Time on TikTok turns Michiganians into social media stars

Andrew Roth
Special to The Detroit News

When states began implementing stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one song quickly emerged as the unofficial quarantine anthem.

Curtis Roach, a 21-year-old Detroiter, posted a video of himself freestyling about being bored at home on the social media app TikTok in March.

The video, "Bored in the House," has since racked up more than 40.6 million views and 5.7 million likes — and led to a remix with rapper/songwriter Tyga that was released as a single.

TikTok is one of the fastest growing social media companies, adding more than 315 million new downloads in the first quarter of 2020 alone, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower. That’s the most downloads any app has ever received in a single quarter, and adds to the more than 1.5 billion downloads it had  amassed by late 2019.

Users of the app — many between ages 16 through 24 — upload short 15- to 60-second videos to the platform. They can either attach someone else’s audio clip to their video — like a popular song — or they can use their own original audio, which other users will then be able to make videos with.

More than 4.6 million videos have been made using Roach’s song since it was first uploaded.

Among those who have used his audio in their videos: Chance the Rapper, Janet Jackson and Charli D’Amelio, who is TikTok’s most followed user with 62.6 million followers.

Curtis Roach

“It’s crazy. Chance the Rapper is one of my favorite rappers of all time; he’s one of the reasons why I even do rap,” Roach said. “With all the celebrities that have done it, it’s incredible. I wake up every day and it’s like a new thing every day still.”

Roach posted a follow-up video about two weeks after his original freestyled song had gone viral.

“I’m glad y’all like my 'Bored in the House' and 'I’m in the house bored' song,” Roach says in the video. “Doesn’t change the fact that I’m still bored in the house and I’m in the house bored.”

About a week after that, Roach released a full-length version of his song with Tyga.

“He just DMed (messaged) me one day out of nowhere, and he’s like, ‘yo, we’ve got to work, your music is dope.’ … And I was like, ‘alright, bet,’” Roach said. “I sent my verse that night, he sent his verse the next day and then later on that week, we just dropped the song.”

Roach isn’t the only young adult in Michigan who has been able to use the time in quarantine to build a following for themselves and digitally rub elbows with some of their role models.

Alexa Wollney, a 17-year-old from Byron Center near Grand Rapids, choreographed two dances to the song "Cars That Go Boom" by L’Trimm — first a duet version, then a solo version.

Wollney’s original dance has been viewed 19.9 million times and received 2.6 million likes. A tutorial she uploaded for the solo version has 16 million views and 2.1 million likes.

A number of big creators — including D’Amelio, YouTube personality Emma Chamberlain and Maddie and Mackenzie Ziegler of the TV reality show "Dance Moms" — posted videos of themselves doing Wollney’s dance.

“Emma Chamberlain has been a role model to me. I love how she’s just openly herself and authentic," Wollney said. "I remember the first people I saw do it was Maddie and Mackenzie Ziegler from 'Dance Moms.' That was one of my favorite shows growing up, and I quite literally screamed on the inside. And then when it comes to Charli D’Amelio, it made her feel much less far away.'

“Thinking about people I’ve looked up to seeing one of my videos and then thinking that dance is good enough for them to put on their channel, which has millions of followers, I was very honored by it and it made me feel closer to them, in a way. It made them seem more like people that I could maybe follow in their footsteps one day. So that was very uplifting to me."

Wollney has since choreographed dances to "Jenny from the Block," by Jennifer Lopez, and "Stunnin’" by Curtis Waters. Her "Jenny from the Block" dance has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Wollney said that being in quarantine gave her the time to transition from doing dances that others had choreographed on TikTok to creating her own.

Alexa Wollney

“It gave me so much more time to express myself creatively, whether that be TikTok or writing songs, and I think if it wasn’t for quarantine I wouldn’t have had that day where I just wanted to start making dances,” she said. “I’ve always done other people’s dances on TikTok, so I think quarantine honestly gave me the time to step back and view myself more as a creator and realize that I myself can make dances.”

When she did make the move to creating her own dances, Wollney was prepared; she has danced since she was 4, beginning with ballet and tap dancing but quickly moving to hip-hop. That background informed her choreography.

“I pretty much had that dance in my head. I thought I wanted a ’90s, kind of cheesy, style to it,” Wollney said. “So I just started off with using some '90s moves I had known, and I had a couple ideas in my head. Most of the time I’ll just freestyle until I find this good rhythm that I like and then I’ll just slowly add on to it and see what works.”

Roach’s success mirrors that of another young hip-hop artist, Lil Nas X. Before he released a remix of "Old Town Road" with Billy Ray Cyrus that would sit atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record-breaking 19 consecutive weeks, the song first gained attention as a trend on TikTok.

