meta-scriptFrom "Sounds" To Millions Of Streams: How TikTok Became A Major Player In The Musical Ecosystem | GRAMMY.com
From "Sounds" To Millions Of Streams: How TikTok Became A Major Player In The Musical Ecosystem

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From "Sounds" To Millions Of Streams: How TikTok Became A Major Player In The Musical Ecosystem

TikTok's influential algorithm has the power to elevate talent from obscurity or low-level fame, and take older music to the top of the streaming charts. GRAMMY.com digs into the ways TikTok has made a significant impact on pop music.

GRAMMYs/May 9, 2022 - 01:03 pm

In the past several years, China-born social media video app TikTok, has influenced millennial and Gen-Z lifestyles in a variety of ways — including the creation of new hits as well as careers. From Olivia Rodrigo to Conan Gray, TikTok's influential algorithm has the power to elevate talent from obscurity or low-level fame, and has made a significant impact on pop music.

For those unfamiliar with TikTok, "sounds" are pooled into their own pages that showcase all videos with that sound snippet. Over (an often short) time, challenges and memes become associated with certain tracks, meaning users are often exposed to more new music than through a traditional streaming service. 

Through its sounds, the app has brought added shine to the likes of GAYLE, whose "abcdefu" is a staple song on TikTok this year, as well as the GRAMMY-nominated "Best Friend" by Saweetie featuring Doja Cat. Artists who are not yet household names have experienced a boom in streams as a result of TikTok popularity: "Lalala" by Y2K and bbno$ has over 800 million streams on Spotify to date. 

Songs used as TikTok sounds have shown to increase their streaming and even charting ability. Olivia Rodrigo’s "Driver’s License" — which won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Solo Performance and was nominated in several categories — was noticed early on by popular content creators on TikTok and pushed into the spotlight. Other, now chart-busting songs have received similar traction form the app, among them Lil Nas X’s "Old Town Road" and Lizzo’s "Good as Hell." 

"TikTok is a platform that allows for artists from every generation to connect with a new audience in ways the industry hasn't seen before," Corey Sheridan, the US Head of Music for TikTok, tells GRAMMY.com. "We are well positioned to introduce legacy artists and repertoire to a new generation of fans that are otherwise lost with traditional catalog marketing and streaming tactics."

It’s not just newly released songs that are experiencing success on the app. Any song, regardless of its age, can be pushed forward to have a life on the platform. Simple Plan’s "I’m Just A Kid" was certified platinum 15 years after its initial release due to TikTok; Aly and AJ's TikTok success with 2007's "Potential Breakup Song" prompted the sisters to drop their first album in 14 years, in addition to an explicit version of the tune. 

Similarly, Indie musician Ritt Momney signed a record deal with Disruptor/Columbia Records in 2020 after he covered Corrine Bailey Rae’s 2006 song  "Put Your Records On." Money's version was used in hazy quarantine videos on the platform, and soon gained over a million streams on Spotify.

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Leveraging older songs is another way for artists to gain success through TikTok. In 2020, TikTok acquired Prince’s catalog (the artist was famously resistant to streaming services) , and more recently has full access to all of Universal Music’s artists work. Similarly, when David Bowie’s catalog joined TikTok early in 2021, in celebration of what would have been his 74th birthday, hashtags like the #DavidBowieChallenge started to appear alongside over 1.2 million followers for the account.  

"TikTok provides a major benefit for catalog artists, where new creative trends can create a fresh new context for past hits and, in some cases, return them to the charts, creating new opportunities for legacy acts to return to cultural relevancy and build new fans," says William Gruger, Music Editorial Lead for TikTok. 

TikTok's audience seems to have no boundaries around genre or era when it comes to use of sounds. Artists from the 1970s and early 2000s, such as Hoobastank, have had songs return to the mainstream due to TikTok virality.

Fleetwood Mac may be the greatest example of this trend. In 2020,  Nathan Apodaca (TikTok user @420doggface208) lip synced to a snippet of "Dreams" from their 1977 album Rumors as he cruised on a skateboard, holding a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. Apodaca's TikTok prompted over 100,000 tribute videos and he gained 7 million followers on the platform — as well as an invitation to President Joe Biden's inauguration — further proving the influence TikTok’s algorithm can have. 

