Moving On Up (on TikTok)
New York magazine|November 23 - December 6, 2020
In 2019, Ashnikko broke out after a viral hit on the app. What if it wasn’t a fluke?
By Emma Madden

A voice laughs maniacally. Logan Paul sways his hips. Swipe down. A voice laughs maniacally. Two college-age men, both shirtless, grab their crotches and sway. Swipe. A voice laughs maniacally. Miley Cyrus lip-syncs along with the lyrics “Stupid boy think that I need him.”

This was the experience of being on TikTok in the fall of 2019. While that grating laugh seemed, at first, to belong to the app, you could discover, with some research, that it came from the mouth of Ashton Casey, an artist who raps—under the alias Ashnikko—about clits and cutting off dicks like she’s writing the script for the next Human Centipede movie. Within just three weeks of its first upload, her song “stupid,” featuring Yung Baby Tate, was the No. 2 most-used song on TikTok with 1.3 million video uses. And in the months that followed, “stupid” became inextricable from the TikTok experience. You couldn’t scroll through the app without hearing “Wet! Wet! Wet!”

On TikTok, it’s common to hear the same song over and over. If a sound inspires one user to create a video with it, it will inspire another and another, until it amasses hundreds, then thousands, of videos that use the same sound. It’s a kind of exposure that reaches far beyond the capability of radio, YouTube, Spotify, or any other music-discovery platform, past or present.

When the short form audiovisual app launched internationally in September 2017, TikTok was a punch line to a joke about “kids these days.” Hardly a year later, it became the world’s most downloaded app, and today it holds an unprecedented power over the music industry. Kids these days no longer wish to just listen to music; they want to create on top of it, and artist development has shifted accordingly. It’s uncommon for major labels to sign talent without a significant social media following or a history of impressive performance metrics, but on TikTok, a new user theoretically has the same chance of going viral as Miley Cyrus does. And owing to the app’s reactive nature, it is uniquely suited to spreading popular music at a rate that confounds record labels—or, sometimes, any analysis at all.

Unlike obvious TikTok panderers like Justin Bieber, Ashnikko appeals to users of the platform because she presents something that seems impossible to engineer: an impression of not being watched. In the social media panopticon, a lack of inhibition is aspirational, and she cackles, gurgles, and screams in her songs. Her style can seem at times formulaic, a nexus of current fashion trends—industrial, Y2K, cyberpunk, space faerie, anime fantasy. But even as there’s something slightly trollish to everything she does, it’s all undergirded with a sense of humor. (“Pee pee poo poo saved my life,” she tweeted recently.)

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