Before he was a member of the Sway House — an L.A.-based, fratlike collective of steely jawed TikTokers who make ungodly amounts of money gyrating into their camera phones — Blake Gray was the laughing stock of his high school. If you’d seen him then, in 2016, it wouldn’t make sense: He looked like one of the popular boys, a blond Justin Bieber in distressed jeans and backwards baseball caps. But Gray had an online identity that compromised his IRL social standing: He was Musical.ly famous.
From 2014 to 2018, the Chinese app Musical.ly was where kids — as in, literal children and very young teenagers — would lip-sync to 15-second clips of Shawn Mendes and Bebe Rexha songs, or maybe an audio track of a funny Vine. The music played as you recorded; you could slow it down and speed it up and make cuts while filming. That was pretty much the extent of its technical features, and if it sounds like TikTok, that’s because it eventually became TikTok, after it was acquired by another Chinese tech company.
But if TikTok is where all the cool kids hang out now, Musical.ly was, well, not. Gray’s videos were mostly of himself, alone in his room, lip syncing to sped-up versions of Bieber or whatever hip-hop songs were popular at the time. “The first day of [ninth grade], I walked in to go find my schedule, and there were maybe 4,000 kids in one room, and everyone was screaming my name,” Gray, 20, recalls. “‘Oh, it’s the Musical.ly kid!’ It was awful.” He dropped out after Christmas break to pursue a career online.
Gray now has a six-pack and an army of fans all over the world. He’s doing fine, which is why he can look back on the content he made as a teenager and feel grateful for it rather than horrifically embarrassed. Musical.ly was the genesis of a style of digital filmmaking so weird and goofy that it produced entirely new ways to either humiliate oneself or become a worldwide sensation. The app was responsible for some of the cheesiest videos on the internet, many of which had little creative value beyond parroting what someone more famous had posted first. And yet, when done particularly well, they offered users the opportunity to potentially impress millions of strangers with a swoosh of an arm and a strategically timed smirk. While the earlier video app Vine was immortalized in wistful eulogies about its comedic significance when it went offline, Musical.ly has been considered (by adults) to be Vine’s cringey, inferior counterpart. But only one of these apps became TikTok, the defining app of a generation. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider its legacy.
“People made fun of it,” recalls Case Walker, an 18-year-old actor who was discovered on Musical.ly when he was in middle school. “And then would go home and that’s all they’d watch.”
Musical.ly was supposed to be a serious app. Its co-founder Alex Zhu had previously worked as a product manager at the software megalith SAP, and his original idea had been to build a shortform educational video platform where kids could watch three- to five-minute lessons on math, science, or other fields of learning, explained by experts. The problem was that it is extremely difficult to explain calculus in three minutes; and even if it were possible, no kid would want to watch that.
Then Zhu took a fateful ride. He often says that Musical.ly was inspired by a group of young teens he saw on a train near Google’s Mountain View campus who were listening to music, taking selfie videos, and sharing them with their friends; Zhu figured he could combine the three activities into a single app. By the summer of 2015, Musical.ly had shot to the No. 1 spot on the App Store.
Like Vine before it, Musical.ly made editing a video together as easy as holding down a button and lifting your finger when you wanted it to stop. Unlike Vine, which only allowed users to make six-second-long videos, Musical.ly allowed content up to 15 seconds long, so at the very least you could hear a whole verse of a song. The real innovation, however, was giving users the ability to slow down or speed up the camera’s frame rate while keeping the audio track in sync. For example, if you wanted to film yourself lip-syncing to “Closer” by The Chainsmokers, you could do it in slow motion, mouthing the lyrics to a creepily sluggish version of the song. When you played the video at normal speed, your movements would seem unnaturally nimble and staccato, like a chipmunk vocal effect for facial expressions.
This was the cornerstone of Musical.ly style, and former Musers (as they call themselves) know it when they see it. “They were so addicting to watch,” says Haley Sharpe, a now-famous TikToker who remembers idolizing Musical.ly stars in middle school. The videos often incorporated finger dancing, or “tutting,” which was easier to make look smooth and on-beat when filmed in slow motion. “To be able to make it look like you’re moving the camera and do the hand motions that went along with the lyrics, it just looked really cool,” Sharpe says. “I wanted to be Musical.ly famous. I really practiced those hand motions.”