“While it was a fun video format for everyone on the app, for Nas, it pushed him from an aspiring artist to the Billboard charts and a record deal,” TikTok said in statement.

Roach has 1.8 million followers on TikTok and more than 2.8 million monthly listeners on the streaming music service Spotify.

He said his previously released songs — including on "Lellow," his first album, which was released last year — have seen a bump in streams since "Bored in the House" went viral.

“I kind of got popping off of a musical sound on TikTok and people were like ‘oh, you have a nice voice for that,’ and they went to check me out,” Roach said.

One or two viral videos can be all it takes to give all of a creators’ videos, past and future, a boost in viewership, he said.

“I started posting videos every day, and for like three weeks straight I was doing that. Nothing was happening, it was just like a couple of comments or like 20 likes here and there, and I was like, ‘oh, this is cool, people are looking at it,’” Roach said. “And there was this one video that just blew up and it was like a domino effect, one blew up, and then the next one blew up.”

That’s also been the case for Wollney, who has seen her account grow to more than 940,000 followers in the weeks since her dances went viral, with thousands more being added daily.

“It still blows my mind. I actually had this goal to get 50K. That was my final goal. I was like, ‘OK, once I get to 50K, I’m set for life,’” Wollney said. “And then I hit 100K, which I was like, ‘OK, well this is insane, I’m sitting here quite well.’ I had this one comedy video that got like 20 million views and it jumped me up to 200K. Then everything was gradual until I made that dance. The 'Cars That Go Boom' dance has absolutely changed everything.”

Roach didn’t expect TikTok to play such a major role in his career when he first downloaded the app, or even when he first posted his "Bored in the House" video.

“I never really was thinking about it like that. It’s crazy where I’m at,” Roach said. “That was just one of those moments where I just started something and I decided to put it out, didn’t think anything of it. And next thing I know it’s viral.”

Roach is working to strike while the iron is hot, teasing a new project to be released this summer. Roach also is featured on billboards in Detroit promoting participation in the 2020 census and said he plans to start a small scripted YouTube series.

“That’s another lane that I really want to conquer,” Roach said. “I want to just get into acting and writing for little movies and stuff. I think I’m going to get more into the visuals.”

Wollney plans to study musical theater at AMDA College of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles beginning in the fall.

Wollney said she is open to a number of career paths in the entertainment industry, including possibly becoming an actor, a casting agent or a director. But regardless of what type of career she ends up pursuing, Wollney said the connections within the entertainment industry that she has made through TikTok will be helpful in her future success.

“If things change because of TikTok, I’m totally OK with that as well. Right now, I guess I would consider myself an influencer, which is quite beneficial for my dream career path. I think it’s quite nice to have this platform already and so many great connections,” Wollney said.

While becoming a social media influencer does bring with it many opportunities, Wollney said that what not many people realize is that it also comes with a lot of work.

“Most people don’t understand the amount of work and stress that comes with creative expression,” Wollney said. “Most people view it as like, oh, it’s just a little hobby. But to me, it is my job, you know, I have a manager, I have all these things that are monitoring me and I have to constantly keep up with it.”

Still, Wollney said she enjoys the work and offered advice to others who are hoping to go viral.

“Make sure that your page is full of videos that you enjoy,” Wollney said. “The most important thing, at the end of the day, is not having a page of videos that you wanted other to people to like. Instead, if you can look back at your page and you genuinely like the content you’re creating, I think that is the most beneficial thing to you because you know the people who choose to follow you are interested in your genuine self rather than an image you’re trying to create online.”

Roach expressed a similar sentiment.

“As long as you’re being yourself, you’ll have a really good time on TikTok,” Roach said. “But if you’re putting yourself under pressure and you’re trying to follow some algorithm or something, that’s when you’re not going to have fun, that’s when you’re going to get caught up in insecurity or something. You’ve got to do it for you.”

Roach and Wollney are both adjusting to their new lives, including being recognized in public by their fans.

“Almost every time when I go out now, if I do choose to go out to get something from the store or if — I have a Penny board that I skate around town sometimes — and yeah, it’s like every time I get recognized,” Roach said. “It’s cool. I don’t know how to react sometimes, but I always just, you know, I’ll be like, ‘what’s up.’”

Roach said he’s happy to be able to have a positive effect on his fans’ lives.

“It’s just crazy to see everybody connect with it. It feels like a special moment because everybody’s enjoying themselves at home using the song to like, you know, feel some type of joy for that quick little second,” Roach said. “That’s important. If I can contribute that, then that’s the best thing.”