Sorry, Bella Poarch, this IS ‘Build a B*tch’
On mediocrity and possibility in the TikTok music industrial complex
This week’s new music Friday — the period when singles drop at midnight on Thursday — included a new collaboration between Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne, another genre-bending single from Disney sensation Olivia Rodrigo, and an allegedly disappointing album from J. Cole.
Somehow, the most interesting track didn’t come from any of these guaranteed chart-toppers. The runaway hit on Friday, May 14 was “Build a B*tch,” the debut pop single from a TikTok influencer named Bella Poarch.
At the time I’m writing this on Sunday at 2 PM Eastern, the “Build a B*tch” music video already has more than 36 million views. In comparison, Addison Rae’s “Obsessed” video has 19 million views, and it came out almost two months ago (and was promoted by Addison’s appearance on KUWTK).
The lyrics in “Build a B*tch” are a thinly-veiled metaphor about a guy who thinks he can customize Bella into his dream girl, but she asserts that she’s a person with her own autonomy who can never be fully perfect.
It’s an objectively true message, but what fascinated me about “Build a B*tch” is that the concept of individuality lies in stark contrast to Bella’s own rise to fame, which was precipitated by a seconds-long video of her staring into the camera while bobbing her head.
The way Bella packaged her digitally-optimized appearance, unwittingly sold it to tens of millions of people, and launched a promising music career off it is a very “Black Mirror” means of celebrity. It’s also indicative of how TikTok culture works within the app and then crosses over to real-life influence, particularly in the music industry.
The video that made Bella famous.
While Bella insists she’s no typical girl — and I believe her, based on her star power alone — we have no idea if that’s true. Bella’s celebrity thus far has hinged on viral TikToks that showcase anything but personality. She is a blank slate customized for mass engagement. She didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until her music career started, because previously there was nothing else to write.
The Bella Poarch effect is the fascinating inverse of an industry plant — she’s going to be built into an aesthetic and personal brand meant to be sold to millions. And rather than be hand-picked by a music label executive, she’s been delivered to them by millions of 18 to 25-year-olds who found her appealing on TikTok.
That phenomenon has already been set into motion on TikTok, where teens are plucked from obscurity by an algorithm to become overnight influencers. It’s a cycle that has already bred endless controversy, pervasive relevancy, and, as I’ll argue here, invasive mediocrity.
This ain’t build a b*tch...
TikTok seized control of the Billboard charts with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” in 2019 and it hasn’t let go since. And as TikTok began to wield more power as a music- and meme-sharing incubator, the homegrown stars of the platform were met with eager corporate arms.
Unlike YouTube, where creators fought for years to get mainstream recognition as entertainers, advertisers and talent agencies seized Charli D’Amelio and her peer group within months of them emerging as the most-followed TikTokers.
Bella and Charli don’t look anything alike, but they embody two facets of mainstream cultural appeal with roaring success. On the TikTok throne, Bella is third behind Charli with 63 million followers; she’s second only to Addison.
Charli and Bella both skyrocketed on TikTok’s platform because of definitive moments. For Charli, it was the sudden popularity of the “Renegade” dance, which she didn’t create (Jalaiah Harmon, a Black creator, did). For Bella, it was those few seconds of head-bobbing and lip-syncing along to a repetitive electronic beat.
The Bella video has 49 million likes, and for at least a little while it was the most-liked video on the entire app. Partially, that’s because Bella exemplifies everything about TikTok e-girl culture in this video. She’s extremely pretty in a very social media-specific way, particularly due to her pouty lips, excessive blush, highlighted button nose, and glow-y skin. Her facial expressions are cutesy and kawaii-inspired. The video has an almost hypnotic effect because of the way her movements are synced to the soundbite.
Bella created something expertly crafted to fit algorithmic and human behavioral preferences. I doubt she meant to do that with the precision I’ve described here, but it worked. The algorithm spread it to tens of millions of people, and a direct domino effect led to “Build a B*tch” trending on YouTube.
That domino effect speaks to a democratization of likeability. In the past, we think of a shadowy elite in the upper echelons of society choosing what we like to see on our screens and buy in our stores. Now, our consumer preferences are determined, in part, as simply as what people on TikTok are letting repeat on their ‘For You Page.’
