Having a number one single used to mean something. It signaled a cultural phenomenon: looped on the radio at all hours of the day, parodied and remixed and covered to oblivion, spawning a moment that would help define the year, maybe even the decade. And yet, in 2020, 20 singles hit #1 on the Hot 100 — the highest number since 1991. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone capable of naming a single one of them beyond “WAP”. (Look me in the face and tell me that you know how “Stuck With U” goes.)
Conversely, teens and 20-somethings across America can sing every lyric of tens, even hundreds of bizarre remixes, bootleg mashups, and viral video hits that scrolled by on social media every day of last year. That has everything to do with TikTok, everything to do with the shuttering of bars and clubs across the country, and something to do with the changing face of popular music — where rap hits that don’t fly on pop radio are the songs that are actually in demand.
An hour spent hurtling through one’s endless TikTok feed isn’t a particularly good measure for deducing which songs are technically the biggest hits in the country. Still, since its inception, it’s become a relatively reliable bullshit meter for those songs that are “too big to fail”. Industry payola and big-budget rollouts stand no chance against a teenager in a cool outfit posing to a catchy tune that’s only been released on SoundCloud– and the millions of others who will emulate her.
For all the millions of TikTok videos soundtracked by iLOVEFRiDAY’s “Mia Khalifa” (856 million by June 2020, to be exact), the song itself has never even come near a Billboard chart. Meanwhile, 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s collaboration “Trollz”, which experienced a brief moment of attention due to 6ix9ine’s controversial profile, did hit #1 and eventually certified Platinum. But “Trollz” did not do numbers on TikTok, where it counts. It’s essentially inarguable that far more people could rap along to “Mia Khalifa” than “Trollz”.
In its still relatively short lifespan, TikTok has managed to lift countless artists out of true obscurity to give them legitimate bids at “real” music careers — that is, a career that continues beyond the 15 minutes of fame guaranteed by a viral TikTok moment. Time has revealed that these artists’ main point of struggle is getting their listeners to associate their faces with their own songs — not the cool teen responsible for their blowup. Lil Nas X had already leveraged a significant social media following of his own before the viral spread of “Old Town Road”. Even still, a concerted PR wave of high fashion cowboy suits, red carpet appearances, and relentless interviews pushing the novelty of TikTok fame were required to stake his celebrity claim.
A similar PR effort has catapulted 24-year-old Ashnikko– a blue-haired white girl rapper from North Carolina — to a surprising degree of stardom. Across 2020, she paraded her viral TikTok hits “STUPID” and “Daisy” into every insta-viral YouTube music press vessel available: quirky Genius interviews, rapping while getting a bikini wax, a clip in which her grandparents watch her music videos in disbelief. Her look is striking — cartoonishly long blue hair styled in bizarre new ways in each video, garish outfits, and electric eye makeup. Her music is slickly produced, catchy, imbued with winking sexual humor, and a knack for knowing how to dance on the line between guilty pleasures and the unlistenable.
If it all seems a little too perfect, that’s because it is. Never before has the project of an artist’s career been so contained by the bounds of such particular virality. Only seeing Ashnikko for half a second on your screen burns her image into your brain. Dedicating 30 seconds to one of the hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos that utilize her music provides the illusion that, for all you know, she’s already one of the biggest stars in music.
Of course, none of it would be worth much if the music weren’t any good, and refreshingly, her debut full-length Demidevil is often bolder and more inventive than it ever needed to be. In its best moments, she shows a real appreciation for the art of crafting a straight-up stupid song, an understanding of why “Milkshake” and “Hollaback Girl” endure over their moodier peers. However, in relentless pursuit of that dumb-genius sweet spot, Demidevil‘s worst moments wind up being just regular old stupid.
Graciously, no platform is more forgiving of stupid than TikTok, and so you’re likely to hear this record’s highlights looped infinitely in the next year. Lead single “Daisy” has already shown some significant endurance since it dropped in July of last year, and not for nothing — the track sports punishing bass and a charming, maniacal female-Joker performance from Ash. In less capable hands, its lyrics might come off as a theater kid’s take on edgy brat rap, but her delivery on the song’s hook is so determined and energetic that it’s hard not to buy it.
“Slumber Party” is the record’s undeniable standout hit: a slinky and hilarious banger at the intersection of “I Kissed a Girl” and the Ying Yang Twins. The track is carried single-handedly by Ash’s acrobatic and charismatic delivery on its genius staccato hook. “Me and your girlfriend playing dress-up at my house” flips to “I gave your girlfriend cunnilingus on my couch” with a wink, and a perfectly-timed, genuinely funny shivering moan at the end of her second verse seals the deal. Princess Nokia is a welcome guest here as well, name-dropping Nelly’s “Hot in Here” and joining its ranks.
The Auto-Tuned crooning and fumbling percussion on “Drunk With My Friends” is a catchy and gritty high point. Its woozy chorus wouldn’t sound out of place in an inebriated montage on Euphoria, and on a project that’s rather immaculately produced, the track introduces some welcome unpolished ugliness. “Toxic” takes the opposite approach, compiling several of the best hooks seen on the record for a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in girl-power pop’s last radio heyday.
The remainder of the project swerves from serviceable, if forgettable (“Deal With It”, which wastes its iconic sample of Kelis’s “Caught Out There”, and “Cry” whose weak verses fall flat next to its impassioned chorus), to flat-out unlistenable.
It’s impossible to imagine that the sentiments at the heart of “Clitoris! The Musical” (yes, actually) would resonate with anyone who has spent longer than an hour on the Internet in the last ten years. The song regurgitates every tepid “feminist-y” riff you’ve ever heard spewed on SNL or Samantha Bee about straight men and the clit, yet somehow even more uninspired and unfunny. “It’s like an arcade game, your hand is the claw / The teddy bear is my orgasm that always falls.” “I’ve got double the nerve endings than your pee-pee / If you do your fuckin’ research, this would be so easy.” To add insult to injury, the video for the song features Ashnikko in a full-body vagina costume.
“L8r Boi” is similarly gimmicky and skippable, though not quite as soul-crushing as “Clitoris”. The track is an absolute grave robbery of Avril Lavigne’s classic “Sk8r Boi”, a limp pastiche dedicated to correcting what Ash says she perceived as the song’s “problematic” narrative. Here, she misunderstands what makes “Sk8r Boi” a classic in the canon of pop music: the fact that the boy-idolatry and condescending bitchiness was delivered by a woman. “L8r Boi” operates on the premise that women shouldn’t have bad blood between them and seeks to correct it, but who on Earth is having a better time listening to Ashnikko rewrite history with lines like “He was a punk, she did ballet / What the fuck does it matter anyway? / He didn’t try to make her cum / On top of that, he was a little dumb.”
The tepid feminist-lite politics at the center of these songs can be enough to make you question whether Ashnikko fully understands the appeal of her music. What is said on “Clitoris! The Musical” that isn’t implied on “Daisy” in an infinitely more enjoyable way? It’s evident that the woman behind the nastier moments of “Slumber Party” isn’t going to accept lousy sex, just as it’s apparent from “Drunk With My Friends” that she’s more preoccupied with going crazy with her girls than pining over a man.
These diversions profoundly distract from a project that otherwise displays a real command of impossibly sticky pop songwriting. It’s frustrating to watch an artist with an actual knack for earworm hits bog themselves down with obvious, hamfisted lyricism for cheap laughs. (If anyone is even laughing, that is.)