By Alex Blynn
Before 18-year-old Loren Gray became known to the world as a leading voice among a generation of uber-famous teens who populate the massively popular social media platform TikTok, she was a small-town girl growing up outside of Philadelphia with a smartphone and a passion for Taylor Swift.
Gray began posting videos of herself on the then-named Musical.ly app while still in middle school. In her videos, Gray would dance and lip-synch to songs like Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” or “Trust Issues” by The Weeknd. In one Musical.ly video, Gray seats dozens of her young schoolmates together for a group shot, while they jovially sing along to Justin Bieber’s 2012 hit “Boyfriend.” Gray shared these videos with her classmates, but when kids from neighboring schools began sharing them as well, her popularity exploded. Her clips became featured on the app’s discovery page, gaining her tens of thousands of followers in days. “I noticed that a bunch of my videos had been featured and I had like 30,000 followers,” Gray told Interview. “I went to my parents and I was like, ‘I don’t know what this means.’ I’d just turned 13. It was scary, for sure.”
She moved to Los Angeles with her mother and the support of her family at 15, her eyes set on a career as a pop singer and influencer. Upon arrival, Gray began building her audience in earnest, utilizing her freestyle dancing skills, picture-perfect smile, and collaborative friends to draw viewers. She now has more than 76 million followers across her social media accounts (her TikTok reigns supreme with a following of over 47 million), winning fans for her willingness to, at times, strip down the glittering facade: Last New Year’s Eve, Gray uploaded a short montage including shots of Gray as a child dancing in front of her TV, playing with her pomeranian, and hugging fans at meet-and-greets. The post became one of her most liked of 2019.
Now, Gray is among an emerging wave of TikTok creators infiltrating the music industry, using their considerable social media might to negotiate major record deals. Gray’s own viral fame and musical chops got her signed to Virgin Records in 2018. Dixie D'Amelio, big sis to Charli D’Amelio and member of the collective Hype House, signed with United Talent Agency in January, and Darak Figueroa, better known as the rapper StaySolidRocky, signed with Columbia Records after his single “Party Girl” blew up on TikTok. Gray’s anthemic 2018 debut single, “My Story,” appealed to fans with its powerfully uplifting lyrics, reaching No. 1 on the Spotify Global Viral Chart, while the brooding “Queen” has amassed over 28 million streams on Spotify alone.
Gray’s latest, “Alone,” is a pulsating pop ballad that flaunts Gray’s astonishing vocal range. The aptly titled song and corresponding video were recorded with a skeleton crew from her apartment under quarantine. Its lyrics confess a deep love for someone — she doesn’t disclose who but, surely, it’s complicated. Likewise, the visuals express Gray's unrestrained yearning. We find her alone in her room, writhing around her studio floor, pining for her loved one, who, true to the times, is nowhere to be found. Shadowy photos of him float on the walls, giving viewers a glimpse but never a full look. Sporting her now-signature big, blonde hair and a relaxed, baby-pink pajama set one moment, then vaulting into a glittering Michael Costello bodysuit and matching sparkling makeup, Gray finishes her performance with a disco-diva dance-off.
While previous releases have hinted at Gray’s considerable musical talents, “Alone” is a flagpole track for the young singer, proving that “the original queen of TikTok” has a more intimate, mature sound to share. MTV News speaks with Gray about quarantine, creating the “Alone” video from home, and what it takes to make it as a TikTok singer.
MTV News: You recorded “Alone” while in quarantine; how were you feeling when you were creating it?
Gray: "Alone" is the first love song I’ve ever written, and it was exciting to even feel… excited to write a love song right now. We actually wrote it right before quarantine, and then I recorded it at my house during quarantine. So, it was a good feeling to write a love song, and a more uplifting kind of song because, in some ways, it's a lot happier than some of my other songs.
MTV News: I feel like people are turning to music for an escape and a dose of positive energy during quarantine.
Gray: Definitely. I've learned a lot more about creating music since quarantine started, that’s been really important to me. It has been a really good escape. Music has always been that for me but especially now, and I think that’s how everyone is these days. I've discovered a lot of new music that I might have not otherwise had the time or the focus to find. I mean, there are ups and downs. Some days, I'm like, man, this sucks. I don't want to do anything or get out of bed. And then some days, I'm just really overwhelmed with exciting ideas and feeling inspired. So that’s kind of where I am right now!
MTV News: What was it like to create a music video without all the usual trappings, like a big crew, lots of hair and makeup people, extras, stuff like that?
Gray: Well I didn't really know what to expect going into it. And I hadn't really seen anyone in a while, so it felt a little awkward but also really fun. But it was really weird to not be able to interact with people in the way that I typically would. We had a medic there who checked everyone's temperatures at the door, which is good because obviously, for safety, but it was really strange. And it was also really weird not having as many people around as I usually would. We still had a lot of fun and obviously went about everything safely.
MTV News: You've been releasing music for a couple of years now. Recently, you've been receiving more critical recognition from the music industry. How does it feel getting recognized like this?
Gray: It's great because I'm still sort of finding my way, but I've worked really hard to understand music beyond just singing a song. Like, writing, music theory, production, vocal engineering, mixing, and mastering. So, yeah it feels good! And I feel like I'm only going to keep learning and improving, which I'm really excited for. And I'm still young, so I have some time!
MTV News: What are your thoughts on the correlation between TikTok and the industry right now? A viral hit can lead to instantaneous fame. What do you think it takes to make it?
Gray: It's hard to say because social media is always evolving. But I think TikTok has definitely opened doors and created a lot of opportunities for artists to get their music out there in a really direct way. Like this girl, [her handle is] @ppcocaine, she’s super cool, and she just got signed to a big label. Her music was straight from TikTok, she blew up, and she signed that deal, which is great. So I'm really happy that people are able to create opportunities for themselves on TikTok. As for what it takes to blow up on TikTok? It's really random! I don't think there's even necessarily a formula to having music blow up on there in the first place. I think it's just whatever people decide they like that day is what’s going to blow up. So it's really difficult to think ahead and make a TikTok-song, per se. But there's some people who have been able to do it really well, and I'm really happy for them.
MTV News: Well, what's next for you?
Gray: I've cut a lot of features recently, so I'm really excited and have a couple dropping next month. I am working on putting together an album, and I'm two songs in right now. I kind of just started. It might be more of an EP. But I have plenty of songs to release until I'm ready.
MTV News: Would you want to tour once we can do that again?
Gray: 100 percent! I miss traveling so much, and I miss seeing everyone in person. I feel like it's cool to connect with people over social media, and I'm really grateful to have that, but seeing people in person is so different and so much more intimate, and it's something that I really miss. That human interaction.
MTV News: Hopefully we’ll come through this soon and we can go back to that.
Gray: Yes! We're all in this together, as High School Musical once said.