Internet celebrity is a strange product. Relatability, guarded from total intimacy, is its currency—hence the emergence of teens crying on TikTok for laughs. mxmtoon was made for these times. The moniker of 19-year-old Oakland wunderkind Maia, mxmtoon is armed with a ukulele, a sardonic charm and social media savvy.
She’s part of a new guard of DIY songwriting idols in the vein of Tyler, the Creator collaborator Rex Orange County, Chicano-American cariño Cuco and Swedish curiosity girl in red, whose home-spun, usually lowercase-title confessionals have gained them the attention of fellow teens vying for connection and funneling their feelings through their heroes’ songs. But the key difference between Maia and her other musician peers, at the very least, is that she’s really, really good at the internet. Concurrent to her songwriting career is a career in TikTok and memes, one that’s proved to be symbiotic: The first single from the masquerade, “prom dress,” has found its own life as a TikTok hit.
Produced with fellow Gen Z prodigy Cavetown, who embellishes her ukulele compositions with strings, glockenspiel and the occasional power-pop arrangement, the masquerade is comforting twee-pop that wrings out genuine pathos from mxmtoon’s internet celebrity. She’s made a portrait of what it’s like to be lonely, in love and perpetually connected, while at the same time filled with sly, painfully earnest observations.
mxmtoon’s songwriting is painfully direct and sometimes awkward. She draws upon the stasis of what it’s like to be bored, killing your time online and finding yourself out through blue light and touchscreens. She writes songs directly based off tweets—“prom dress” and the power-pop “seasonal depression”—and manages to cultivate sincerity out of something tweeted as a joke to her over 80,000 followers. But the charm offensive Maia puts on here feels part and parcel with her side gig as a TikTok celebrity, as she tries to find a way to move past the disconnect of having a public persona—a mask, if you will—presented to thousands of people. She’s just a teenager figuring herself out.
Take “my ted talk,” a song informed by a meme that uses its conceit to contemplate the weird territory of writing viral love songs while never experiencing the feeling. “I write these songs like I’m an expert,” she explains, “Teaching love in a lecture / A broken heart-collector.” But mxmtoon doesn’t seem afraid of writing falsely about heartbreak, so much as she is of having to learn of it firsthand.
Like legions of Gen Z-ers and millennials before her, this writer included, she’s an online indoors kid, longing for intimacy and having to settle for the disconnected, mediated connection fostered through shared memeing and shitposting on TikTok and Twitter. “I’ve never been good at being honest, at least with my feelings,” she sings on “suffice,” a song about pining for someone who’ll never pay attention to you, but self-aware enough to know that you’ll never confess your love in the first place.
The obvious touchstone throughout is Fearless-era Taylor Swift, who translated the anxieties of young romance and friendship and the risk of heartbreak into empathy-filled, country-pop gold. But perhaps, even moreso, is Stephin Merritt, the ukulele-toting troubadour behind The Magnetic Fields, whose biting, direct self-deprecation is key to his character studies.
Certainly, there’s a stiltedness to some of her songwriting here—a reliance on rhyme schemes and cleverness that, at times, undercut her deft pen. But mxmtoon’s skill at pinpointing feeling so plainspokenly is effective, like on “unspoken words,” a love song to Maia’s grandmother that embraces their differing cultural values. It feels ripped out wholesale from the experiences of immigrant children stuck in the hyphen of their identities.
“dream of you,” the penultimate cut of the album, carries itself with a poise not unlike the protagonist in Robyn’s grand “Be Mine!” She’s “Sending thoughts and all well wishes / Writing this song on my guitar,” even as she wills herself not to cry by the end. It’s beautifully engrossing, a twinkling rain-soaked melodrama in brief.
Plenty of love songs have been written by people who say have never been in love—Diane Warren, the grand dame of heartbreak anthems, is perhaps the most famous example. The trick, at least according to Warren in a 2000 interview, is letting the inner romantic take center stage in the songwriting process. mxmtoon, despite presenting herself as a funny, self-deprecating meme-r online, is just that—a romantic figuring out how to love and be loved through her songs, and taking the mask off for everyone to see.