How TikTok’s Most Viral Indie Star Mxmtoon Is Challenging The Music Industry
“My therapist once asked me if I wanted to be in love / And I told her, ‘I don’t know? I guess, maybe? Kind of,'” sings a teenaged Mxmtoon (em-ex-em-toon) on her 2019 debut album, The Masquerade. It’s the kind of music that only a teenage girl could make — navigating raw emotion and searching to articulate those overwhelming feelings at the same time. And it’s the kind of music that launched Mxmtoon — known mononymously to the world as Maia — from recording music in her parents’ guest bedroom to becoming one of indie pop’s brightest young stars.
First posting on SoundCloud, then on Instagram, then YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok, Mxmtoon is a marker for a new kind of celebrity. Her unfiltered, ukulele-forward songs, from “Seasonal Depression” to “1-800-DATEME” to “I Love Suffering,” all speak candidly to the feelings of growing up in the post–flip phone age. But, in a very Gen Z way, Maia toes the line between sharing herself with her audience and drawing her own lines of personal privacy.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mxmtoon opened up about what her online community means to her, making music in the digital age, and how her social identities as a young, queer, multiracial Asian woman have shaken up the stronghold of the music industry.
Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
You said on an Instagram Live with BuzzFeed, “It’s hard to grow up successfully with a lot of people watching you.” Tell us about the point where people started watching.
At that point, I had been playing instruments my whole life. I learned how to play the ukulele in middle school. Writing songs is something that I did for people in their life. I didn’t see them as like, a job opportunity — just as this is a nice way that I can honor the people that I have in my life, and eventually a way for me to explore my emotional state as a teenager. So I wrote songs about what I was going through, and the things that I was thinking of, and I would post them to SoundCloud.
When I was 17, I started posting original songs, and those got more love than any of the covers that I had ever done. And I was like, “This is really weird. I guess people like this!” My parents had no idea for the longest time, because I was just doing it in the back of my room on my computer in the dark, when everybody was in bed and asleep. Eventually I had to tell them when it kind of just got out of control and I couldn’t hide it anymore.
They did this deep dive into the Google search of “mxmtoon” on the family computer in the kitchen when I first told them that. I was mortified! I could hear my songs playing on the speakers in the kitchen. But both my parents were teachers, I think I learned very well about the importance of privacy, and so I didn’t share a whole lot of personal information or anything online. I think that they were just kind of blown away.
But you’re still 21 years old! Has that privacy concern still been something that you always keep in mind, as you continue to get bigger and bigger?
I definitely do! My biggest philosophy around my family’s privacy is: I signed up for this. They did not choose to sign up for this. In this age of the internet, people feel entitled to as much information as they possibly can find about people, and that’s just not true. Everybody deserves some sort of base amount of privacy and secrecy in their own life. Audiences sometimes need to reevaluate the expectations they hold for individuals online, because we’re not doing this for people! We’re not giving our entire selves away to an audience. That should never be what’s happening. I think that’s something that as I’ve grown up, I’ve definitely made sure I keep repeating to myself. Saving myself at the end of the day is more important than giving it all away for people who are consuming my content. But that’s also a hard lesson that I’ve had to learn as I’ve grown up.
Especially because we grew up in the age of the internet and stan culture. Do you feel the time we live in shaped how you interact with the internet?
Oh, absolutely. Because I was a part of stan culture before I even became a person that people stanned, I’m just hyperaware of the mindset that takes over people when they’re supporting a person. The only reason I didn’t start a BTS fan account was because I realized I should promote my own music!
As somebody who has an audience now, I try my best to remind people that follow me, “I’m a real person. You shouldn’t put me on a pedestal. I’m an individual, and I’m going to mess up as many times as you are gonna mess up, and I have no idea who I am yet!” Reinforcing the flawed nature of individuals — especially myself — has been very helpful. I had a weird, crazy series of events that led to me becoming somebody who people follow, but I’m not very different from anybody that is following me.
It’s interesting to hear about your relationship between privacy and living publicly in your music over time. Has it changed over the years?
