Lissyelle Laricchia / Adama Jalloh / Se Oh
In honor of Pride Month, MTV News set out to spotlight the LGBTQ+ artists creating the contemporary anthems that soundtrack queer spaces and report on the new frontiers in today’s streaming landscape helping them to do so. As we did last year, we’ve also set out to profile emerging LGBTQ+ artists and celebrate established ones making waves. Welcome to Queer Music Week.
By Max Freedman
Once upon a time, the Oakland ukulele-pop musician Mxmtoon thought TikTok was an app for, as she tells MTV News, “8-year-olds who play Fortnite.” That changed when her 2019 single “Prom Dress” went viral on the now-ubiquitous social media platform. There, the song has racked up 447,600 streams to date, and Mxmtoon’s TikTok channel has 2.8 million followers and 131.9 million likes. Now, the 21-year-old artist is one of many LGBTQ+ musicians using the app to make their music and full selves heard while connecting more closely with their audiences, especially their LGBTQ+ fans.
In conversations with MTV News, Mxmtoon (who also goes by Maia but keeps her last name out of the public for her privacy) and other LGBTQ+ musicians say they’ve used TikTok to get their music to queer listeners more quickly and directly than many traditional promotional routes like radio airplay. The online communities they’ve built through the app have translated to sold-out live shows and major label deals, though some have used their TikTok presences to maintain a level of creative autonomy unprecedented for newly signed artists. Even as the app has admitted to shadowbanning words such as “gay,” “lesbian,” and “transgender,” as well as generally pro-LGBTQ+ content, TikTok has nonetheless become a space of connection and authenticity for LGBTQ+ musicians and listeners alike.
It’s easy to think of TikTok as a COVID-era phenomenon. Surely, during early lockdown, you fell down a dance-challenge TikTok rabbit hole or watched way too many clips that use the same song. Yet as Mxmtoon recalls, TikTok was already a big deal pre-pandemic. She says that before she released “Prom Dress” in May 2019, she and her team “went into that campaign and that release with the intention of making a lot of content on TikTok so…people could interact with it for a while before we [released] the actual full-length song.” At the time, TikTok had roughly 271 million monthly active users, a mere fraction of the 1 billion monthly active users it reached in September.
Throughout our conversation, Mxmtoon speaks about TikTok both with an executive-sharp marketing eye — she says “engage” and “consuming content” at least once — and continued incredulity about how uniquely the platform can help musicians. “There was a really big moment [for] ‘Prom Dress’ on TikTok before we even filmed the music video,” she says. “It was really interesting to see how massively it took off.”
As her audience has grown, Mxmtoon has found a space to more fully be herself. “TikTok has played a huge part in me expressing my identity as a queer person,” she says. The near-instantaneous conversations the platform facilitates through its video replies to comments make it “very easy to have a conversation about your identity. It’s very easy for me to make a video about being bisexual and reach an audience of people that also understand that experience and want to consume content representative of their identities.” She regularly responds to comments asking about her sexuality. “If I’m open and honest about my queerness,” she says, “it allows other people to be open and honest about theirs, as well.”
TikTok is how the British folk-pop musician Cat Burns — who has 1.2 million TikTok followers alongside roughly 539,000 TikTok streams on the four versions of her folk-pop song “Go” — figured out her sexuality. Since TikTok “creates an algorithm for you,” the 22-year-old tells MTV News, “it knew that I was not definitive in who I thought I was and would show me particular videos and…would then continually show me those same videos, and then I would continuously like them, and then it got me thinking, ‘Oh, am I not straight?’”
Now, she’s writing music made explicitly for fellow LGBTQ+ people and Black women — and reaching listeners via social media. “I want people to feel heard and represented in the music that I make,” she says. “I want to make people feel seen.” She pulled off both when she released her song “Free” in 2021, about a year after she first gained a large TikTok following during early lockdown by regularly doing singing challenges and covering songs. “Free,” which she released after signing to a major label, “immediately hit the target group that it needed to hit, and it touched the people that it needed to touch. I don’t think I would be able to hit the [number] of people that I’ve hit without TikTok.”
Through the platform, both Burns and Mxmtoon have built an audience of LGBTQ+ listeners and used the platform to share their stories with fans. Or, more accurately, further share their stories. If music is storytelling, then on TikTok, LGBTQ+ musicians are revealing their narratives to new people and building even deeper connections with longtime listeners.
