The Year Pop Stars Invaded Our Dating Apps
Jasmine stands in the parking lot wearing a white summer dress toward the end of season 1, episode 4 of Catfish. She’s nervously chewing at her lip ring, anxiously waiting to meet “Mike,” the love of her life who she thinks could be the ideal step-father for her son. Instead, she watches wide-eyed as a young woman in a tight red dress, red hair, and shiny black flats saunters toward her. Jasmine raises her hand over her eyes, muttering: “Don’t come over here. Don’t come over here.” In this moment, she’s stricken with the sudden, horrifying realization that “Mike” is actually “Mhissy,” the new girlfriend of Jasmine’s ex. Viewers saw it coming, but Jasmine is flabbergasted. When she asks why Mhissy would lead her on, tease her with promises of forever for two years, she’s met with a chilling answer: “It’s revenge.”
“Jasmine & Mike” first aired in 2012, and is the most simultaneously appalling and entertaining episode of Nev Schulman and Max Joseph’s reality TV show Catfish. It’s the one that I tell people to watch when they absolutely want to lose faith in humanity, but it’s also the one that I recall when I try to remember a time when developing an attraction to someone over the internet was considered to be very weird. Mhissy’s character is what a lot of people associated online dating with a little over three years ago, a time when online dating was a thing that sociopaths like Mhissy used to ruin lives, a virtual realm where the other people — weirdos and cat ladies and divorcees — could find some kind of companionship. It was for the people who wanted, against all odds, to settle down. That landscape has been in flux in the years since, maybe in part because our lives are increasingly lived online, and maybe in part because the term “dating” has loosened significantly. A relationship like the one Jasmine and “Mike” had is in no way less stigmatized, but it’s not as overwhelmingly unbelievable. The same year that episode of Catfish aired, the dating app Tinder launched, introducing us to a word that has since evolved into a verb, spawned multiple thinkpieces about hook-up culture and gender dynamics, and turned a lot of 18-24 year-olds into “online daters,” regardless of how flexible the definition. (A recent WIRED article reports that 42 percent of Tinder users aren’t actually single). And so, our cultural landscape has begun to reflect its ubiquity. Finding love online is no longer for the other people anymore; it’s for anyone who has a phone and a finger.
In 2015, a somewhat newfound acceptance of online partner-seeking meant that a handful of singles were promoted by way of dating apps and websites. Using dating app services as a marketing tool was by no means a widespread, unavoidable trope, but it is a developing trend worth paying attention to, because their normalization is in part credited to these campaigns. Similar to the way that Snapchat has expanded to news content, and Facebook is getting websites and magazines to publish directly to their sites, dating platforms have started to adopt popular artists as a means through which to promote their product.
If art imitates our present-day reality, then this is a smart tactic. We want our pop stars to be relatable, flawed beings who accurately reflect our human experience. It’s why Taylor Swift’s “please welcome to the stage,” eternal revolving door of friends is one of the most equally inviting and eyebrow-raising marketing tactic employed by a pop star this year. Sometimes, these dating app marketing tactics were inoffensively blatant. When Luke Bryan debuted his “Kill The Lights” video on Tinder, he made sure to point out that he doesn’t rely on the app for romance. “I’m happily married and not on Tinder, but I hope my fans on Tinder enjoy the song — and if they’re not on Tinder, now’s the chance.” (Cue a wink and an “Uncle Sam Wants You!” point of the an index finger). It was a fairly unobtrusive, obvious sponsorship. Only Bryan fans who cared enough to check out his new single downloaded the app, and anyone else just waited a few days to hear it. That, or we never listened. Jason Derulo was the first artist to premiere a new song and video on Tinder in April, and Zedd debuted his new album in May. All three of these campaigns used Tinder as a platform to sell their music through. When Derulo was asked why he chose to premiere through a dating app, he said the following: “I know my fans are tapped into social networking so what better way to launch my video?” Other campaigns have been more or less tactful, depending on how you skew it.
