TikTok and “America’s Sweetheart”

The content of the song “America’s Sweetheart” is not unique: it is a melancholy ballad about feeling lost and alone after a difficult breakup. What is unique about the song is that it is about the biggest star on TikTok (dancer Charli D’Amelio) and is by an artist who also became famous through TikTok. Both Chase Hudson (known professionally as Lil Huddy), who performs the song, and Charli D’Amelio (each of whom have tens of millions of followers) would be virtually unknown without TikTok. Both gained popularity dancing to short clips of pop songs on TikTok. While in past decades American sweethearts were found on the silver screen or album covers in record stores, today they are just as likely to emerge spontaneously from social media platforms. Originally, social media was a repository for existing forms of entertainment, but, as can be seen most clearly from TikTok and its rising stars, social media has increasingly become a driving force behind what sort of media and entertainment we consume.

*Contains Explicit Language

It is not only otherwise unknown performers who are rocketing to fame on TikTok. Even well-established pop stars like Megan Thee Stallion have gotten boosts in popularity when their songs become the backing tracks for viral TikTok dance trends. TikTok has a large influence on what music gets promoted and becomes popular. In the words of one musician whose career got a jump-start from the social media platform, “Tiktok runs the music industry.” Without Tiktok, some of today’s most popular songs would be far more obscure, and some would not even exist. As an online platform, TikTok has no “message,” but social media can influence us in ways we don’t even notice. Its influence on the music industry suggests that something as amusing and “benign” as TikTok might actually have a significant influence on how we see the world.

A TikTok Worldview
In 1985 Neil Postman explained how the forms in which information comes to us matters. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argued that shifts in technology and modes of communication can shape the character of a whole culture. Furthermore, he argues that how you say something is part of what you are saying (this is not really a novel concept—it’s the assumption every parent makes when they say, “don’t you use that tone of voice with me!”). Postman writes, “A major new medium changes the structure of discourse.”1 TikTok may hardly seem like a real medium for communication, but in this case, TikTok is the “medium,” the way that something is communicated.

Our medium shapes what we talk about and how we talk about it. This can be applied to TikTok in several ways. Similar to the observations Postman made in 1985 about how television changes discourse, a medium like TikTok conditions its users to expect quick, mindless, endless entertainment; but TikTok’s influence reaches even further. TikTok affects what music becomes popular, so users naturally have less freedom in what they listen to. It also guides who young TikTok-users are looking to as role models. When looked at through the lens of TikTok, certain aspects of people seem more important (the ability to dance being perhaps preeminent) and others become insignificant. TikTok suggests a certain way of looking at the world and that way of looking at the world might not disappear as soon as a person puts down their phone. Even when no words other than the lyrics to the backing dance track are spoken, things are being communicated through the form and content of TikTok.

When we listen to a song like Lil Huddy’s “America’s Sweetheart,” a direct product of TikTok’s massive success, we should be asking two questions: what is “America’s Sweetheart” saying? and also, why is anyone listening to it in the first place? We want to understand what message Lil Huddy might be communicating in his music, but we might also want to know why a teenager from Southern California is one of the biggest presences (perhaps even role models) in the lives of millions TikTok users.

Conclusion
TikTok stars are not likely to ever attempt a frontal assault on Christian doctrine. TikTok is unlikely to directly challenge anyone’s beliefs. But if Postman was right when he warned that how something is communicated is part of what is communicated, that means part of what we believe about life has sneaked into our minds without our awareness. Our Christian convictions may not change in any big ways, but small shifts in how we see the world may occur. Does that mean TikTok is inherently bad? Probably not. Does it mean TikTok is capable of changing how we see the world? Probably so. And how we see the world makes a difference for what we most deeply believe to be true and how we interact with others. It may also mean that when we think about the implications our culture has for Christianity, we should look deeper than the messages from the culture and look also at how those messages are communicated.

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