The video put Fleetwood Mac back in the charts, 42 years after Rumors was released; the track accumulated 2.9 million streams in the US during the three-day period following Apodaca’s video — an increase of 88.7 percent. Stevie Nicks even joined TikTok as a result, though she only has one video on the platform.

TikTok further taps into older music catalogs through reinterpretations of works, including remixes, mashups and covers. A mashup of Dua Lipa and Madonna created by ArinInflux exploded across TikTok, leading to over 8 million views of the track on YouTube; Regard’s remix of Jay Sean’s "Ride It" and Surf Mesa’s "ILY (I Love You Baby)," with lyrics taken from Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit "Can’t Take My Eyes Off You." led to over 99,000 videos being created using the sound. 

Through its algorithm — which can skyrocket even the smallest of videos — and the intentional use of older catalogs, TikTok has arguably created a space which is designed to help both new and existing artists. A trend on TikTok can change a musician's trajectory quickly, elevating their presence on streaming platforms. 

As a result, TikTok has become a major part of the music ecosystem: A place where older artists can be reinvented and a new generation can fall in love with old favorites. As users employ hits, deep catalog cuts and obscure singles in their videos, as well as develop unique mash-ups that inspire others, TikTok demonstrates how new technology can highlight why some iconic artists never go out of style.   

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TikTok's Musical Class Of 2023: 8 Artists Who Transformed Virality Into Stardom, From Tyla to FIFTY FIFTY
(Clockwise, from bottom left): SexxyRed, Paul Russell, FIFTY FIFTY, Flyana Boss, Kenya Grace

Photo: WireImage, Kevin Kane/WireImage, Han Myung-Gu/WireImage, Kaitlyn Morris/Getty Images, Hannah Diamond

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TikTok's Musical Class Of 2023: 8 Artists Who Transformed Virality Into Stardom, From Tyla to FIFTY FIFTY

After yet another year of TikTok's domination in musical discovery, get to know eight artists who emerged on the app as certified hitmakers this year.

GRAMMYs/Dec 21, 2023 - 04:03 pm

Music and social media have never been more intertwined. As TikTok continues to integrate into the music industry, for many artists, being a musician and a content creator are no longer mutually exclusive.

Riding the algorithm to fame isn't always easy, but it's undeniable that TikTok is now one of the most effective marketing tools for artists, just as acts like Nicky Youre and Alexandra Kay saw in 2022. From Tyla's viral "Water" dance challenge to Sexyy Red's "SkeeYee" hair flip trend, up-and-coming artists took advantage of TikTok's power once again in 2023 — like the K-pop act FIFTY FIFTY, who transformed their catchy dance-pop single "Cupid" into a skyrocketing commercial breakthrough.

"TikTok provides promotional opportunities for rising artists like us [by] providing an opportunity to be exposed in many different angles," FIFTY FIFTY's Keena told GRAMMY.com.

For hip-hop duo Flyana Boss — whose single "You Wish" took off on the app — TikTok has helped them learn "the power of manifestation and never giving up on your dreams." They add, "there's a strong audience out there that's hungry for artists like us."

TikTok has both personalized and revolutionized how music is shared daily. Here are eight artists who brought your "For You" page to life — and made it big in 2023.

Aliyahs Interlude

If anyone's an It Girl, it's Aliyah Bah. Known as Aliyah's Interlude online, the TikTok influencer quickly grew a fan base through her fashion sense, blending Y2k fashion with Harajuku style in her own #Aliyahcore. This year, she took a step into pop stardom with her anthem "IT GIRL."

Inspired by the likes of Azealia Banks, Ayesha Erotica, and Beyoncé's RENAISSANCE, Bah's poppy house track channels a confidence that's dazzling and dramatic. More than a million TikTok videos spotlight the song's chorus — "I-T-G-I-R-L! You know I am that girl" — over outfit checks, girl nights, lip syncs, makeup transitions, and much more.

"When I dropped it, the song just went crazy immediately and wanted to make all the promo based on just, like, me being super cute and stylish," Bah told TIME.

