When 19-year-old Alexa Chalnick posted her latest songwriting challenge on Jan. 14 — an open-ended duet inspired by spy movies like James Bond and Mission Impossible — the last thing she expected was for a famous artist to partake in it. And yet, that’s exactly what happened: A day after she put her video on TikTok, Grammy-winning rapper Lil Nas X uploaded his lyrical submission for the challenge about a money heist and Chalnick’s fictitious, duplicitous brother Manny.
“When Lil Nas X duetted, the shock factor was insane,” Chalnick told In The Know. Of course, it was objectively incredible that a famous singer saw her video and took the time to duet it, but what was even more exciting was that now, Lil Nas X’s 7.7 million TikTok followers knew who Chalnick was.
“It was so insane because I knew, oh my gosh, not only does this incredible creator know who I am, but he’s now put me on his platform where … James Charles commented on the video, Bretman Rock commented on it and he ended up following me and messaging me,” the songwriter said. “With TikTok and with my videos especially, it opens the door for so many people to flood onto my channel, which happens.”
At the time of writing, Chalnick has almost 685,000 followers on TikTok, plus another 39,700 followers on Instagram. She’s had her channel since 2019, but it wasn’t until quarantine and the global pandemic that it really started to pick up steam (not unlike TikTok in general).
Chalnick’s followers have become especially fond of her songwriting challenges, which she started doing almost entirely by accident.
As a freshman at Ithaca College, the music major was required to spend a certain amount of time every week in the practice room — but during that time, she suffered a vocal injury that limited how much she could sing.
With all this free time in the practice room, Chalnick started recording videos of herself playing through some of her favorite musical theater numbers with TikTok’s duet feature in mind.
“I started recording a lot of the repertoire that I had that were duets. So a lot of the things from Wicked where I need an Elphaba or I need a Glinda,” she explained. “Those ended up really blowing up. Before that time, I had never seen anyone use that ability to duet someone’s singing before.”
These musical theater duet videos unwittingly led Chalnick to the idea of the songwriting challenge. One day, one of her followers — sadly, she doesn’t remember his name — duetted one of her videos, but since he didn’t know the lyrics to the song, he made his own up.
“I watched [his video] and it was one of the funniest and most creative things I’ve ever seen,” Chalnick said. “And that’s what sparked the inspiration of, what if I intentionally just wrote a song where there wasn’t already the part known to the other person of what they’d sing?”
Chalnick has done all kinds of songwriting challenges on TikTok since then, ranging from a therapy edition to a spooky edition. She gets inspiration from “anywhere,” she said, though she tries to keep the prompts “as open-ended as possible” so the responses are all unique.
The songwriting prompts get submissions from all corners of TikTok — and surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, really, given how many followers Chalnick has), Lil Nas X wasn’t the first major creator to duet one of the videos. Back in July, voice actor and Phineas and Ferb co-creator Dan Povenmire participated in her takedown edition of the songwriting challenge — as Dr. Heniz Doofenshmirtz, of course.
With all the success and growth she’s seen on TikTok, Chalnick has decided to take some time off from school to focus on her social media channels and write her first-ever musical, The Averno Universe. She also wants to keep helping fellow artists with her monthly #SingForAlexaSaturday series, which matches broadway actors and singers with aspiring performers for feedback and advice.
“It’s been so incredible, the opportunities I’ve had [thanks to TikTok],” Chalnick said. “Right now, I really want to seize this incredible opportunity and push out as much content as I can.”
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