Music

Is This Viral Band Really Who They Say They Are?

TikTok has taken aim at Tramp Stamps, a pop-punk band that represents the genre’s many problems.

A screengrab from YouTube of the Tramp Stamps’ "I'd Rather Die" video with a TikTok logo in the corner.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screengrab from YouTube; logo from TikTok.

Over the past week, an up-and-coming pop-punk band has consumed TikTok—but not for a viral song or trend. The trio, a group of young women called Tramp Stamps, has more than 385,000 followers on TikTok and more than 27,000 Instagram followers, gaining fans on social media with only three songs out to date. But they’ve also attracted a lot of critics. The band has faced numerous allegations about whether their claims of being “indie” or “feminist punks” are legitimate—and whether they’re just industry plants.

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The outcry across social media grew loud enough that the band finally addressed it in an Instagram post on April 18. But instead of acquiescing to their detractors, they used their platform to defend their backgrounds, speak out against “cancel culture,” and criticize mainstream coverage of them and the drama for fanning the flames. While Tramp Stamps’ response did little to satisfy the haters, it did highlight an ongoing problem with the music industry: the persistence of damning labels attached to, and accusations of illegitimacy facing, artists who are nonwhite and/or nonmale.

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The Nashville, Tennessee–based band—composed of twentysomethings Marisa Maino, Caroline Baker, and Paige Blue—started posting to TikTok in November. The band, with colorfully dyed hair and a Hot Topic aesthetic, posted covers of Avril Lavigne, Paramore, and Blink-182, doing TikTok trends as a way to promote their music to some positive responses. Their songs are pop-rock, emphasis on the pop, featuring Auto-Tuned vocals, palm-muted guitars, and quick melodies. Tramp Stamps now have nearly 400,000 followers on TikTok, and the band’s clips on the platform have amassed more than 5 million likes. (By comparison, they’ve only got 6,000 YouTube subscribers and 27,000 Instagram followers; TikTok is where they’ve found their most success so far.)

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The backlash started during the promotion for their latest single “I’d Rather Die.” A clip from the song was released to TikTok (it has since been taken down) before the full song came out on April 14. TikTokers started digging into the band’s history and called them out for it, and TikTok sure does love explainer videos. The user @furbyrights also pointed out the problematic nature of some of the song’s lyrics in a TikTok that now has more than 287,000 likes. (More on that in a bit.) TikTok user @hard_cope found that the band had a professional-looking webpage and a robust social media presence, and used animation in their posts—all quite advanced things for a supposedly DIY band to do on their own. And a TikTok uploaded by @seapunkhistorian claiming that “everything about this group is so calculated, almost insidiously” now has more than 62,000 likes.

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All three members had worked in the music industry prior to forming the band: Blue is a producer and songwriter whose music has appeared in advertising for brands like Apple and Sephora, along with movies and TV shows from networks like Disney and MTV. She has deals with major publishing house Downtown Music Publishing and its partner publishing company Pray for My Haters. Baker and Maino have released solo pop music in the past; Baker’s debut EP came out in 2019, and her most recent solo EP came out in March of this year. Baker signed a publishing deal with Prescription Songs in 2019, and Maino also joined Prescription as a writer last year.

Despite this background, the members of Tramp Stamps pride themselves on the organic origin story they lay claim to. According to them, they’re just three women coming together to make music—although even this has been called into question. They’re not hiding their industry history, however, nor that their music is distributed by the company Artists Without a Label, which is also home to Finneas and Kim Petras—both artists with big followings. And Sony Music bought AWAL from the independent label Kobalt in February, meaning that Tramp Stamps are one degree of separation away from one of the most powerful entities in music distribution.

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It’s hard out here for musicians trying to make it full time, and it seems unfair to criticize individuals for their career paths, when so many others have come into music using industry connections. The connection to Prescription Songs and AWAL in particular, though, is what music fans online are taking issue with. Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, is the owner and founder of Prescription Songs and is also part owner of Kobalt Music Group, an affiliation that doesn’t look good for a supposedly feminist group. Gottwald is known for producing huge pop hits for female stars, as well as for facing sexual and emotional abuse accusations from the artist Kesha—accusations that have led many artists to cut ties with him.

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This background has earned Tramp Stamps the badge of “industry plant.” The term is a pejorative aimed at artists who are found to have major label ties, despite presenting themselves as DIY or independent. In many cases, an industry plant is also considered to be someone who’s found popularity in another creative medium first, like acting, and is looking to convert that fandom elsewhere, regardless of their own musical interests. The term has been in circulation since at least the early 2010s; a 2015 Urban Dictionary entry accuses Justin Bieber of being one, for example. The allegation in this case is that Tramp Stamps don’t have the grassroots following that an independent act typically does but instead have industry backing. To an extent, it comes down to marketing, inauthentic or authentic, whether it’s obscuring major label ties, or whether it’s simply just ineffective.

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An “industry plant” can also be used to mean a more extreme case: an artist thought to be “constructed” by label or music industry executives and whose entire career was focus-tested and engineered to be popular. Many musicians receive a great deal of creative input from their teams and financial support from their label—but at what point does it go too far and become an industry plant? Helping a band stay solvent or hopefully even turn a profit is what a label is supposed to do, idealistically. And even if an artist has found success through seemingly organic, viral means, they may often be considered fakers too. Juice WRLD, Billie Eilish, Clairo, Khalid, and Cardi B have all been called industry plants—and they’re all women or people of color, the groups that are most often targeted by music fandom gatekeepers.