Sidebar: TikTok has a huge gamification aspect that empowers sneaky creators to get in on that algorithmic action without doing any of the work themselves. I highly recommend watching commentary YouTuber Danny Gonzalez’s deep dive into a TikTok user who has millions of followers and copies all the videos he makes from other creators.
Let’s move on to Charli, who exemplifies the white TikTok dancer phenomenon, and who is arguably the face of TikTok in its entirety. Many out-of-touch people will sarcastically ask “What does Charli even DO?” or belittle her for some combination of her gender, age, and cultural significance. That’s not what I’m here to do.
I’m assuming coming into this that you already have some idea of what Charli “does,” but to break it down even further, she is a TikTok performer. She performs popular dances that spread around TikTok like memes, and sometimes she choreographs her own. She is the most-followed person on the app. I have more to say about her than Bella, because there’s exponentially more information out there about Charli.
The next section is a critique of Charli’s fame, but not Charli herself. I personally like Charli and have occasionally become hypnotized by scrolling through videos of her dancing, so I can attest that there’s at least some entertainment value to what she does. However, I don’t think it’s worth millions of dollars. And this is why.
...I’m filled with flaws and attitude...
Much fanfare has accompanied the rise of Charli D’Amelio to 113 million TikTok followers. Charli gets magazine covers, makeup and clothing lines, and a Hulu docuseries. All of it — and this is coming from someone who collects influencer merchandise — is incredibly boring and one-dimensional.
This is not by any means an invitation to bash Charli, who I feel great sympathy for given her age and precarious position in multiple overlapping industries. She’s at the epicenter of a new generation’s group of power brokers, with her every move impacting the salaries of grown adults, including her parents and older sister.
And I mean this in this kindest way possible — she’s not qualified for any of it. Charli, who I have never personally spoken to, comes off as incredibly sweet, caring, and normal. She reminds me of every high school-aged white girl at my hideously expensive dance studio in suburban Cincinnati. She can definitely perform well, as well as any “Dance Moms-”era teenage competitive dancer from Connecticut.
But if you read an interview with Charli and her older sister Dixie, the mediocrity is palpable. They don't really have anything interesting to say about, well, anything — and if they do, their publicists won’t let them. I’ve seen a handful of their YouTube videos, listened to clips from their podcasts, and scrolled through dozens of Instagram posts, TikTok videos, and tweets.
There’s nothing wrong with either of them, they’re just oppressively average. And by the way, so are all their friends in the Hype House and Sway House and whatever new teeny-bopper house went on the market this week.
Important caveat here, before you think I’m just mean and jealous. I don’t think ANY teenager needs to be extraordinary, articulate, or interesting. Teenagers who ARE extremely talented do come along, but being a teenager shouldn’t be about accruing generational wealth or winning an EGOT (although Billie Eilish could easily squeeze that into her 5-year plan).
Teenagers should be allowed to be boring and normal without having major corporate interests tied to their entire sense of being before their 16th birthday. TikTok was prime, fertile ground for advertisers, and that sucks. It strips creativity and innovation from creators who are incentivized to go where the money is. It creates hordes of young Charli copy-cats.
And it’s especially worth noting that Charli is not happy. She has repeatedly expressed how miserable the app and the pressure of her following makes her. This makes me really sad, but I don’t think it’s surprising. Plenty of people have noticed how Charli isn’t really delivering top-notch entertainment value but is still able to cash in on her fame.
So what we have here is really somewhat tragic, in my opinion. Charli was a normal 15-year-old white girl who loved competitive dancing, like many 15-year-old white girls with upper-middle class family money do. When she first started filming herself dancing on TikTok, other young people gravitated toward her “girl next door” vibes and engaging motions.
Then the TikTok algorithm spit Charli out onto millions of other users’ screens. She racked up the biggest following on the app, and advertisers descended on her like vultures to a carcass. Now Charli gets relentlessly bullied for being rich and so-called “talentless” when all she wanted to do was have fun and be 15.
Just like Charli said, that kind of takes the fun out of it.
...So if you need perfect, I’m not built for you.