The influencer and singer further gained notoriety by rocking her girly style in a cameo in Doja Cat's "Agora Hills" music video. #Aliyahcore is all about being unflinchingly true to yourself, and "IT GIRL" channels that hot girl energy —- because Bah is that girl.

Austin Williams

Scrolling on country TikTok, the odds are high that you'll come across a video from singer/songwriter Austin Williams — and after hearing his deep, gravelly voice, you'd find it hard to believe he's only 19.

The Nashville musician's mature vocals have helped him propel to nearly half a million TikTok followers, garnering more than 3.8 million likes on the platform. On one of his most viral songs, titled "90s Rap Mashup," he shows off his high-energy rhythmic flow while paying tribute to hip-hop legends. Alternatively, he leans into a solemn side with similarly popular singles "Wanna Be Saved" and "Bury My Bones."

Thanks to his versatility, Williams recently signed a deal with CAA and announced that he's opening on tour for fellow country artist Warren Zeiders (whose ascent to fame is also owed in part to TikTok, which boosted his original song "Ride the Lightning"). Given Williams' natural talent and knack for social media, it's only a matter of time before he's headlining his own tour.

FIFTY FIFTY

Globally, "Cupid," belonging to the rising South Korean girl group FIFTY FIFTY, took flight as one of TikTok's most inescapable songs this year.

The radiant bubblegum song earned its spot at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its incredible 10-week chart streak made it the longest-charting song by a K-pop girl group.

FIFTY FIFTY's Keena praised TikTok for being "user friendly and easily accessible" for music fans. "When these factors meet an easy-listening song like 'Cupid,' the synergy was amplified and aligned with the fast-paced trends," the singer explained to GRAMMY.com. (Currently, Keena is the only member of FIFTY FIFTY, as the group's former agency, Attrakt, recently terminated the contracts of members Aran, Sio, and Saena, filing a lawsuit for alleged defamation and attempting to break their contracts.)

Beyond the sped-up version popularized on TikTok, "Cupid" spurred a series of additional remixes — a "Twin" version, live studio version, and collaboration with Sabrina Carpenter.

Flyana Boss

Folayan and Bobbi LaNea, the hip-hop duo who go by the stage name Flyana Boss, went viral when they posted a TikTok of themselves running while rapping a verse of their track "You Wish" — and now they're sprinting to victory.

"I think we're both still in shock at how many people these videos have reached," they shared in a statement to GRAMMY.com.

After signing to vnclm/Atlantic Records in 2021, their TikToks have collectively racked up more than 40 million likes on the platform and helped the pair gain more than 1 million monthly Spotify listeners. Sharing music on the app not only helped them grow their fan base this year, it exponentially fueled their ambition.

"TikTok's great for music discovery and as an artist, you can get your music to a large active community of people by posting," the pair said. "So we fed the algorithm as much as we could!"

With their name stemming from "flyness" and "bossness," it's no surprise that Flyana Boss are killing the game — and if you're lucky, you might just catch them on their 2024 headlining tour, which kicks off Feb. 24.

Kenya Grace

Kenya Grace is no stranger to fame this year. Though her musical specialty is in bedroom pop, her talent swells far beyond her London bedroom. "Strangers," a dance-pop song about ghosting on dating apps, blew up massively on TikTok; one of her first teaser videos for the song now has more than 85 million views.

"I hate making people wait!" she told Rolling Stone UK. "I love being free with [my] socials and, like, just posting stuff, whatever it is that I make that week. 'Strangers' came out really fast, which was great."

At just 25 years old, Grace dethroned Doja Cat on the U.K. singles chart, and became the second British female solo artist in history to score a No. 1 by writing and producing a song entirely by herself. Her echoey, airy delivery and enveloping drum'n'bass production is irresistible, making her debut single with label Warner Records Inc. an instant smash.

Paul Russell

After releasing a handful of albums and singles during college, Paul Russell began building a dedicated TikTok following in 2020 — and his foundational years are finally paying off. This year, his charming single "Lil Boo Thang" took off on TikTok with its infectious energy and playful lyrics, peaking at No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and scoring Russell a hot deal with Arista Records.