There was an unspoken queen of such content: Ariel Martin, a Florida teenager known by her username Baby Ariel, an expert in perfectly syncing her hand motions to the beat. Nearly every Muser I spoke to said they taught themselves how to use Musical.ly by watching her videos. “Musical.ly was an app my friends and I started using to make fun videos and share them just with each other,” she said in a 2018 interview. She posted her first video in May 2015, when she was 14; within three months, she’d become a bona fide social-media star and began filming popular tutorials on how to master her signature style. “I sucked at all the hand motions and transitions,” says Gray, who once dated Ariel. “She taught me, I’m not gonna lie.”
Casual creative theft was perfectly kosher on Musical.ly, where aspiring entertainers could insert themselves in their favorite films, TV shows, or Vines, using the app’s library of sounds, which included users’ own creations as well as clips from songs that the company allegedly ripped from iTunes’ 15-second previews in order to avoid going through record labels. Some made acting or “POV” videos in which they performed lip syncs to other people’s comedy sketches or particularly entertaining Spongebob scenes. That’s not to say creating videos on the app required no talent. Cool transitions, or particularly awe-inspiring cuts, were the most difficult — and most impressive — to master. Musers like Isaiah Howard could make it appear as though they’d used sophisticated editing software to create dizzying trompe l’oeils, the camera seeming to travel between dimensions, yet the effects were entirely analog. Case Walker found a way to make it look like he was peeling himself off the screen: “I would take a screenshot of myself and then hold that same pose, print the picture, go grab the paper, and then put the paper in front of the camera, and pull it back. People would come up with crazy stuff.”
Before Musical.ly added software that allowed users to edit clips after filming them, says 22-year-old Amelia Gething — an actor and TikTok star in London who got her start on Musical.ly in high school — would film dialogue scenes in which she played two different people by switching costumes and repositioning herself every time she pressed record. “What I took pride in is how I could quite accurately get my hair back in place and put my outfit and adjust the lighting to how it was so it matched,” she laughs. “That was my thing.”
Nobody was really making money on Musical.ly. There was a companion app called Live.ly where popular creators could livestream themselves and receive digital “gifts,” signified by emojis that popped up onscreen, yet only the very top tier of creators were raking in thousands. A fan could send a cartoon panda worth 5 cents, while other emojis could be worth up to $50, and both Musical.ly and Apple’s iTunes took a cut of the creator’s revenue. But without the buy-in of brands, celebrities, or many adults at all, top Musers would typically make money by joining third-party tours that would shepherd creators around to suburban malls for meet-and-greets with fans, or by picking up a few hundred bucks for the odd sponsored post.
There was also no algorithm: There was a tab that showed you videos from creators you were already following, but instead of TikTok’s “For You” page of algorithmically driven suggestions, Musical.ly had a “Featured” page that was actually curated by a human. “I remember showing up to the Musical.ly office one day, and I was like, ‘You’re the lady that features everyone!’” recalls Walker. “She was like, ‘Yep, I press the button!’ It was very authentic.” Behind the scenes, co-founder Zhu developed real-life relationships with the families of creators he thought could have big careers to get their feedback and help them grow their followings.
Some creators had an easier time getting noticed than others. The teenagers who became famous on Musical.ly, like Blake Gray or Jacob Sartorius or Loren Gray, had an undeniable charisma, or were at least considered attractive enough that their faces were all the charisma they needed — not unlike the pipeline to internet fame later taken by TikTokers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae Easterling. (Sartorius and Gray both later released their own original music, too.) Siblings, especially twins, also got attention on the app; the all-time most-popular users were Lisa and Lena, teenage twins in Germany, maybe because watching two people do the same motions in two-time speed looked cooler to viewers than watching one. “There’s this sort of weird, satisfying thing when the two people look the same,” explains Harvey Mills, one half of the British pop duo (and twins) Max and Harvey, who were Musical.ly famous before they competed on The X Factor in 2019. (“Satisfying” was a word that kept coming up in conversations about Musical.ly, as though it was a kind of visual ASMR.)