The trends in TikToker music echo the music industry at large, and with every passing week the TikToker industrial complex and mainstream pop culture are inching closer and closer. But now that we’ve reviewed how mediocrity sells on TikTok, let’s consider how TikTok’s influence is changing what we listen to.
People on Twitter often argue that nothing about Gen Z culture is NEW, per say. It all echoes the early 2000s and also the 90s and also the 80s and dear GOD I can’t keep track of how long you people have been alive. From my 23-year-old perspective, I think people act the same way in every generation, but the tools and platforms we’re given are constantly, rapidly shifting in the social media age.
These tools let Lil Nas X, a gay Black Barb*-turned-cultural icon, dominate the charts with songs about gay sex and closeted cowboy e-thot aesthetics. That kind of representation in pop culture is long overdue, and it’s in no small part thanks to TikTok. TikTok also blew up Doja Cat and Penelope Scott and girl in red — critically-acclaimed art that is refreshing, intersectional, and deserves commercial success.
There’s a divide between what’s numerically the most popular on TikTok and what’s the most cherished on TikTok. Brittany Broski, “kombucha girl,” is overall more beloved, funnier, and less controversial than Charli (she would be pissed to read this because she loves Charli and advocates against her haters, but it’s true).
Similarly, TikTok has given us musical gems and musical try-hards. And a lot falls in between! For every “Be Happy” by Dixie D’Amelio we get a Travis Barker-produced 2020s pop punk attempt by a TikTok-famous e-boy.
Personally, I like “Build a B*tch.” It’s incredibly catchy, has decent messaging for today’s youth, and the sing-song backing is playing in my head on a loop. It’s everything I look for in a song to play while I’m on the elliptical or waiting for the train.
But I don’t think “Build a B*tch” is award-worthy, just like I don’t think “Old Town Road” is a masterclass in song-writing. If anything, they deserve a new category: “Best Use of Social Media Marketing to Get Billboard Traction.”
When I think about what’s exciting and new and boundary-pushing, I think about hyperpop and queer art and Megan Thee Stallion. I think about how all of those things can be found on TikTok in parallel and sometimes in synchronicity with Charli D’Amelio.
Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good and just because something sells doesn’t mean it’s normie and therefore bad. We’re all trapped in a quest to get rich or die trying, and the culture that’s being squeezed out is an endless fight for relevance. You don’t get to pick and choose.
*Lil Nas X ran a Nicki Minaj stan/tweetdecker account before he released “Old Town Road.”
Saw some negative comments here, so just wanted to say that IMO this is very well though-out poignant and generous. Especially how you empathize with these creators, which is MUCH more than what average tik tok users grant to large influencers. Some comments here make me think about how our generation seems to have a really hard time parsing out thoughtful critique from cyber-bullying, feedback, cancellation, etc. Not saying that these are easy distinctions, but anyone that's gone viral on Tik Tok (as I have, somewhat unfortunately) knows that one of the primary experiences is being misunderstood and misrepresented. I think Tik Tok and Twitter are powerful vehicles for decontextualizing content. And I feel like that's spilling into "the real world" and *the discourse*. Also, I have a Substack called Gen Zero, and we talk about similar things re: our generational culture! Congrats on the piece woo
Hmmmmm... some of this is accurate and some not so much. As an avid millennial tiktok user I (of course) have some thoughts.
1. The rise of Bella Poarch was accompanied by MANY Gen Z detractors who stitched THAT famous video with evidence that she is an industry plant. Some pointed out that she shot all her videos in a hotel room, that the algo was definitely being manipulated in her favor and other strange phenomena that didn’t add up. They knew her rise was NOT organic and called it from day 1.
2. Doja Cat blew up with Mooo!. A ridiculous YouTube video that went viral in 2018 before tiktoks domination. Megan blew up after releasing multiple mixtapes and grinding the old fashioned way.
3. While there is a lot of mediocrity on tiktok, as on any other platform, there are also countless thoughtful creators from all age groups sharing interesting and sometimes mind blowing content. Juilliard students sharing their practices with us, amazing life hacks, historians breaking down history from under represented POVs and so forth. This has spawned the in-platform joke “Tiktok university”
4. Spot on about Charli and Addison though!