Sampling the Emotions' 1977 soulful song "Best Of My Love," Russell's hit exemplifies the growing trend of interpolating older music to inspire and create new art — one he made his own long ago.

"When I first started, I would find a song that was already popular and do a rap verse on the end," he shared in an interview with RANGE. "If someone is scrolling and hears something they recognize, it's like 'Oh! What's he going to do with this?'"

Pulling from Russell's '70s and '00s R&B inspirations, "Lil Boo Thang" conjures a joyful spirit. And since Russell has announced he's working on his upcoming album, only more joy is to come.

Sexyy Red

"To be honest, I wasn't surprised when it went viral. I been going viral for as long as I can remember," Sexyy Red laughed in an interview with GRAMMY.com.

The rising rapper knows how to navigate TikTok like a pro. Her first label mixtape, Hood Hottest Princess, dropped this summer via Open Shift, following her previously released singles "Pound Town" (with Tay Keith) and "SkeeYee" going wildly viral on the video-sharing app this year. "Pound Town" landed a highly anticipated Nicki Minaj feature, and "SkeeYee" became the first No. 1 on the new TikTok Billboard Top 50 chart in September.

"TikTok helped introduce my music to people who might have never heard it before, and also me as a person outside of what I say in my songs," she described. "I also like seeing how people get [their] own meanings from my music."

Her success has spurred collaborations with Summer Walker and Lil Durk, and the rapper opened for Drake in August on his It's All a Blur Tour.

"I learned that I can really do anything I put my mind to. I'm grateful that I get to be in a position to take care of my family and friends, and put out music that people can turn up to," she continued. "The doubters will be believers real soon."

Tyla

Hips don't lie, and when a snippet of the chorus from Tyla's "Water" became the TikTok sound of a viral dance challenge, the artist swiftly surged to international fame.

In 2019, the South African singer found success with her vibey debut single "Getting Late," but her global breakthrough this year came from the universal catchiness of "Water." Serving as just a sample of the 21-year-old's incredible musical talent, the viral amapiano track also earned the singer her first GRAMMY nomination this year in the newly minted Best African Music Performance category, alongside ASAKE & Olamide's "Amapiano," Burna Boy's "City Boys," Davido and Musa Keys' "UNAVAILABLE," and Ayra Starr's "Rush."

"​​I've noticed that people's attention spans aren't that long anymore," Tyla told 2024 GRAMMYs host Trevor Noah for Interview magazine. "People like watching short videos, so with my music, I love creating small videos that I hope will trend. Because I've been on social media throughout my life… I use that to my advantage when promoting a song."

Bringing pure passion to her amapiano and pop music, it's clear Tyla isn't just keeping her head above water — she's ready to ride the waves, from TikTok and beyond.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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10 Albums On Divorce & Heartache, From Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' To Kelly Clarkson's 'Chemistry'
Kacey Musgraves performs at the 2021 VMAs.

Photo: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS

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10 Albums On Divorce & Heartache, From Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' To Kelly Clarkson's 'Chemistry'

Divorce albums have been a staple of the music industry for decades. Take a look at some of the most notable musings on a breaking heart, from Kacey Musgraves, Kanye West and more.

GRAMMYs/Jun 30, 2023 - 05:46 pm

Divorce can be complicated, messy, and heartbreaking. But those feelings are prime fodder for songwriting — and it's something that artists of all genres have harnessed for decades.

Writing through the pain can serve many benefits for an artist. Marvin Gaye used Here, My Dear as a way to find closure in the aftermath of his divorce. Adele told Vogue that her recording process gave her somewhere to feel safe while recording 30, a raw account of the aftermath of her marriage ending. And Kelly Clarkson's new album, chemistry, finds her reclaiming herself, while fully taking stock of everything that happened in her marriage, good and bad. 

As fans dive into chemistry, GRAMMY.com has compiled a list of 10 divorce albums from all walks of music. Whether you need to cry, vent, or maybe even laugh, there's a divorce album that has what you need.