“He sounds funny, and he likes Sriracha,” Hilary Duff says with the kind of overt confidence that made Lizzie McGuire such an appealing character. She’s looking at her iPhone screen and debating aloud whether or not a sense of humor and hot sauce are what it takes to secure a date with an eligible bachelor on Tinder. Duff’s video for her comeback album’s Tove Lo co-write “Sparks” is a cringey investigation of her dating life, a very weird return for the recently-divorced Duff, who, as Chris pointed out in The Week In Pop, desperately needed to remind everyone why she’s still relevant. The video for “Sparks” begins with Duff playing guest on 104.3 FM in LA, explaining to the DJs exactly what got her interested in Tindering in the first place. Cue a montage featuring Duff and her girlfriends debating who to swipe right for. When the radio DJs interviewing her ask exactly why she — a very attractive famous person — turned to such a plebian method of matchmaking, Duff explains it away as an experiment of sorts: “I want to know what it is that makes you connect with someone. What it is that gives you those ‘sparks.'” Duff, who recently moved to Brooklyn after divorcing hockey player Mike Comrie, has a to-the-point Tinder bio that most people who live in New York would agree is wholesome, appealing, and spark-inducing: “Let’s get pizza.”
Pop’s methodology depends on sparks – the universal, unending search for love. It’s very difficult to recall a towering pop single that is not thematically focused on falling in love, or falling out of love, or getting your heart broken. Sometimes they’re about saying “fuck being in love” all together, but still. Rihanna, who has released some of the most memorable songs about sex and volatile relationships ever, put out one of the most notable major singles that doesn’t have anything to do with pining over someone this year. “Bitch Better Have My Money” is about being in control of mind, body, spirit, finances, which makes sense given Rihanna’s current predicament. In a recent interview with Miranda July, Rih Rih said that she’s off men, comparing them to babies who need the kind of nourishment that she can’t provide at this point in her career. Not all of us can be Rihanna. If Tinder is the great equalizer, then Duff’s “Let’s get pizza” bio is a side-eyed reminder that Stars — They’re Just Like Us. Accompanied by video footage of several dates Duff went on — pizza-less dates, I’ll add — that short bio also serves to reassert the reason why most people ages 18-24 consider Tinder to be a normal, not-creepy way to meet people. It’s not about finding the kind of love that lasts forever; it’s about immediacy, about meeting the person who is within your radius, who just wants to grab a slice and have a good time. Of course, Duff’s Tinder dates in the video (bowling, go-carting) sell the app as being a wholesome means of finding wholesome people to go on wholesome dates with. It’s not an exaggeration to assert that the vast majority of people who are, you know, actually using Tinder, are mostly just trying to get laid. But “Let’s fuck” is not an appealing bio.
Duff wasn’t the only artist to feature Tinder in a video this year. Weezer and Best Coast parodied the app in the clip for their collaborative track “Go Away,” in which Rivers Cuomo disguises himself as various personality types for the app “Winder” in the hopes of tricking Bethany Cosentino into taking him back. Their presentation of the app is both tongue-in-cheek, and true-to-life. Tinder, and apps like it, are discomforting because it doesn’t depend on detailed, questionnaire-style profiles to sell someone as being worthy of spending time and wasting affection on.
The New York Times published a profile on Tinder back in 2014, when the app was still gaining users and slowly creeping into daily discourse. All of the developers and consultants working at the app explained its popularity in various ways, but the most apt comes in the form of this example: No one walks into a bar and fills out a survey about their likes and dislikes, their specific sexual preferences, their hobbies. No one walks up to a stranger and asks them if they want to have kids or not. The most glaring criticism of Tinder above all other forms of online dating, is that it’s superficial. It relies too much on physical appearance and fails to expose our special snowflakey insides that should be prized beyond all else. In reality, it’s just a means through which someone like Hilary Duff, or you, or me, can find someone who is interested in getting pizza, and maybe getting it in. It’s as harmless as buying someone a drink and having them walk away from you a few minutes later. But the problem with the bar analogy is that Tinder is not a bar. It’s an app on a phone, and unless you act on all of these trivial, awkward, sometimes creepy-as-hell conversations and actually meet up with the person you’ve been talking to on and off for weeks, then you’re just one of 9.6 million people in the world looking down, swiping away in your bedroom. (Hell, you might even be swiping in a bar).