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The “industry plant” label and other criticisms prompted a heated response from Tramp Stamps. “The misinformation and lies that feed this cancel culture are so fucking toxic,” Tramp Stamps said in their Instagram post. They used ageism and sexism as a defense, when the accusations leveled against them did not involve their age or gender, but rather their lack of transparency about their industry ties: “Fuck you if you are so fucking sexist that you cannot believe this band was built up from the ground by 3 women,” the post read. They went on to say that they set up their own label Make Tampons Free and spelled out their publishing deals. The lengthy statement, while addressing their industry connections, did not address any of the criticisms of their lyrics being problematic or their punk image being inauthentic, nor did it discuss their possible affiliation to Dr. Luke. As of publication, Tramp Stamps, AWAL, and Prescription Songs have not responded to our requests for comment.

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But it’s not just that Tramp Stamps are misleading their followers about their origins or connections in the music industry that’s riled TikTok up in particular—it’s that the band’s feminist punk image might also be disingenuous. The resurging popularity of pop-punk means that it’s ripe for artists and labels to start dabbling in social media, especially TikTok. That, combined with the fact that the genre and its fans were often criticized for being uncool, outdated, or melodramatic, has led many longtime pop-punk fans to be skeptical of people jumping on the bandwagon, sometimes even gatekeeping the genre from people they don’t deem worthy. (This line of thinking is rife with its own, often sexist or racist issues, and it is important to note that pop-punk has had its own history with misogyny.) This is why pop-punk fans on TikTok were shocked to see that, while doing an emo song challenge, two of Tramp Stamps’ members didn’t recognize My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not Okay (I Promise).” Not only is that an affront to pop-punk and one of the genre’s biggest artists, but it’s also hard to imagine that a pop-punk fan their age wouldn’t recognize that seminal song.

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Protective fans deeming Tramp Stamps as inauthentic is damning, but there are other complaints that hold even more water. The band has positioned itself as feminist (“What does a tramp stamp stand for? Women’s rights,” Baker said in a TikTok), but TikTok users claim that they’re co-opting a riot grrrl aesthetic, a punk music movement that failed to be intersectional and was exclusionary, centering white women’s experiences and essentially ignoring people of color. Despite riot grrrl’s feminist roots, the dissonance of its reality seems emblematic of Tramp Stamps’ own issues: Tramp Stamps are a band made up of three white, cis women, who refuse to own any of the privilege they obviously have. (Many fans were under the impression that the entire band was queer, leading the band to deny this and Maino to confirm, both on TikTok and on Instagram, that she alone is queer.) Championing this aesthetic without recognizing its limitations is another failure on Tramp Stamps’ part to do justice to its message of inclusivity.

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And then there are the band’s lyrics, which come across as uncomfortable and unnatural, playing into the man-hating trope often used to deride feminists. Tramp Stamps’ track “I’d Rather Die” features the line, “I’d rather die/ than hook up with another straight white guy.” This is despite the fact that, as TikTokers pointed out, one of the members, Blue, is married to a white man. Many also noted that lyrics like this fetishize people who are not straight white men, rendering marginalized groups like women, nonbinary people, queer people, and people of color into a perfect, desirable monolith. Tramp Stamps’ music thus far isn’t dissecting or interrogating male privilege, nor is it calling attention to sexism or uplifting women; their songs are instead upholding tired tropes and encasing them in a popular aesthetic, and potentially even reinforcing the objectification and sexualization of women, as some TikTok users have alleged. (Not to mention that the rest of “I’d Rather Die” appears to be about … wanting to hook up with a guy?) The “About” section on the song’s Genius page contains a notice asking contributors to “please post your critiques in the comments section, rather than as an annotation,” due to the large volume of criticisms posted on the page.

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Tramp Stamps’ members did address this dissonance between their image and their music in a TikTok where they said their intent was not to fetishize people of color, nor were they trying to distance themselves from their whiteness, before ending with, “It’s basically just a dramatic way to tell men to be better in bed,” which is still not a feminist message, nor is it a satisfying response. Much of this boils down to intersectionality: It’s become easier for white women to gain visibility in alternative spaces, making it seem like the genre is becoming more inclusive while still upholding whiteness’s dominance and continuing to exclude people of color.

There are plenty of punk bands with women, people of color, nonbinary, and queer people. But they may not get access to the same kind of label resources and social privileges that have benefited Tramp Stamps, nor do they often find anywhere near the same level of success. A similar dynamic is at play on TikTok, where marginalized groups generate the majority of the most popular and viral content. Yet while acts like Tramp Stamps, along with scores of cis white influencers backed by hefty content and sponsorship deals, continue to gain fame and popularity, marginalized TikTok creators continue to see wealthy, white, cis people take credit for their work in increasingly public ways—without the original creators reaping any of the benefits. If Tramp Stamps stood for the issues the band professes to—a traditionally punk ethos of elevating marginalized experiences—they wouldn’t be seeking to benefit from the same problematic systems that perpetuate those issues. Music fans on TikTok are no longer going to be silent about that problem, even if the platform is often complicit in it: It’s time for bands like Tramp Stamps to be honest about what industrial privilege they hold and what systemic problems they’re playing into.

A message from Slate culture editor Forrest Wickman: In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! 

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