Tammy Wynette, D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)

During her life, Tammy Wynette was a prolific country songwriter and singer, releasing numerous albums exploring all aspects of love. She was also deeply familiar with divorce, with five marriages throughout her adulthood.

The most intimate album on the topic is her bluntly titled 1968 project D-I-V-O-R-C-E, which explores how sensitive the topic was to speak about. The title track is a mournful tune about hiding a separation from her children, but also conveys the general difficulty of discussing the topic with anyone. Elsewhere on the album, "Kiss Away" is a longing ballad about wishing for a more tender resolution when words have failed.

Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)

After recording 10 albums together, Fleetwood Mac were in disarray. During the recording of their eleventh record, the members of the band were going through affairs, divorces, and breakups, even some with each other. Against all odds, they created Rumours — and it became the band's most successful and iconic album.

The spectrum of emotions and sounds on the album is wide. "The Chain" is all fire and bombast, while the laidback acceptance of "Dreams" seeks to find peace in the storm. Fleetwood Mac sorted out their issues and are still going strong to this day, but their heartbreak created something special in Rumours.

Beck, Sea Change (2002)

Beck has had a prolific career, with 14 studio albums to his name. One of his most affecting is 2002's Sea Change, written in the aftermath of his engagement and nine-year relationship ending.

It's a deeply insular album, even by Beck's standards. Tracks like "Already Dead" are slow and mournful, while standout "It's All In Your Mind" finds him burrowing deep into his own thoughts to parse out how exactly he's feeling with his new life.

Open Mike Eagle, Anime, Trauma, and Divorce (2020)

Divorce isn't a topic that immediately brings laughter, but rapper Open Mike Eagle seemed to find humor in his personal story with his album Anime, Trauma, and Divorce. The album title gives a pretty good rundown of what inspired the project, and Mike's laidback rapping sells how silly the aftermath of pain can be.

"Sweatpants Spiderman" finds him trying to become a functional adult again, and discovering the various ailments of his aging body and thinner wallet that are getting in the way. The fed-up delivery on standout track "Wtf is Self Care" is a hilarious lesson on how learning to be kind to yourself post-breakup is harder than it sounds.

Carly Pearce, 29: Written In Stone (2021)

Heartbreak is a common topic in all genres, but country has some of the most profound narratives of sorrow. Carly Pearce added to that legacy with 29: Written in Stone, her 2021 album centered around her 29th year — a year that included both a marriage and a subsequent divorce.

The emotional whiplash of such a quick change can be felt all over the project, from an upbeat diss track like "Next Girl" to more poignant pieces like the title track, which finds Pearce reflecting on her tumultuous year. Her vulnerability resonated, as single "Never Wanted To Be That Girl" won Pearce her first GRAMMY, and her latest single, "What He Didn't Do," scored the singer her fourth No. 1 at country radio. 

Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

Kanye West's fourth album 808s & Heartbreak came from a deep well of pain. Besides the end of his relationship, West was also in turmoil from the death of his mother, Donda. The result is one of the bleakest sounding records on this list — but also one of West's most impactful.

808s & Heartbreak is minimalistic, dark, and brooding, with a focus on somber strings and 808 drum loops (hence the album's title). West delivers most of his lyrics in a monotone drone through a thick layer of autotune, a stylistic choice that heightens the sense of loss. Besides being a testament to West's pain, the electronic sound pioneered on 808s & Heartbreak would serve as a foundational inspiration for the next several years of hip-hop.

Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage, & Divorce (2014)

Toni Braxton and Babyface are two stalwarts of R&B in their own rights, and in 2014, the pair connected over their shared experiences going through divorce. Their bond sparked Love, Marriage, & Divorce, a GRAMMY-winning album that intended to capture the more universal feelings the life of a relationship conjures up.

Each artist has solo tracks on the record — Babyface wishing the best for his ex on "I Hope That You're Okay" and Braxton sharing her justified anger on "I Wish" and "I'd Rather Be Broke" — but where they shine is on their collaborations. The agonizing "Where Did We Go Wrong?" is heartbreaking, and the album ends with painful what-ifs in the soulful "The D Word."