That exact scenario appears in Carly Rae Jepsen’s video for “I Really Like You,” which starred Tom Hanks, and featured a cameo appearance by Justin Bieber. It’s a song about having the kind of crush that exemplifies exactly why they’re called that in the first place; the dizzying kind that will cheer you up and flatten your self-esteem just as easily. When I wrote about Jepsen’s album, E•MO•TION, for our 50 Best Albums Of 2015 list, I pointed out the fact that most of the songs on the LP focus on the feeling of falling for someone, and the aftermath of falling out of love later on. Few of the songs navigate a relationship as it’s happening, and it makes sense that Jepsen would invoke Tinder in her video about intoxicating attraction that she knows isn’t love. Unlike its dominance in the video for “Sparks,” the app’s appearance is practically imperceptible in Jepsen’s video, surfacing around the 1:52 mark. Hanks strolls by two women in the exact moment that they right-swipe him on Tinder. It’s a forgettable, but telling moment. “I Really Like You” is a video centered around Hanks’ celebrity presence – we watch him high-five fans and admirers around Soho — and so right-swiping on someone who’s standing across the street (and happens to also be a celebrity), is depicted as an ironic, inconsequential missed opportunity easily mended by the next photo to appear.
Tinder is a prop in Jepsen’s video, probably one that was paid for, but like the sly reference to Sophia Copolla’s Lost In Translation, it’s just-barely noticeable. Though Duff’s Tinder profile is an easily ignored, laughable phenomenon, its repercussions are worth dissecting. On a surface level, it tells us, the listeners, exactly what kind of role Duff wants to play in her new life as a Brooklyn mom with a major label deal and newly pasteled hair. She’s fun, freewheeling, uninterested in commitment. If we look to celebrities to mirror our desires back at us, then Duff’s position is somewhat confounding: she is stooping to be more like the public who consumes her songs. She’s not reflecting our desires -– she’s reflecting her listeners back at themselves. She’s no Taylor Swift flying in an airplane over the African Savannah; she’s having dinner with her girlfriends and swiping right on the Jakes and Toms within her radius. If Hilary Duff is on Tinder, then there must be hundreds of similarly attractive desirables using it, a mentality that would ideally get more people logging into the app store and syncing their Facebook profiles to Tinder. But beneath that, a video like “Sparks” does something completely different: it conditions us to accept that using an app is a viable means of finding that spark again, especially for people who, like Duff, already fell in and out of love in the “traditional” way.
“Traditional” is a word that Mariah Carey conjured up in a statement for Us Weekly about her Match.com dating profile, which was made public when she released the video for her single “Infinity” over the summer.
I hope every woman who is single and listens to this song goes out and finds her infinity. Whether on Match or in the traditional way.
The strategy behind Carey’s “Infinity” video paralleled “Sparks” in several ways. The video finds Carey wiling away the hours swiping through potential matches on her dating profile, intercut with footage of her performance. Truthfully, the best and most honest part of the video arrives when Carey chooses a dog over his owner (she later goes back on that decision and winds up on a date with the dude, unfortunately). “Infinity” is a song about finding “the one,” and it’s a fitting single for Carey who, like Duff, is newly divorced. Carey and her second husband Nick Cannon split this year, and “Infinity” is a song about not searching for just The One, but The One Who Will Stick Around For Forever. The impactful, very-Carey breakdown is a fairly basic plea: “I believe infinity is more than just a made up dream.” When the “Infinity” video was first released, there was a fair amount of unnecessary speculation over whether or not Carey was being paid by Match.com to use the site in her video. The answer to that speculation is a resounding “No shit!” Mariah Carey does not need a dating profile when she’s already the subject of an extensive Wikipedia page. She’s selling a product and the product is selling her as a newly single, still stunning, and still relevant artist whose heart bends and breaks just like the rest of us.
