I refuse to download TikTok. Mostly because it feels like TikTok is always trying to download me, and that's kind of scary even though everyone says I'll love it. I probably will, which is why I can't afford the temptation of yet another endless stream of content just a tap away. The spirit is willing but the thumb is weak, as they say.
So I don't remember exactly remember which corner of the internet I was in when I watched this TikTok, but I do remember wondering whether I was watching a real person or an animation. Regardless, I was mesmerized:
I wasn't the only one. The video, created by TikTok star and real life human Bella Poarch, has 55 million likes. It's the most liked video in TikTok history, which begs the question: what's so great about it?
In a May 2021 article for Vox entitled "The blandness of TikTok’s biggest stars," social media critic Rebecca Jennings cites the TikTok trinity of Bella Poarch, Addison Rae, Charli D’Amelio (historically the three most followed creators on the platform) as proof that:
"Pop culture is being increasingly determined by algorithms (not a new thing, but no platform’s algorithm is more powerful at surfacing tailored content than TikTok’s). This also tends to mean that what we’re seeing is the lowest common denominator of what human beings want to look at, appealing to our most base impulses and exploiting existing biases toward thinness, whiteness, and wealth. The result is, well, mediocre."
Take, for example, the most viewed video from Charli D'Amerlio (who was able to parlay the success of this type of content into a deal with Hulu for her family's version of Keeping Up With the Kardashians):
Although the type of talent, execution level, and conceptual thinking required to make a TikTok video that garners tens of millions of likes doesn't necessarily translate to success in other mediums, it often doesn't stop creators from trying.
Addison Rae tried in March 2021 when she debuted her video single Obsessed, which consisted only of her writhing on the ground, writhing on a motorcycle, and as one YouTube commenter described, dancing to choreography straight out of a Zumba class.
So when Bella Poarch debuted her first pop single and accompanying music video Build a Bitch in May 2021, I expected a familiar level of mediocrity.
Instead, Bella delivered a song that's pretty catchy despite her limited vocal ability and painfully literal lyrics ("This ain't build a bitch / You don't get to pick and choose / Different ass and bigger boobs / If my eyes are brown or blue").
But it's the video, set in a steampunk factory where men can order robotically produced women to their specifications (that is, until Bella appears as defective and tears the whole system down), that showcased a surprising level of creative depth and, as a result, forced the internet to reckon with Bella's humanity for the first time.
Because Bella rarely spoke or revealed more than her face in her early TikToks, viewers never had to consider her as anything other than a piece of internet meat. By creating Build a Bitch, Bella issued a sort of Turing test that confronted viewers with the same core question asked of any artificial intelligence: is Bella self-aware? The immediate response was one of skepticism. Jennings wrote:
["Build a Bitch"] ironically criticizes the very same system that created Bella Poarch, the one that rewards thin girls with pouty lips and doll eyes who make kawaii and ahegao facial expressions. In other words, if the internet could “build a bitch,” it would look exactly like Bella Poarch."
In "Sorry, Bella Poarch, this IS ‘Build a B*tch," digital culture critic Kat Tenbarge took the critique one step further:
"Bella’s celebrity thus far has hinged on viral TikToks that showcase anything but personality. She is a blank slate customized for mass engagement."
Bella's Build a Bitch and the ensuing response felt like a watershed moment to me, but I wasn't able to articulate why until I discovered Junya Watanabe's Spring/Summer 2015 womenswear collection.
The primary colors and geometric patterns of the transparent, rubbery garments emanate a frenetic energy; like if a tipsy Yayoi Kusama and goth Piet Mondrian tried making clothes together out of shower curtains. The pieces look so eerily synthetic that they almost audibly squeak, and during the show they did. Instead of music, Junya had the models walk the runway to a soundtrack of mechanical joint movements.