The Missouri-raised glam-pop musician Jake Wesley Rogers — whom some have called “Gen Z’s Elton John” — says that the connections TikTok builds have resulted in an unprecedented transfer of power from labels to musicians. Although the 25-year-old singer-songwriter published five music videos in 2021, he tells MTV News, “This year, my budgets got cut for music videos, and the explanation was, ‘You’re making TikToks for free, and they’re doing much more to build your audience than these very expensive music videos.’ Which is fair!”
Rogers says that musicians “don’t really need the infrastructure, the money, and the push behind a label to get out there. If you get a following, you get a following, and you have power. You own everything.” In a major-label ecosystem where musicians — including LGBTQ+ songwriter Justin Tranter, who heads Rogers’s label, Facet — still speak of an overall lacking queer presence in the industry, the power that TikTok can give marginalized musicians to take and maintain control of their stories when formally entering the industry is nothing short of game-changing.
For Rogers, this power has primarily come in handy after, not before, signing to a label. Facet had already offered him a deal before he joined TikTok right as the pandemic began. His following on the platform has since grown to just under 300,000, with a few million-plus-views videos on his page, plus the “Abraham Lincoln was a queer icon” video that first took him viral in May 2020. He hasn’t needed a TikTok megahit like Burns’s “Go” or Mxmtoon’s “Prom Dress” to build a devoted following on and beyond the app.
“TikTok was this way to share my music and find new people that, maybe traditionally, you would get from touring,” he says. But once touring restarted, he “saw it translate immediately. I played my first headline shows last year, and I think the reason they sold out was because of TikTok.” His listeners, he affirms, are “coming to the shows and believing in what I believe in.”
Those beliefs include that “authenticity, love, and consciousness are part of us…and the world is really fucked up and there’s so much beauty in it.” Also: “We contain multitudes, and I think…TikTok rewards that. It rewards a holistic person. … I’m an artist first, but I’m a lot of things, and I can show all those things.” Rogers says that the multiplicity and contradictions that TikTok encourages are why the platform is home to a thriving community of LGBTQ+ musicians and listeners. “I think queerness is that,” he says. “Queerness is existing in that blurry state of nonconformity.”
Thanks to TikTok, major labels are less hesitant than ever to embrace and uplift their artists’ creativity and identities, and LGBTQ+ musicians and listeners are finding each other more easily than ever. The app is allowing LGBTQ+ musicians to directly put forth their full selves to like-minded audiences. There, artists’ personalities are on display alongside their music, and no traditional music marketing approach can so deftly pull off that feat. “It was so much fun for me…to express facets of [myself] on the platform other than just my songs,” Mxmtoon says of her early days on the platform. Since then, she says, TikTok has “been this great tool to not only promote my music and share my songs, but also promote who I am.”
Of course, TikTok comes with its challenges for musicians, even beyond the potential for censorship. The app has enforced bans in several languages on certain LGBTQ+-related words. It has also shadowbanned queer TikTok content in countries with no recent history of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. For now, these bans haven’t affected LGBTQ+ artists all that significantly, though Mxmtoon notes that TikTok’s “history of not necessarily advocating for all people and shutting down certain voices and stories” means “they still have a ways to go.”
Mxmtoon also mentions that TikTok has made music “hard to think about from my business brain — how do I make a snippet of my song take off on TikTok? And from the creative side of it, I’m like, ‘I don’t want [snippets] to define why I make this song and the way that I write.’” Burns says that successfully using TikTok to spread your music requires keeping up with trends, which adds another task to a list stacked with writing, recording, touring, doing interviews, and just living your life. “As long as you move with the times of TikTok, it definitely works in your favor,” she says, “but if you stick doing the same content, it never [goes anywhere].”
Rogers points to another challenge with using TikTok to promote his music. “If I get too caught up in likes and comments and virality, then I’ll stop making music accidentally,” he says. But he adds that TikTok continues to be worth it: “The people who have found [me] and continue to find [me] are investing, more than just following me.” They’re showing up to his shows, which means they’re actually funding his music career. And for Mxmtoon, a continued TikTok presence eliminates the longstanding “divide between artist and audience.” The platform excels at building genuine bonds between LGBTQ+ musicians and the people who would naturally be most interested in their music: LGBTQ+ listeners. Burns says that she’s “seen so many people” of all sexualities “playing [‘Go’] and using it in their videos.” After all, she adds, “That’s just what music does. It connects people.”