TikTok star Addison Rae, who just dropped her debut single “Obsessed”? Rae didn’t start as a musician on the app, but rather as a dancer and, more accurately, an influencer. Known for hopping on cute dance trends alongside fellow TikTok behemoth Charli D'amelio, Rae has undoubtedly found major success with her audience on social media. She boasts almost 80 million followers on TikTok and over 30 million on Instagram.
Far from her start, Rae now hangs with the Kardashians, is followed around by TMZ, and is involved in a sordid on–and–off, very public relationship with other well–known TikTok star Bryce Hall. She’s also slated to star in the She’s All That movie reboot, is the face of her own beauty line, and is signed to a talent agency.
Even with the unimaginably vast number of opportunities laid at her feet, Rae still decided to foray into music with her surprise single "Obsessed." The track was produced by benny blanco, who has worked with Rihanna, Kesha, Justin Bieber, and countless other established artists. With all of Rae’s current accomplishments, it’s no question how she was able to leverage her social media presence and overall trendiness into working with one of the biggest young names in pop music. The question is, why?
Announcing her surprise single on Instagram, Rae posted "OBSESSED out NOW on all platforms!!!!! I’m so emotional right now. This song makes me feel so many things!!! I love music. That’s all."
Undoubtedly, the creative process for a single song requires an immense amount of work and thought, but a lot of people love music just like Rae. If every person who has tried recording themselves singing just in case they sound good also had millions of dollars, connections to the music industry, and enough fans to support them regardless of anything, we’d probably be subjected to a never–ending surplus of generic and uninspired songs. "Obsessed" sounds packaged and insincere. And, despite its attempt at feel–good empowerment, it falls flat—especially when viewed in the context of Rae's story.
Rae had the opportunity to perform “Obsessed” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon as a first time performer and new artist with only one song. The TikTok starlet's appearance seems impossible when compared to the reality for hundreds of musicians who must work their way through a brutal industry in order to achieve that level of success so quickly. Perhaps Rae could've proven her detractors wrong with a stunning performance, or a surprising showcase of her contested vocal abilities. Instead, Rae lacked stage presence, both while she was singing and performing a few TikTok dances for Fallon on stage.
Social media quickly rushed to both pounce on or protect Rae following her Fallon appearance. Beyond her lackluster performance, the very act of performing these dances sparked controversy and taunts, with her dance segment going viral as a Twitter meme. While she may be one of the most–recognized TikTok figures, none of the dances Rae showcased on television were hers. Comparison videos of Rae's interpretations versus the original choreographers' demonstrated an embarrassing lack of energy on Rae's part. Notably, many of the most popular TikTok dances were put together by Black creators—but they very rarely receive widespread recognition for their choreography, even when millions of people learn and perform their dances.
Rae was able to book Fallon for her new single because she rose to fame on TikTok for dancing, but if those dances aren't even her own, why is she famous?
At the peak of the Kardashian family's rise to fame, the then–questionable nature of their celebrity status sparked countless debates about who is "worthy" of fame and acclaim. People asked how Kim Kardashian could be so well–known despite "having no talent," lambasting everything from her looks, past sexual activity, and personality. Beyond Rae's personal connection with the Kardashian clan, Rae's life under the spotlight mirrors Kim Kardashian's in many ways. Both are successful social media moguls, have their own beauty line, face challenges to whether or not they deserve fame, and both Kardashian and Rae have attempted to become musicians.
In 2011, during the upswing of the Kardashian pop culture dynasty, Kim Kardashian debuted her first single "Jam (Turn It Up)" on Ryan Seacrest's radio show. Despite big—name producers and its attachment to the Kardashian brand, the song barely garnered any attention, let alone positive attention, with its overly autotuned and robotic feel. All of the star power behind it should've made it a success, but now it's nothing more than a random smudge on Kim Kardashian's glamorous resume. Leaning into her fame as a social media and reality star instead of an artist, Kim Kardashian has shown no serious interest in music since.
Rae also has the opportunity to take this route. "Obsessed" is the empty product of a social media influencer, not a musician. It joins fellow TikTok creator Dixie D'amelio's song "Be Happy," which took TikTok by storm and again sparked debates about talent and the song's immediate success. While D'amelio seems genuinely interested in focusing on a music career, Rae's song feels as though it was created from what seems like boredom or a "why not" attitude rather than inspiration. Even so, D'amelio too has flashed her immense privilege, ruffling feathers by saying she didn't want to attend college because people might play her music at frat parties.
While it seems harsh to judge Rae for having fun with a song, her TikTok fame rests on the shoulders of countless small creators who choreographed the dances or conceptualized the trends that let Rae get to this point. They receive no credit, but Rae is presented the opportunity to kickstart an entire music career. It's reasonable to ask that if she is going to take advantage of this privilege, she at least does a good job.
Yes, the 20–year–old is impressive when considered out of context, especially for someone so young, and has experienced incredible opportunities because of her online charm. But Rae’s instant "success" as an artist is steeped in privilege and a questionable TikTok–to–music career pipeline that thrives off debates about artists’ merits rather than the actual music they produce. It's also built off the backs of more talented individuals who will most likely never receive the same opportunities that were simply handed to Rae.
Rae has an unlimited amount of ways to respond to unfriendly assessments of her budding music career and "Obsessed." She can ignore it and continue to release music that will fade into obscurity as her fame inevitably flickers away. She can take the Kim K route and lean into her role as a social media star turned celebrity. Or she can come back and surprise everyone with better choices (no more oversized plastic spoons as "masks"), more vocal lessons, and less half–baked music.