In the Age of TikTok, Can Musicians Still Maintain Their Own Image?
A while back, Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine, obviously) made a TikTok in response to some recent pressures placed on her by her label. This was the TikTok in question:
While Florence made this with a joking energy, you can tell that it was out of frustration—and I truly can’t blame her. In a time when modern music production is so reliant on TikTok trends, it likely feels more smothering than ever for established artists to try to continue creating with their own vision.
For reference, “lo-fi” is a style that’s muted and very dreamy, and it’s often paired with videos that are heavily reliant on similarly muted and dreamy aesthetics. These kinds of videos gain a lot of views, despite not really taking a lot of effort to make—just slap a slow, sad song over a video of the beach, and boom, that’s viral material. And look, I came of age during the Vine era, when videos like this were just starting to take form, so I’m hardly one to judge. During the Vine days, however, they were still just a niche way of creating art, not a quick and easy way to gain followers.
As I’ve written about at length, the nature of the industry these days is largely “hook-centric,” with less emphasis being placed on genuine songwriting craft, and more on how usable your song is for social media consumption. We’ve already looked into how that affects up-and-coming artists, but for artists like Florence Welch, who’s been around and shaped the industry with her unique prowess for years, it’s a very different sort of experience.
Recently, I had the pleasure of connecting with the PR team behind the band American Football—one of the progenitors of the “Midwest Emo” movement, which has had something of a resuscitation due to how easily it meshes with the TikTok format. They reached out to share the newest project from band members Mike and Nate Kinsella, titled LIES. The first album from this project is self-titled, and has been described thusly:
…at least right now, Nate and Mike’s most recognizable work together may be their contributions to American Football, a band that entered its celebrated second act in 2014 after a 14-year absence. Nate joined American Football for that return, LP2, and 2019’s LP3, buttressing their tender songs and skywriting guitars with his strong but subtle bass. Perhaps even to their surprise, The Kinsellas became newly synonymous with American Football. But the risk of making anything that becomes beloved is that it comes to define you, to foster expectations of what you do and even who you are.
As the pair prepared to start writing new American Football tunes, perhaps noodling with guitars in the same room, Nate revealed a series of short synthesizer loops, potential prompts for a different sort of pop song. “I want to be in that band,” Mike remembers telling him. And so, now they are: LIES, the new Kinsella cousin duo, represents the first time they have written together without anyone else. What’s more, their gripping self-titled debut, Lies, rewrites the way Nate and Mike are expected to sound, breaking free of what could have come to define them.
Lies charts the sometimes-difficult terrain of what it is to navigate a relationship, to power past feelings of deceit and doubt and move forward, toward an amorphous hope. Mike has written very explicitly about fractious divorce in the past, but, here, he funneled his experiences through the lenses of the songwriters these sounds invoked—Dave Gahan, Robert Smith, and Robyn among them. He’s not so much as playacting as using surprising points of inspiration to step outside of expectations and gain a new perspective, the animating premise of LIES. From the apologetically lustful “Corbeau” and the unapologetically sensuous “Blemishes” to the abyssal lowering of “Summer Somewhere,” Lies is a remarkably cohesive and complete portrait of what it means to feel your way through a world built on relationships. These songs are so mighty that you feel like you’re right there for the rides between drama and possible redemption.Clarion Call Media
Clearly, a lot of love, passion, and genuine creativity went into the making of this album—and it shows! It’s a gorgeous album that feels at once inventive and reminiscent of the musical style that made us fall in love with AF in the first place. However, as rep Chris Vinyard said, this project as a whole is ultimately “a way to escape the constraint of the expectations that come from the American Football fan base/history.” Though they are grateful for the success that AF brought them, they can’t deny how that very success has also been somewhat of a creative burden.
I can only imagine that, with all the expectations that the industry places on even its veterans these days, that burden has only gotten heavier. And yet, here they are, about to drop a beautiful album that came entirely from the heart—right at the height of this Emo resurgence, too. Though it must feel daunting, they did it all the same.
Yes, it’s inherently going to be easier for these established artists to hold their own, while it’s naturally harder for newcomers to forge their own paths. But I think that, in order to be a musician, one must already be stubborn and bold enough to stick to their guns. TikTok trends are not indomitable, and albums like Lies prove it. Even some newer acts are able to find ways to make the algorithms work in their favor without sacrificing their sense of genuine expression. Folk singer Odie Leigh comes to mind, who’s been on my rotation quite a bit lately:
In conclusion: Yes, the bear might look frightening, with its great teeth and hulking frame, but it’s not insurmountable. It can still be outpaced. Ultimately, it’s always been hard for musicians to pave their own paths after initial success, but if even TikTok can’t render it impossible, then I have hope that we’ll continue to see new, riveting music for years to come.
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