Halsey, TikTok and the Pursuit of Authenticity

Halsey, performing here at ACL, found herself in the midst of controversy and irony this week.
Halsey, performing here at ACL, found herself in the midst of controversy and irony this week. Rhombi Survivor
On Sunday, May 22, pop singer-songwriter Halsey posted a video to TikTok venting about how her label, Capitol Records, wouldn’t release her new single until it had a viral TikTok to go with it.

“Everything is marketing,” the text overlay reads as a snippet of the song plays in the background. “They are doing this to basically every artist these days.”

Halsey is not the first artist to criticize the increasing role the video-sharing app is playing in the music industry, but her statement opened up the discourse floodgates. Fans of the artist rushed to her defense, calling out the practice of withholding a performer's music for a manufactured viral moment as exploitative and manipulative, asserting that an artist as popular as Halsey shouldn’t need to prove her cultural cachet.

I’m tired

♬ original sound - Halsey

Others were more cynical about the pop star’s grievances, arguing that Halsey’s success is exactly what makes her statement out of touch. As a major asset to Capitol Records, Halsey is presumably making a product that the label actually cares about promoting and much promotion happens on TikTok. It can be hard to take seriously Halsey’s disagreements with her label’s release strategy when there are plenty of smaller artists who’d be more than happy to play ball.

TikTok has been called the new MTV, and the comparisons go deep. Certainly, it’s the main platform by which music becomes popular, but it is also shifting the entire music consumption paradigm. With MTV and the immediate ubiquity of the music video, visuals became an intrinsic part of the product. If artists couldn’t make their music as appealing to the eyes as it was to the ears, they were simply left behind. TikTok behaves much the same way, except that now the product is an artist’s personality.

Singer and flutist Lizzo uploads multiple videos to the app per day, cracking jokes, reacting to fan content and, of course, promoting a new single that conveniently comes with an easy-to-learn dance. Lizzo is a foremost example of an artist who thrives on TikTok and a golden example of how viral marketing works.

Faith Alesia of the Dallas pop-punk band Penny Bored is an artist who uses TikTok to get the word out about her band. The group posted their first video in November 2020 and have since amassed almost 20,000 followers and over 300,000 likes. Penny Bored’s Twitter, in comparison, has just over a 1,000 followers.

“TikTok feels like a different world,” Alesia says. “Other platforms make it a little more difficult to put yourself in front of audiences, whereas the entire goal of TikTok is to land on the [personalized feed] ‘For You’ page. It can be difficult at times, but one new fan a day can make a huge change.”

But TikTok has always been weirder than the people trying to crack it. Lizzo’s first song to become big on the app was “Truth Hurts,” which became a No. 1 hit two years after its release thanks to users on the app. Lizzo didn’t succeed because of some corporate marketing scheme, and neither did some of TikTok users' favorite tunes, such as The King Khan & BBQ Show’s “Love You So” or Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” released in 2005 and 1969 respectively.

TikTok’s algorithm is an enigma, and success on TikTok is hard to predict and even harder to manufacture.

Many artists will put out songs thinking they’ve cracked the code on how to go viral, only for users to immediately and brutally call them out. One such casualty was rising pop singer Leah Kate, whose song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bitch” is a subject of TikTok’s relentless mockery. The song follows the example of Gayle’s “abcdefu,” a recent viral sensation, by interpolating a children’s melody into a profane breakup anthem. The similarities were not lost on listeners, and the backlash was immediate. One commenter wrote, “Is it just me or does every song sound like this now?” Others simply responded with skull emojis.

The "abcdefu" song, written by Plano-raised Gayle, is one example of a hit song that checked off the perfect TikTok formula. The song went viral after the songwriter supposedly was inspired by a commenter asking for a song based on the alphabet. Later, another TikToker denounced the song's success as non-organic and the result of label-planted marketing ploys, showing evidence that one fan who suggested an alphabet song actually worked for Gayle's label. That TikTok went viral as well, which didn't hurt the song.

It's not unusual for marketing firms of all sorts to wait for buzz to build before dropping a product. Promotion has been a part of the music industry since the days of radio and Ed Sullivan appearances. Watching hugely successful artists taking to social media to air petty beefs with their labels may seem inane, but let’s give Halsey the benefit of the doubt for a second. Is it really that hard to imagine that she didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of Leah Kate or, God forbid, Justin Bieber circa “Yummy?”

But does an artist at the top of the charts need any additional "viral" push? Halsey has nearly 30 million followers just on Instagram. She's already viral.

Since she made the video, other big names such as Florence Welch and FKA Twigs have come out with similar statements about having their art hijacked while their label seeks buzzier pastures.

Many smaller artists support the trend of bigger artists opening up to fans about the trappings of marketing and the complexities of music ownership.

“I think it’s important to use this platform to speak about the realities of the music industry,” Alesia says. “This platform has been able to break down walls between artists and fans.”

That much is objectively true, regardless of whether you find Halsey’s statement empowering or cringeworthy. With personality as the star product, the masses have made it clear they won’t tolerate a fake.

Halsey’s video amassed over nine million views, ironically creating the viral moment her label sought out. Capitol Records has set a release date for the single “So Good.” It'll be out on June 9.

Who exactly won in this scenario is entirely up for debate.
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