Brothers Gilmher and Jayden Croes were first drawn to the app because it was a path to internet fame that didn’t require speaking. Raised in Aruba, their first language was Papiamento, not English. When they made videos, they relied on exaggerated, Jim Carrey–inspired body movements and cliché punchlines for laughs. “We did a lot of cringey stuff, I’m not gonna lie,” Gilmher says of their sketches, which were usually filmed in two-time speed and set to trending audio like Charli XCX’s “Fancy” or monologues from YouTuber Miranda Sings. But they managed to build a community of more than 15 million followers. They were having fun, and they wanted to prove their hometown doubters wrong — that it was possible for two Aruban brothers to be the next big viral sensation.
Then, in 2017, the Chinese tech giant ByteDance bought Musical.ly for almost a billion dollars. The following August, ByteDance merged it with the company’s existing platform, TikTok, and overnight, all Musical.ly accounts became TikTok accounts. The company informed its top creators that, along with the rebrand, the app would begin to court older audiences, in what seemed like a clear attempt to shed its reputation as a place for 12-year-olds to make dorky videos in their bedrooms. For some of the most devoted Musers, opening up the insulated world of Musical.ly was like sticking a needle in a balloon.
A few months after the app had switched over, in November 2018, Jayden Croes uploaded a video of himself and Gilmher lip-syncing to a viral tune made by YouTubers TomSka and the Gregory Brothers called “The Muffin Song,” in which a father makes a pie for his child. Jayden, playing the son, complains, “Dad, I’m hungry!” while Gilmher, the dad, sings, “Hi hungry, I’m Dad.” They filmed it in the popular Musical.ly style: cartoonishly sped-up movement to a popular sound.
But now that the brothers were on TikTok — which was quickly becoming a place for genuinely inventive comedy by both teens and adults — viewers didn’t know what to make of them. The Croeses were ruthlessly mocked in comments, in TikTok duets, and eventually, on the rest of the internet. Within hours, they deleted the video. They took a break from posting that ended up lasting a year, but are now back to a regular posting schedule. “Kids, they’re so open to anything. They admire creativity,” says Jayden, looking back. “Now it’s like, they judge you for everything you do.”
Walker attributes that in part to the algorithm. “When the Featured page became the For You page, it took away a lot of the awesome, organic stuff on the app. You start thinking, How can I cater to the algorithm?’” On Musical.ly, users tended to see most of the videos that their favorite creators posted; TikTok’s For You page has replaced these familiar faces with whatever the algorithm thinks you’d most like to see. That’s been a boon for TikTok users who love stumbling upon videos they’d never see otherwise, but it’s been harder for Musical.ly creators, who were used to making content for a loyal fanbase.
Yet every Musical.ly star I spoke to still credits that app almost entirely with kickstarting their career. Walker now has a role on the Comedy Central show The Other Two, where he plays a parody of himself, a social-media pop star named Chase Dreams. Baby Ariel went on to release several singles to modest success and got a few acting credits on the Disney Channel, including 2020’s Zombies 2. Gething was able to translate her Musical.ly career into her own sketch show on the BBC and a role on the Starz miniseries The Spanish Princess.
They look back on Musical.ly the same way their older siblings likely remember Tumblr or LiveJournal or MySpace: They’re nostalgic for an era when digital subcultures were far more difficult for outsiders to stumble upon and infiltrate. They see Musical.ly as a pure online space, from a time just before every TikTok trend was dissected in the national news and the inner workings of niche Facebook groups came to demand the attention of an entire branch of journalism. The app was a place to experiment and learn from one other, without worrying that your most embarrassing moment would end up on TV.
“I want to say to the people that didn’t like Musical.ly, ‘Suck it,’” laughs Harvey Mills. “It’s the reason why we have things like TikTok that you’re so entertained by every night. Whoever created Musical.ly, I want to meet them and firmly shake their hands.”