Adele, 30 (2021)

Divorce is hard no matter the circumstances, but it gets even more complicated when children are involved. That was the reality for Adele, and it served as major inspiration for her fourth album, 30.

Like every album on this list, there's plenty of sorrow on the record, but what really sets it apart is just how honestly Adele grapples with the guilt of putting her son Angelo through turmoil as well. The album's GRAMMY-winning lead single "Easy On Me" addresses it in relation to her son, and standout track "I Drink Wine" is a full examination of the messy feelings she went through during her divorce.

Kacey Musgraves, star-crossed (2021)

As many of these albums prove, divorce triggers a hoard of emotions, from anger to sadness to eventual happiness. On star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves goes through it all.

There's the anthemic "breadwinner" about being better on her own, "camera roll" looking back on happier times with sorrow, and "hookup scene" about the confusion of adjusting back to single life. Star-crossed sees Musgraves continue to evolve sonically — incorporating more electronic sounds into her country roots — but ultimately, she comes out the other side at a place of renewed acceptance and growth.

Kelly Clarkson, chemistry (2023)

Kelly Clarkson's tenth album chemistry was born out of her 2020 divorce. In true Kelly fashion, she addresses the subject with thoughtful songwriting and a pop-rock vibe fans have adored for 20 years on. 

Chemistry focuses not just on the pain of divorce, but on the tender feelings that many couples still have for each other even after the end. Tracks like "favorite kind of high" mirror the euphoria of love, juxtaposed with ballads like "me," in which Clarkson finds comfort in herself and her inner strength — an inspiring sentiment for anyone who has had their heart broken.

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How Jax Became Pop's Funny Girl: Being A Theater Kid, Beating Cancer & Finally Expressing Herself

Photo: Braverijah Gregg

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How Jax Became Pop's Funny Girl: Being A Theater Kid, Beating Cancer & Finally Expressing Herself

Whether she's poking fun at Victoria's Secret in a hit song or creating a hilarious TikTok bit with Paris Hilton, Jax isn't just making a career out of being funny — she's living her truth.

GRAMMYs/Jun 26, 2023 - 08:39 pm

Viral TikTok stars are commonplace in pop culture today. But when Jax had a video go viral in 2020 amid the worldwide quarantine, it wasn't just another viral video — for the New Jersey-born singer, it was practically life-saving.

After years of being told she "wasn't mysterious enough" for the L.A. pop music scene, Jax decided to post a video parody of Fountains of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom." Channeling her mom's New York accent, she delivered "Stacy's Mom from Stacy's Mom's Perspective," and practically overnight, Jax realized she might actually have what it takes to make it.

"It was the dream. Finally people were like, 'Okay, you can do this for a living,'" Jax recalls. "And  I'm like, 'That rocks, thank you, because I suck at everything else.'"

Comedy has been ingrained in Jax since childhood, when she first started going to theater camp. She knew at a young age that making others laugh was her calling, and as she puts it, "filling dead air with jokes" is her specialty. Now, her sense of humor is translating through her original music.

Jax's success extended beyond TikTok last year with "Victoria's Secret," a witty confrontation of the lingerie brand's glamorization of unrealistic body image. The song makes points that are hilarious ("I know Victoria's Secret/ She was made up by a dude," she sings in the song's hook) but also meaningful — so much so that it sparked a public statement from the brand's CEO acknowledging its past pitfalls.

While "Victoria's Secret" may be Jax's biggest hit to date, it's just one of hundreds of brilliantly funny tunes she's crafted, including her latest single, the twisted princess tale "Cinderella Snapped." But no matter where her career goes from here, Jax is just happy she's finally able to be herself.

Before Jax kicked off her summer tour with Big Time Rush on June 22, the singer took GRAMMY.com through six foundational pieces of her life that have led to her dream come true — and ultimately made her one of pop's funniest new stars.

Being A Theater Kid

I knew I wanted to be on stage from a very young age, so I grew up with theater. I got a sense very young [about] what an audience would respond to, what kind of comedic timing would work, or what kind of dramatic timing would work. 

I can remember every single role, whether it be community theater, or something a little more pro, or at camp. I remember how hard I fell in love with almost every single role I played. I don't know if that makes me a sociopath. 