Because I sort of stumbled into this career, when I was 17, I felt like, “I have to work 200% harder in order to keep all of it, because it could just fall away in an instant.” I do still feel a little bit of it sometimes. But I think that there was very much a feeling of immediacy before, that I’m trying to practice patience around now. Where I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m a teenager and no one will care in six months!” While I still care about people’s opinions, I’m not constantly in that state of panic, which is really nice. Maybe that’s just me growing up.
I am definitely starting to guard myself a little bit more. Being emotionally vulnerable on that level, all the time, is something I didn’t realize was just exhausting me. I would use Twitter in a pretty self-destructive way; I was just tweeting whenever I was depressed, tweeting whenever I was anxious. I think that I’ve become better at separating. The intentionality of when you do something makes it more powerful, so being able to write lyrics that are emotionally vulnerable — without constantly having that also leak into my social media or whatever it may be — feels like those songs become more powerful, because they have intention behind them. I’m choosing to use my emotional energy in those moments.
What has it been like to navigate your identities in the public eye, as someone who is so vocally queer, Asian, woman, multiracial, and young?
I think about all the time in terms of, like, how do I navigate my identities? Because I know in certain ways, especially from the white male music executives that run this industry, people see me as a palatable minority. I know that. I am a mixed-race, bisexual Asian person, so I’m like, kind of toeing the line into being a diverse person — but not quite [saliently so]. I recognize that it gives me a lot of privilege. So we have a really long way to go in developing a space where people of all marginalized identities can invite themselves into those spaces, and actually be heard.
The music industry is changing — my presence in it is definitely something that I could have never seen as a person growing up. I never saw somebody like myself on the screen, making music, doing whatever. That I can even exist in a place like the music industry is very different from the landscape I grew up looking at, but we also just have a really long way to go. We need different people. Specifically in positions of power, when it comes to the record label executives and the A&Rs of the pop world. From an outside perspective, I think we’re seeing more diverse types of people be at the forefront of who’s making music, but the people who are deciding what music blows up needs to be more diversified.
So with what you’ve been building, what do you hope Mxmtoon is remembered for?
I really hope that people can look at the trajectory of what I’ve done, and see that it can happen to them. Everything I do — my music or podcasting or livestreaming or video creation — my goal that people look at that and say, “Oh my gosh, I could do that too.” I started by myself. I still do a lot of these things by myself. Being able to diversify the type of content that I make in and outside of music helps audience members recognize when something resonates with them, I think. Maybe it’s not writing songs! Maybe it’s Twitch streaming or podcasting. The lasting impact, I hope, is being able to show people that you can be a multi-hyphenated creator who does all sorts of things. Anything that interests you. No one is limited to just one avenue of creation.
That’s a very Gen Z mindset, the idea of the multi-hyphenate.
The connections you forge with your audience members are just a lot closer. I truly grew up with my audience. There’s members of the community that I’ve created that have been with me for four years. I’ve seen them go from freshman year to senior year in high school, or even graduate college! It’s pretty crazy, the closeness, because when you’re a part of the generation of internet celebrities really that blew up the way that I did, you just naturally are able to connect with people on a more personal level. I think that the biggest difference, between these glass-walled, superhuman celebrities and the way I came up, has truly just been like, normal people doing normal things, somehow blowing up, and then having more normal people watch. I’m still not the cool girl, I’m still anxious, and I still need to be home by 9 p.m.! There’s no shame in that. I was never the cool girl. I still am not and that’s totally fine.
Well, you did perform at Lollapalooza. You’re a little bit of a cool girl.
Maybe? Maybe! I have my moments. And then I devolve back into like a little gremlin gamer who still keeps up on BTS and everything so, you know, it’s OK.
So where do you hope you continue to grow from here?
I have no clue where I’d like to be in five years. I think that’s the exciting part of figuring it out, is just seeing what else is out there. I really hope that I can keep trying to find new ways to do projects. Music is definitely the throughline for everything that I’m doing in my career. I’d love to do more work in the world of video games. Involving myself in a creative process and make something my own. But I wonder what else can happen outside of that. There’s probably things that don’t even exist yet that I’ll dig my toes into and figure out how to do them. So I have no idea, but that’s part of the fun.