The most popular band on MySpace.com is Fall Out Boy, a clever and pathologically sensitive pop-punk foursome. They have a major label deal, the generous blessing of MTV's video programmers, and a 3-million-selling breakthrough third album. These days, it's impossible to read anything about them that doesn't mention MySpace—the social networking Web site where tens of millions of teenagers and twentysomethings post photos, listen to music, and chat with each other in acronym-drunk bursts of Web lingo. Fall Out Boy's mainstream success, the story goes, couldn't have happened without the 'netroots buzz that MySpace enabled, creating a virtual shrine where fans could congregate and newcomers be converted, one MP3 at a time. As I write this sentence, Fall Out Boy's profile, where visitors can get band news and listen to singles, has been viewed 9 million times.
But Fall Out Boy's 9 million is peanuts next to Tila Tequila, the most popular artist, period, on MySpace. Tequila, a diminutive Vietnamese singer with a fondness for string bikinis and up-tempo beats, has logged 31.5 million views. She's the most striking success story to come out of MySpace's unsigned artists category—she has a clothing line, a cell-phone endorsement contract, and appears on the April cover of Stuff wearing little more than a samurai sword—all despite music that, on the evidence of the two songs on her page, veers between incompetent and unlistenable.
Unsigned acts are ranked daily on MySpace according to popularity, offering a glimpse into members' collective tastes. Rounding out the Top 10 on any given day—below the almost always No. 1 Tequila—is a cast of demi-celebrities of varying talent. There's Jeffree Star, a transvestite who resembles Marilyn Manson as styled by Lil' Kim and who raps about stealing boys from their girlfriends. At the other end of the spectrum is Hollywood Undead, a troupe of masked toughs who crank out leaden, angry rap-rock. Perhaps the most entertaining anomaly is the page of an aspiring California rapper named Kevin Federline, who has yet to post a love song for his wife, Britney Spears.
But the majority of the site's most-viewed amateurs belong to the same genre as Tequila: Call it skank-pop. Joining Tequila in the upper ranks are Cassie, Kaila, Chantelle, Cori (and probably a dozen more by the time you read this): girls with thin singing voices whose lyrics refigure promiscuity as empowerment. "We girls have a right to get nasty, too," Tequila sings on her MySpace hit, "Playgirl Central," " 'Cause I don't want no love, I just wanna get screwed!" One suspects that her popularity is thanks less to MySpace's feminist contingent that to its excited males.
Tom Anderson, the site's 30-year-old co-founder, explains that the wild success of Tequila and her peers is largely a function of the site's imperfect music-ranking system: "It's based on profile views and nothing else," he says. "If guys wanna come in there and just look at these girls' pictures, it tends to drive them up to the top of the charts."
This reflects a tension in what kind of cultural presence, precisely, MySpace is. It's a music-oriented "place for friends," as the official slogan goes, but its bandwidth is clogged with the hormones you would find at a more traditional dating site. Music, in this view, serves the same function on MySpace as it does in bars, rock clubs, and dance floors: It helps people get laid. Or, in the case of the site's half-naked starlets, it helps boys who aren't getting laid pass time in the cold, blue-lit company of their monitors.
In an essay published in March in the New Republic, critic and Dylan chronicler David Hajdu identifies Tila Tequila, among others, as proof of MySpace's failure to meet its signal promise of creating a true musical democracy, where great songs would flow from performer to listener unmediated and uncorrupted. Among the site's flaws that Hajdu cites: peer pressure, a preponderance of songs geared to make "a quick, positive impression," and a lack of live interaction between artists and audiences.
This argument is crotchety. Hajdu's thesis that Bruce Springsteen needed to work out his material in dingy bars before he could truly make great records is fair enough—but to elevate that rock-borne narrative into a golden rule is disingenuous (especially when any song an artist posts on MySpace opens the door for a flurry of potentially scathing comments). His dismissal of the site's word-of-mouth musical recommendations—he says they reflect "social expectations as much as, perhaps more than, musical passions"—is an impossible fantasy: When is "musical passion" ever so pure that it exists in a vacuum, sealed off from "social expectation"? And his suggestion that a song is somehow lesser if it gives its pleasures up front is, to put it plainly, perverse.
Hajdu's beef, it turns out, isn't that MySpace isn't properly democratic. It's that he doesn't like the people in office. "All the bands to rise from MySpace so far … are good, but there is not a great one among them," he decides. This last point is merited, but it's a wobbly peg on which to hang a dismissal of MySpace. There are, of course, valuable discoveries on the site. To name just a few: Cold War Kids, a blues-rock foursome with 39,000 views; Lex, a wry, Harvard-educated party MC with over 710,000 views; Tigarah, a Japanese rapper who juggles Southern crunk and Brazilian baile funk; and Tapes 'N Tapes, a Minnesota indie-pop group that built its buzz entirely online before a string of hyped gigs at this year's tastemaking South by Southwest festival. All are amateur around the edges and claim relatively small followings, but it's strange to blast a 3-year-old Web site, influential though it is, for not having yet produced a Bruce.
In these early days of MySpace, it's naive to think that the artists who benefit most from the site's buzz will differ markedly from those at the top of the pop charts. Despite the Internet's many decentralizing effects on musical authority, it's natural that the millions of kids whose tastes are still informed by MTV and commercial radio are going to click to bands similar to those they already like. So far, the genre that MySpace has helped most concretely is emo-punk. The site gave huge boosts to Top 40 staples like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, and huge breaks to the indie-label up-and-comers Panic! At the Disco and Hawthorne Heights. But this says as much about who listens to emo as it does about MySpace's influence. Like grunge and nu-metal before it, emo is the current soundtrack to American white adolescent angst: a perfect fit for the site's legion of computer-owning 15-year-olds.
For all their online notoriety, Tila Tequila, Kaila, and Jeffree Star have sold exactly zero CDs. Can MySpace-grown, unsigned artists translate their page views into significant real-world sales? A hint will come when MySpace Records, the site's boutique label, releases the debut album from Hollywood Undead, who were signed last year on the strength of their MySpace following. And maybe the question is a bit academic. After all, MySpace is changing the nature of musical stardom, turning it, however slightly, away from the real and toward the virtual. Tequila might well regard her burgeoning empire and say to herself: "Who needs record stores? I've got the Internet."