The models, as robots, appeared on the verge of going haywire thanks to their smudged lipstick and pigment coated eye sockets, the expert work of artist Isamaya Ffrench. Ffrench described the idea behind the show as there being
"industrially produced models on a production line with this 'thing' stamping them. Maybe everything [with them] is a bit off because the line has been going on for 20 years, and the eyes are a bit wonky."
Combined, Junya's clothes, Ffrench's makeup, and the runway environment served as a foreshadowing. In her review of the show for Vogue, fashion critic Jo-Ann Furniss wrote:
"If we are talking about graphic girls as living dolls and clothing as performance, the street-style contingent cannot be ignored—they will lap up this collection, tailor made as it is to turn them into living tear sheets. And in this way, what Watanabe did today was as much 2014 as 1914, 1994, or 1984, and it both comments on and furthers the graphic march of people as corporeal Tumblrs. God help us."
At the time of Junya's show "the graphic march of people as corporeal Tumblrs" had hardly even begun: Snapchat had yet to launch lenses, Instagram was still a year away from ripping stories, and TikTok didn't even exist. Eight years later, the interpretation of Junya's work through the phrases "graphic girls as living dolls" and "living tear sheets" read as prescient descriptions of CGI models, Instagram face, and digital face dysmorphia. Or, in other words, the outputs of a "Build a Bitch" factory.
This is why I think Build a Bitch struck such a deep cultural nerve: no one expected that Bella, as the incarnation of the models in Junya's show and the fulfillment of his prophecy, would also be capable of delivering its postmortem.
Bella's escape from the Build a Bitch factory marked the beginning of a new, more vulnerable and open Bella as both a person and an artist. After the debut, she shared in an interview with Vogue that:
"There’s still a lot I have to say and want to talk about—mental health, my past, and more. I’ll do it at the right time. I know I’m still young, but there’s a lot that people don’t know about me and I feel like I’ve had 10 lifetimes already. I’m just getting started."
Although not picked up by any major outlets, Bella expounded on her "10 lifetimes" in a series of subsequent YouTube interviews. This is how I learned that Bella was physically and emotionally abused by her adoptive parents during her childhood in the Philippines, spent four years in the Navy after moving to America, and attempted suicide at the end of her service before recovering in the care of some of her Navy friends.
True to her word, Bella pulled even more deeply from her personal experience for her second video single, Inferno, released in August 2021. Pinned to the top of the YouTube page is a trigger warning:
"As a victim of sexual assault, this song and video mean a lot to me. This is something I haven’t been ready to share with you just yet. It’s very hard for me to talk about. But I’m ready now. I decided to express myself by creating a song and video with Sub Urban based on how I wished my experience went."
The video opens with two men ominously scouting a hotel bar before identifying Bella as their target and spiking her drink. They escort her into an elevator only to fall victim themselves to a series of plagues conjured by Bella and her song collaborator Sub Urban. Just as in Build a Bitch, the simple lyrics and plinky piano keys of Inferno belie the depth of its subject matter.
For Bella to overcome the depths of these traumas to become the person she is today is nothing short of remarkable. Though the algorithms always demand more, she is, as she is, enough. Which makes her decision as a creative to depart from the comfortable confines of TikTok in the pursuit of deeper personal expression all the more admirable. She's chosen the harder path. Andrew Donoho, the producer for both of Bella's videos, told Variety
"She doesn’t see herself as a one-trick pony or flash in the pan. She is talented and wants to push this all the way, not just for acclaim, but because she’s super passionate about music and storytelling within her videos."
Given Bella's explicit intent to grow as an artist, I believe her work deserves a more nuanced critique of its creative merit than what she's been previously afforded from consumers and critics alike. More specifically, one that honors her while still challenging her creative choices in the spirit of artistic growth.
To do this, I'd like to return to Junya Watanabe. Because despite working in completely different spheres for completely different audiences, Bella and Junya face a similar creative challenge. In The Mythology of Junya Watanabe, Junya is praised for
"elevating elements typically viewed as low-brow into works of art appreciated by the fashion elite."
