Design by Grace Aretakis

Sometimes, I get a feeling in my gut that art is approaching a state of decay. I watched “He’s All That,” the gender-swapped modernization of the 1999 rom-com “She’s All That,” and when the end credits rolled, I felt a lingering emptiness. It’s a charmless and uncanny adaptation, but the out-of-touch writing, shoddy editing, egregious product placement and dispassionate performances aren’t what upset me. My biggest issue with “He’s All That” is its star. Freddie Prinze Jr.’s iconic original role is filled by Addison Rae Easterling, who before the film was not an actress, but a TikToker. 

Even more troublesome is the fact that, despite the film’s overwhelmingly bad reception, Rae signed a multi-picture deal with Netflix in the weeks following its release. Who asked for this? Is cinema dying? Addison Rae has never been in a movie before, and now she’s starring in several on the world’s biggest streaming service — she’s not particularly great at acting, either. Would this forced stardom have happened if Rae’s spot was taken by a lesser-known celebrity, or even an already-established actress? 

Similarly, TikTok’s Charli and Dixie D’Amelio are the subjects of their own reality show. Hulu’s “The D’Amelio Show’’ centers on the melodrama of the family’s day-to-day lives, following the sisters as they navigate extraordinary feats of accidental fame. Charli D’Amelio has also written a book, released a podcast, collaborated with makeup lines, has a Hollister line with Dixie and a Dunkin’ Donuts drink, while Dixie started a music career. Opportunities you might expect from actors, musicians and models are handed to teenagers who dance on a social media application. 

Whether TikTok condemns Rae’s and the D’Amelios’ success or welcomes it with open arms, their fame is aggressively monetized and capitalized upon. TikTok’s audience engagement exceeds that of Instagram and Twitter, and with over 800 million active users, it’s teeming with opportunities for brands to take up space on everyone’s screens. However, the degree to which cross-promotion arises on TikTok is something you don’t see on Instagram, where selling detox tea or vitamins are the extent of an influencer’s commercialization. The notorious “Instagram model” is not snapped up by management companies and major studios the moment their follower count breaches the one million mark. TikTok is unique in that it delivers a lot of content via an endless scroll of short-form videos whereas Twitter, Instagram and Facebook decentralize the attention of their users through “stories,” longer videos and text posts. TikTok’s interface is elementary, and it’s impossible to get lost — the app exists almost entirely on the algorithmically-curated “for you” page, suiting our ever-shortening attention spans.

TikTok is big — so big that it seeps into every nook and cranny of popular culture: Fashion, film, television, music and dance are constantly being reformulated by the app’s sheer influence. Almost every recent top-charting song can be attributed to TikTok. Addison Rae and the D’Amelios went to the Met Gala. Rae is Kourtney Kardashian’s best buddy.

Being famous on TikTok means more than just having a lot of followers or being really good at something — it makes you an influential figure in the biggest global pop-culture symposium, the face of something that can’t be controlled. Rae doesn’t have to answer for acting chops, and the D’Amelios aren’t required to prove anything either — TikTok clout can part Hollywood’s sea for them, while A-list gigs follow in abundance. 

How does this godforsaken app choose, albeit arbitrarily, which 15-year-old is going to blow up overnight? Charli got famous for her dancing, but then again did she really? Her early TikToks were plagued by some collective confusion among users — most of the buzz around D’Amelio was about the enigmatic “hype” surrounding her fame. Viewers were dumbfounded by the AI’s choice to plaster D’Amelio on everyone’s “for you page,” and the discussion centered around what made her different from some other high schooler who follows the same dance trends to the same songs. The “hype” itself was the reason why everyone continued to talk about her, and as her fame grew it was paradoxically taken back to its origins. Every big thing Charli does, from joining the “Hype House” to a large-scale reality TV production, reminds us of the absurd nature of her fame — at the same time, these conversations push her further into the spotlight. 

For the likes of Rae and the D’Amelios, every experimentation, every failure, every misstep is broadcasted on an international stage. The relative comfort that nobody will see you mess up is completely stripped away: They were forced to run before they could learn how to walk. As a result, critics of their bolstered careers are embittered by the belief that TikTok stars are undeserving, and that everything was handed to them. In a sense, it was — what are people supposed to make of D’Amelio’s budding career if her success has such dubious origins? This new type of celebrity is changing the status quo of industry success but at the expense of meaningful and inspired art.

There is no telling if the TikTok stars can overcome the Catch-22 of their careers. They are hated for being famous, and they are famous for being hated — any further artistic or commercial ventures will struggle to be separated from the reason for their existence, and their names may never dissociate from the app which made them known in the first place. It’s probably not productive to get fed up. Regardless, Netflix, Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae will count their stacks of cash and tune out the background noise, but there’s something bigger under the surface. “Making it” in any field of mainstream art is a cosmic stroke of luck for those who lack connections. But now, as the teenage experience is no longer independent of follower counts and comments and likes, the lumping together of traditional Hollywood fame with TikTok clout makes influencer culture that much more attractive. More and more kids might start trying to market themselves to follow the path that has proven successful for their idols, even though it’s the furthest thing from healthy.

This is a phenomenon that has yet to run its course, so the question lies in what the long-term will look like. Maybe Rae will redeem her serious acting grit in the next A24 film or Dixie will release an album that earns a perfect 10 from Anthony Fantano. Perhaps all of Hollywood will eventually be inundated with 15-year-old superstars, and the industry will turn into a Kidz Bop spin-off of itself.

Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at laineb@umich.edu.