A big one for me [was when] I earned playing Annie — after being in Annie as not Annie two times prior, I finally got Annie. I worked hard enough to prove myself, and then I had to take this on as myself. The next year I got the role of Lily, and I loved that role. I got a huge audience reaction. It was the comedic relief of the show. 

Beating Cancer

I got pretty sick somewhere in between writing for myself and transitioning out to L.A. as a songwriter. I had to take a year off of singing, and I couldn't do anything other than write. They did a huge surgery where they removed my thyroid for thyroid cancer, and it was the coolest gift I could ever receive.

I mean, it didn't seem like that at the time, but now I know that I would not be a songwriter if it weren't for that year. [It was] almost like a full bootcamp on writing, [and it helped me] realize that I could actually make a living doing this. If I tried hard enough, I could not only write for me but write for anyone. 

It was the most bizarre year ever, but it got me here. I love talking about it because it feels like a W, it doesn't feel like an L. [Laughs.] 

Struggling To Make It In L.A.

L.A. gave me a really cool perspective. When I came out here to write for other people, there were songwriters that were lightyears ahead of me. I went my whole life writing songs for myself, in my own little world. I started in musical theater, I joined a bunch of bands, I tried to write my music, I've done shows. I've done a million different chapters in my life where I tried for me. When it came to L.A., I [got [time with] creatives that brought me to another level as a songwriter and taught me how to nurture my skill set. 

At the same time, whenever it came back to my project, and when I was able to master the way I write, it was never enough. Every time I wrote what genuinely felt like the right thing to write in my heart, how I would write it — as cheesy or non cheesy, as dark or bright or funny or whatever it was — it's always extreme. It's pretty in your face, like, "Here's what I'm saying, and here is a joke and here is not a joke," you know? That is how I speak, that's who I am, my whole life, in every aspect.

I was told I needed more mystery. It was like, "You need to be cooler in this, you need to be sexier" — I've been told to cut weight my whole life. When I started doing pop music, especially, people were like, "You must look like your pop icons if you want to do these types of songs." 

I started to lose [my] sense of self. That on top of having to pay rent in L.A., you just get really discouraged. You start to associate your skills and your talent and your self-worth with how much money you make, who you're around, what your cuts are, who you know. And I started to really get secluded. And thank God I did, because that's where my quarantine ended up — I ended up hitting rock bottom and then just saying "F— it" and putting out what I felt was good. 

And with apps like TikTok, where it's a little more equal opportunity to anyone in the world, it was the dream. Finally people were like, "Okay, you can do this for a living," and I'm like, "That rocks, thank you, because I suck at everything else." [Laughs.]

@jaxwritessongs A Doctor and a Hypochondriac wrote a song together 💀👨‍⚕️🤒❤️‍🩹 @drjoe_md #doctor #hypochondriac #songs #sorrynotsorry ♬ original sound - Jax

Becoming TIkTok Famous

It's a hard struggle like bridging the gap between [funny and kitschy]. I kind of landed in that space on TikTok. I'm not a comedian by any means — I was in a huge panic [when my first video blew up], because I'm like, I can't maintain a funny thing. I have all these new people commenting on my original stuff, my music — what can I do to like, blend the worlds? 

I definitely have a really easy time with perspective writing and creative writing. I love taking characters and shifting them into the wrong places and stories. I loved that in theater growing up. I loved that in writing classes growing up. So I spent a minute [thinking], Well, if people were into this, and that's why this first thing went [off], there's a million perspectives of songs that we can POV and parody. The wheels kind of started turning, and then in the bigger scheme of things, I was like, I wonder if they would actually like my music, because this isn't my music. This is just kind of fun.

I love Bo Burnham, I love Lil Dicky, I love punny rappers — I love Eminem. And then I also love a good wordsmith, like Julia Michaels, Sia, Joan Jett, Billy Joel. That's why I'm the writer I am today, but I always hid it. 

"Ring Pop" was the first [original song I posted] of something I was going through during the quarantine with my fiancé. And for the first time, people who cared about the parodies sort of cared about this, and the common ground was that it is how I talk and it is my humor. That's the first time in my life I've been totally unapologetically writing the way I want to write.

