TikTok Is The New Disney Channel — & Some Creators Aren’t Welcome

TikTok star Addison Rae Easterling’s debut single “Obsessed” was supposed to be a huge surprise. After all, Rae’s whopping 78.5 million followers on the social media platform are there to see her dance to viral TikTok trends, not to hear her sing. And while the pivot to music definitely did shock many fans, it shouldn't surprise anyone who’s been paying attention.
“Obsessed” is exactly what you’d imagine the song to be about. “You say you’re obsessed with me / So I took a second / And I said, ‘Me too,’” Rae whisper-sings as the beat drops in. The whole production feels very early Selena Gomez — the vocal textures, the message of self-love, the writhing on the floor in a fun outfit — right down to the part where you can tell that this song is made for someone whose singing is, well, not at the tippy-tippy-top of their list of talents. 
In the past year, the 20-year-old has been busy filming Netflix rom-com He’s All That (a reboot of the 1999’s She’s All That), hanging with the Kardashians, becoming the face of a major beauty subscription brand, and appearing on everything from magazine covers to talk shows. Momentum like this can only mean one thing for someone who’s conquered their original corner of fame: It’s time to release some music. Don’t call Addison Rae the next Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus. Do recognise the fame engine that got her here, and her close similarities to the household names Disney has pumped out since the Mouse House started its child star factory in the 1950s — not just the singing part, but the fact that fans are obsessed with her dating life, she tends to get into hot water, and she’s white. 
The TikTok Star Machine is up and running, and Rae is among its first products. 
If Rae is a Disney-style prodigy for the TikTok age, then meet the rest of 2021’s Gen Z Mickey Mouse Club, who are all following that oh-so-familiar blueprint towards ubiquity. Dixie D’Amelio, the 19-year-old sister of the most-followed TikTok personality Charli D’Amelio, released “Be Happy” in July. Eighteen-year-old Lil’ Huddy (real name Chase Hudson), served pop-punk angst with “The Eulogy of You And Me. Nessa Barrett, the 17-year-old at the centre of the latest TikTok drama, has a song called “la di die.” Unlike Lil’ Nas X, who got famous after “Old Town Road” blew up on the platform, these singers were TikTok personalities first, amassing a following by doing trending dance routines and challenges to other people’s songs. And it got them noticed: Lil’ Huddy’s TikTok success led to an appearance in Machine Gun Kelly’s Downfalls High opposite Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney. Dixie appeared in Brat TV series Attaway General as well as a reality series about her family before releasing any music. Rae appears in the final season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
As Erin Frankenberry noted on Medium in 2014, from the early Mickey Mouse Club days to now, there are two common signs that a young actor’s career is rising in the Disney star ecosystem: 1. They star in a Disney movie, and 2. They release a saccharine single. In 2009, Gomez starred in Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, the film based on her already popular show, Wizards of Waverly Place. During her tenure on the show, Gomez recorded the show’s theme song, and later “Cruella De Vil” and “Fly to Your Heart,” which Disney included in two subsequent film soundtracks and promoted widely as her star train continued to pick up steam. Other young actors, like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, were already aspiring musicians when they joined the Disney family, but we were also subjected to stars like Dylan and Cole Sprouse. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody twins had no musical aspirations to speak of, but were still made to lip-sync in the Disney Channel music video “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” The expectation is simple: If you’re young and famous, you sing; vocal talent optional. 
The same presumption seems to be true of many young TikTok stars, whose road to music tends to circumvent the traditional A&R process — in many ways even more so than YouTube, which birthed musical careers of juggernauts like Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and Alessia Cara.

The expectation is simple: If you’re young and famous, you sing; vocal talent optional. 

“TikTok distributes content based on performance and interests, allowing for good content to have a wide reach despite how many followers you may or may not have,” Isabel Quinteros, senior manager of artist relations and music partnerships at TikTok U.S., told Variety late last year. “This is why the app is the best for music discovery.” Quinteros said that she has seen over 70 artists signed by labels after going viral on the platform. Coupled with the boom of music streaming platforms like Soundcloud and Spotify, it’s easier to get an artist with a following in front of listeners than ever before. But it seems like only a select few (read: white) are reaping the benefits.
On 26th March, Rae was invited on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to perform “Obsessed” and was later challenged to showcase eight viral TikTok dances. Despite this same conceit being a victory lap for Charli D’Amelio last March, Rae and Fallon were criticised for failing to credit, let alone feature, the original choreographers of the dances. In a later episode, Fallon attempted to make up for the social media backlash by interviewing the dances’ creators and asking them to perform their viral dances on...Zoom. The incident gave way to a larger discourse about how to properly credit someone for their work on aggregator-friendly platforms, and even more importantly, who tends to get credit instead. 
More often than not, white personalities go viral using and appropriating ideas created by Black or POC users on TikTok. It’s rare to see one creator earnestly credit another on the app. Case in point: Jalaiah Harmon, the 14-year-old Atlanta native who created the ultra-viral “Renegade” dance in September 2019. TikTokers like Rae and D’Amelio were regarded as potential creators of the routine, and it wasn’t until the following February — five months after Harmon first created the dance — that she was invited to team up with both women to perform the dance together. 
When it comes to BIPOC artists, it seems the expectation is flipped — they need to work for the TikTok machine, because it’s not going to do the work for them. It goes: 1. Land a No.1 song, break a few streaming records, and 2. then you can be famous. Lil Nas X had to get “Old Town Road” to the top spot on the Billboard chart in order to be taken seriously as a musician. Doja Cat, thanks to her YouTube days, already had a decent following, but it took “Say So” blowing up on TikTok (at the time of publication, it’s been used in 14.4M videos) to get her flowers. Their record deals were earned — not an added bonus.
With over 689 million active users, making it the fastest-growing social media platform in the world, TikTok has the power to mint serious careers. Even Disney knows it — just look at the way High School Musical: The Musical: The Series star Olivia Rodrigo leveraged the platform to catapult into unprecedented virality and instant stardom. It also means TikTok has the power to disrupt the status quo and shine a spotlight on those who historically haven’t received opportunities as others.
Following her Fallon segment, Rae was approached by TMZ to share her thoughts about the criticism. She said that the dances’ Black creators "definitely deserve all the credit because they came up with all of these amazing trends," continuing, “They all know that I love them so much. I support all of them so much.”
Last time we checked, support isn’t the same as a record deal being served on a platter.

More from Music

R29 Original Series