Virality is fleeting, and TJ Mack, one of Brian Jordan Alvarez’s face-filtered, fully developed characters, seems to be grappling with this difficult truth in a TikTok Alvarez recently posted. Mack looks somber as he peers out an open window on a drive home through New York City. He seems pensive, perhaps even grateful for the song that made him ultra-famous, but most importantly, he is sitting. Viral fame can be gone as quickly as it came, but through it all, Mack—and, by extension, Alvarez—is sitting and taking in the moment.
Sitting truly is a wonderful thing to do (in moderation), and now it has an indelible anthem in the form of the improvisational song that launched Alvarez into the TikTok stratosphere. It’s a simple tune with simple lyrics; the magic is in how it’s sung: “Sitting/Sitting is the opposite of standing/Sitting is the opposite of running around/Sitting is a wonderful thing to do,” Alvarez-as-Mack sings with a serious demeanor and a seemingly Latin accent of sorts, contrasted by the alien ridiculousness of the bug-eyed filter which makes the eyes and mouth take up almost the entire face. The earworm made its way into the minds and mouths of countless creatives on TikTok since it was shared on Sept. 10, and the app was soon flooded with beautifully sung covers, a fully-produced pop track, a musical theater rendition, and even a metal/screamo reimagining.
Alvarez, 36, credits his improv training at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with helping him come up with this catchy little ditty. The video he posted was actually a second take because the sound didn’t record on the first, but he says he usually just posts the first take of his videos. “I think that’s part of what people are responding to,” he tells TIME. “They can almost see in your eyes that you do not know what you're gonna say next.” “Sitting” almost immediately went viral after he posted the original video, as people began leaving comments to the effect of, “Wait, this is actually a pretty good song.”
“Something about this particular song seems to be lightning in a bottle where so many people with talent are remixing it or producing tracks to it,” Alvarez says. “They're creating piano orchestration or classical orchestration, and it just always kind of works.
From mainstream roles to messing around on TikTok
In some ways, the song taking on different genres and musical styles mirrors Alvarez’s content on TikTok, he says. If you visit his page, you’ll see many front-facing videos of Alvarez as himself, but more often than not, he’s in character with filters on, sometimes sporting a wig. He has a “revolving map of characters” in his head, which currently include Rick the Australian bodybuilder; Timothee, a gay man whose boyfriend may or may not be involved in nefarious activities; Marnie. T, a spiritual leader; The Student/Intern, a young foreign guy who just got a full-time job and is going on a couple of Hinge dates; and TJ Mack, a happy-go-lucky aspiring singer who loves his wife and TJ Maxx. The slice-of-life moments these characters represent have helped endear them to Alvarez’s audience of close to 800,000 followers (across TikTok and Instagram); they come across like real (albeit very funny) people with backstories that TikTok users want to know more about.
“It’s like the song is doing characters. It’s similar to me in the sense that there's this thing at the center, this person at the center, and then it's taking on all of these different personalities,” he says. “The essence of it remains the same, and I think that's really fun for people to see.”
Alvarez has been a working actor since 2015 and has held roles in shows like Jane the Virgin and the reboot of Will & Grace, as well as appearing earlier this year in the horror camp fest M3GAN. He’s also found an audience with his highly-produced YouTube videos, many of which feature sketches with a cast of actors, and a popular 2016 video series called “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo.”
During the pandemic, Alvarez decided not to overthink content creation as much. He started making silly videos with face filters and shooting them off to his TikTok page at the same time TikTok was beginning to take hold of a captive, locked-down audience. His viewers reacted well to his first character, Marnie T., a spiritual leader with a bowl cut who may or may not be fraudulent. From this, he learned his audience was the most effective barometer of what’s funny. He decided to experiment with accents, wigs, and different filters to create his own little cinematic universe of characters.
Alvarez’s content is just one example of the way in which social media has become less polished overall. In the early 2010s, at the advent of social media, both average users and professional creators alike often looked unrecognizable with layered filters and meticulous details smoothed and deleted through Facetune. More recently, however, there’s been a shift away from creating perfectly curated feeds, toward posting unedited photo dumps on Instagram and one-take videos on TikTok. Alvarez tells TIME that he had always been interested in creating sketches that take time and require all the bells and whistles. “But then COVID strikes and I’m in my apartment with the same creative impulses that I’ve always had, and it made me just think, ‘I’m gonna just put a filter on and be funny.’”
Leaving the door open to new music
Given that we are speaking at the crest of a viral moment, it seemed worth asking what Alvarez likes and dislikes about being the center of online attention. “Is there anything I hate about going viral?” he responds. “Sadly, I’d have to say no. I think it'd be more noble if there was something I hated about it.” He says he’s grateful for his mainstream success in television and movies, but “I also just have and always will love the internet and the joy it can spark.”
Alvarez says there’s a symbiotic relationship between his career paths as an actor and a content creator. “I have this experience that I'm very grateful for where, whenever I'm going viral, that will tend to help me move along in my mainstream career, and as I move along in my mainstream career, that makes me bigger on the internet, too.”
Speaking of creating content, the question on everyone’s mind is whether TJ Mack has another hit song in him. Alvarez assures his audience that new music can be expected. He tells TIME he had a meeting with Atlantic Records, and they are in talks to help push the song to an even wider audience. He wouldn’t share any details, but the good news for fans is that it leaves the door open for TJ Mack to sit in a booth and captivate listeners with more odes to life’s simple pleasures.
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Write to Moises Mendez II at email@example.com