I don't encourage kids to need the validation of everyone around them to feel good, but I definitely personally was in a place where I really needed it. I really, really needed just one little glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel to be like, You can make a living doing music, and you are good enough to do this. You can still write songs, you don't have to quit. That was the moment from the universe that was like, Hey, don't give up! 

My therapist tells me it wouldn't have mattered if there were TikTok or not. But it was really important for my self-worth, and it did remind me that the second I just reverted back to what was natural was when things started moving in the right direction.

[TikTok has] gotten me confident enough to write what I want to write, sing what I want to sing, stick up to people I want to stick up to. I've never felt more empowered, especially as a woman in music, to just speak what I want to speak. It still gives me anxiety dreams, but I still wake up in the morning and want to do it. I get to speak cool truths, and that's the only reason I ever wanted to do music or perform. 

I have had so much trauma with my body and how I see myself in the mirror, and every day it's still a learning process for me in how to get healthy up here. And the growth I have had since TikTok, and dressing how I want to dress, doing things like "Victoria's Secret" — completely ignoring how I was supposed to look and just looking the way I do at my grossest, in my teenage dirtbag era, right? I feel good, and they let me feel good. 

Some kids dress like me at shows, which is crazy. That's just insane, because I just went the last 26 years thinking I was doing it all wrong. And that's the biggest blessing of the whole thing — it was free therapy. 

@jaxwritessongs A song about @ParisHilton 🧠👸🏼🤯 #fypシ #icon #ceo #parishilton ♬ original sound - Jax

Documenting Everything

I only get my concepts from just talking to people. Never anywhere else. I don't come up with them in the studio — I'm writing [things] down all day. 

It's kind of a defense mechanism — I can't go into the studio and just pull from the sky. So I quickly realized to document what [I've] felt in that moment — like, even if I'm totally drunk, or if I'm sleep talking, or I just woke up or I'm in the shower. I used to set a tape recorder by my bed, because a lot of my ideas would come in my sleep.

It's like I know that I need to prepare for work when I go and socialize. And I remember to document the moments that made me feel something. Or even just one word. 

Somebody yesterday said the words to me, "Bend the universe." And I was like, "That's a great concept." That's why I think breakups were, like, the best times for writing because there's so much being said and so much going on — so much healing and crying and pain. The amount of times that I've written breakup songs because my best friend was in pain — I'm like, I hate to be that guy right now but…

Now that I'm doing all my songs and I'm putting out my own music, people — especially moms — take it very seriously. They don't realize that there are multiple writers in the room, and a really cool piece of work and art can come out of everybody's collective experience in the room. 

Like, I have a song [with] the name Alyssa, but it was because the engineer's ex-girlfriend was named Melissa and then it somehow morphed into Alyssa to play into "Are you A-listening?" It's an evolution with people in the room, but when you're the face of it, then it gets tricky, because people are like, "Why are you endorsing this to my kids?" 

It's a lot of pressure being the face of the final product, which is not the thing I'd been doing for the last few years at all. I had been the face behind the project trying to protect the artist, and make sure I don't say anything that could be taken the wrong way or that's not authentic to them, but still using my own experiences. They take it very seriously — even some of the skits where I thought for sure they'd think it was a joke.

Being Her Awkward Self

I grew up around a lot of cool people. I come from a really loud family. I have two very cool, smart parents that were always super down to Earth and real. I think in another life, my dad totally could've been a really cool actor or comedian. He's the funniest guy I know; he's real quick. 

When it comes to comedic [instincts], I don't know, I think it's awkwardness at the end of the day. It's a problem I have — I have to stop filling dead air with jokes all the time. It's what I do, essentially, from the second I wake up to when I go to bed. It's gotten me into a lot of trouble.

For anybody that knows who I am personally, this is the closest I've ever been in my work to how I am with people — like, I'm Punmaster 5000, I make inappropriate jokes at the wrong times. I deal with things in satire and comedy. I'm taken off guard by how much people actually are down to listen to that. It's a cool spot in my life, because it's the first time I'm feeling authentic.

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