Carey’s Match.com profile is by far one of the most schmaltzy things I’ve glanced at on the internet this year. It makes Tinder with its bar analogy seem like the most natural kind of online dating out there. Tinder is where you look for sparks, but a site like Match.com, with its surveys and questionnaires and extensive profiles, is where you look for infinity. Regardless, they both seek to mend an age-old problem: Where are all of the single people at? When you go through a breakup, someone will inevitably tell you to take a deep breath and let yourself feel, but don’t worry, because “there are other fish in the sea.” Usually you want to fucking kill that person, because heartbreak is the worst. It is very hard to think about any other fish when you’re hung up. Besides, the sea is vast and covers up to 71% of the earth’s surface. Dating apps are a small, categorized space where all of those other fish go. They’re swiping left and right, too, but not all of them are looking for something lasting. Still, your chances of meeting someone who is are far greater than just stepping out into the street and shouting: “DOES ANYONE WANT TO DATE ME?” These dating apps are fishbowls where all of the other lonely fucks in your vicinity can flip past one another until that one new special fish appears. Until then, depending on your age and location preferences, you’re just circling all of the same people that your neighbor, your roommate, your ex, has already swiped on, just like those two girls do in the “I Really Like You” video.
When I started writing this piece, I thought that I was trying to assert that this disconnect is a bad thing, that it’s unnatural, that pop music should continue to uphold our fantasies and give us the leg-up to hope for something better. But the more I parse these videos and means of promotion, I’ve become insurmountably indifferent. All of these examples of marketing generally appear as naturally as Adele’s flip-phone did in the video for “Hello,” but they didn’t catch the same flack. People barely noticed. When confused viewers called attention to Adele’s flip-phone, director Xavier Dolan had to explain that he wanted the video to seem like a period piece. He wanted the “Hello” narrative to resemble the tragic love stories of yore, and romantic fantasies that we’ve collectively upheld. It wasn’t intentional, but by asserting that, Dolan suggests that we reached peak-romance pre-iPhone. And so, that flip-phone made people cringe. Adele might as well have sent a transcript of her song by carrier pigeon. The flip-phone is a reminder of how much things have changed. When I want to call to say I’m sorry for breaking your heart, I don’t call. I send a text, or worse, I subtweet about wanting to say sorry but not really feeling up to it.
There is one pop song, albeit an unconventional one, that addresses all of these conflicts head-on. In the video for her latest single “Hi,” Hannah Diamond sings to her internet lover, someone she met on a variety of unspecified chat rooms and online hang-outs. She shares a situation with Jasmine from Catfish, lamenting: “Baby, I wish that / We could just meet at a party/ I think we could have great chemistry.” PC Music have been thinkpiece-d to hell and back this year with polarizing analyses of the label and its collective members: they’re either genius cultural critics or wealthy art kids who are just contributing more flotsam to the vapidity of daily existence. What’s true is this: the Hannah Diamond project tends to focus on the way in which technology affects our romantic entanglements. Singles “Pink & Blue” and “Attachment” both feature phones as protagonists in a love story, and similarly, “Hi” is about having all of the available tools at your disposal, and still feeling like it’s impossible to really connect with anyone. The video doesn’t sell a dating app service, but it’s a winking prod at them. Diamond’s “Hi” is a barometer of where we were at in 2015, it’s one of the most of-this-moment pop songs to come out this year regardless of what side of the PC Music border you stand on.
Looking for the connection, those sparks, that infinity is a basic instinct, but the more we refer to our lived realities as “IRL,” the more we acknowledge that our projected web personas have become the default. There is a song on Colleen Green’s latest album, I Want To Grow Up, that illustrates the anxiety of recognizing that our lives are not seamless narratives, that finding your “forever” person might take awhile, or it may never happen. On “Deeper Than Love” she sings: “‘Cause I wanna know real love so desperately/ But I think it’s gotta happen scientifically/ ‘Cause I’m scared, afraid of real intimacy/ You know, the kind they say happens psychologically.” Green’s anxieties can be quelled; we’re already moving in the direction of science, or at least we’re inclined to accept the business of boxing up our personalities into neat little profiles that undercut our flaws and breach the space between our lived lives and the screen. But if this vision of the future is going to be sold to me, if even celebrities are looking (or quasi-looking) for love online, then who the hell are we even looking for? Will popular music continue to uphold fantasy, to keep the daydream alive? All I know is that going forth, there’d better be fewer references to meeting by chance, to locking eyes across a dark room. I want songs about locking eyes through an LCD screen, songs written for luddites among us who can’t accept that this is the new normal.