Like in Junya's iconic Spring 2000 show, when he highlighted the water repellant fabric used to create his collection by pouring an isolated rain shower over models as they walked the runway in his wearable umbrellas. Vogue called the show "nothing short of an epiphany."
So, too, Bella must learn how transform the "low-brow" nature of what has made her successful on TikTok into "works of art" if she wants to become an artist associated with the pantheon of pop.
For example, while certain narrative techniques well for TikTok, they are insufficient to convey more sophisticated emotions and concepts like the ones behind Build a Bitch and Inferno. Both videos feature an almost identical seven second stretch where she performs the classic arm waving, stand-within-a-vertical-frame type of dance routine birthed from TikTok.
If Bella were Teyana Taylor, her moves might advance the storyline. Instead, the dance completely interrupts the story only to remind the audience of her TikTok origins.
Fortunately, Bella and her team are looking beyond TikTok for creative inspiration, even if they're still learning how to effectively wrangle a diversity of references into a cohesive result. Donoho shared the variety of visual sources that Bella and her team pulled from to create Inferno:
"Our original idea had 10 levels that were all direct mirrors of the levels of hell in Dante’s “Inferno,” but where we landed took the best of that world and some of our favorite Judeo-Christian myths and merged it all into this feast of mythology and modern trends with a little bit of 1950's timeless flair."
Unfortunately, the result is as messy as it sounds. Drawing inspiration from eclectic sources is a necessary step to delivering great work, but if that's all it took to deliver quality then the Golden Corral would be a Michelin star restaurant.
Kanye West (who has an entire song dedicated to Junya) also pulled from a broad range of references for his Heaven and Hell music video, but in contrast to Inferno, the outcome feels cohesive and original because of his strong perspective and singularly focused execution:
Without an obvious common thread between concepts like the "1950's" and "Judeo-Christian myths," and because Bella is still developing an original aesthetic, she and her team had to borrow heavily from established looks to form their visual foundations.
The hotel lobby from Inferno takes directly from Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, down to the "concierge" sign, framed artwork, and key hooks on the wall:
An elevator also plays a critical role in both pieces, and the way Anderson frames his subjects moments before a shootout ensues is mirrored in the way Bella is framed moments before staging her own attack:
Bella is not the first or last to draw heavily from Wes Anderson – Tyler, The Creator is the latest high profile example – but unlike Tyler she fails to provide her own unique twist. As a result, Inferno feels like like a cheap imitation instead of an inspired work.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, Bella needs to embrace the power of metaphor. Instead of entrusting her audience to interpret what they see and form their own meanings and emotions from it, Bella explains even the obvious, a hallmark of "low-brow" work.
The massive robotic arm in Build a Bitch that pushes Bella into a furnace is enough for viewers to understand that she is "defective" without it needing to be spelled out, literally, in a flashing red sign behind her.
The flashing red sign makes another appearance later in the video, this time with the word "error." In case viewers still didn't understand that the factory is malfunctioning after Bella breaks loose, an employee of the factory (a hooded imp) drives the point home by banging on the machinery.
At the risk of becoming the hooded imp myself, banging away on my keyboard while you say, "I get it," let me conclude.
Bella has used her first two creative pieces as a way of processing the pain of her past "10 lifetimes." Although Build a Bitch and Inferno are two different videos, they tell the same story: Bella escaping a dire threat to emerge triumphant and surrounded by friends, much like her real life. Eventually, Bella's creative attention will shift from reflecting on her past to imagining new futures. Hopefully her taste and execution levels will become more refined over this transition.
Regardless of whether Bella becomes a great artist, she's already proven to be more than a "blank slate," "corporeal tumblr," or detached head. She has a mind, a body, a spirit, a voice.
So to all of my critiques of Bella's artistic ability, I say a resounding phooey! Compared to the importance of Bella using creative expression to exorcise the demons of her past, who cares how "good" her work is? To heal is to be brave. To share the process of healing, braver still.
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