How One WWU Student Went Viral on TikTok
By Annaliese Grellmann
It took a relatively unknown instrument, a global pandemic, and an app for one Walla Walla University student to get a small slice of internet fame.
Jenna Wagner, a Walla Walla native and sophomore exercise science major, accidentally went viral on TikTok in May 2020. “All we had at that point in May was our phones,” Wagner acknowledged. During quarantine, Wagner, like many others, turned to TikTok to pass the time. The first 15-second video she casually posted of herself playing the steel drum has now been viewed 3.7 million times.
Most people have never heard of the instrument she went viral playing. Wagner explained that the steel drum is a percussion instrument that originated from Trinidad and Tobago. It can be made by cutting the skirt off oil barrels and using a mallet to create dents in the metal. Different notes are played by hitting different areas of the dents, similar to a xylophone.
For Wagner, playing the steel drum is “really personal.” She began playing in seventh grade after Rodgers Elementary School raised money for a steel ensemble. She said, “My mom tells me that my grandma always loved the sound of the steel drums.” After her grandma passed away, their family decided to donate money to purchase the instruments that Wagner learned to play on.
Like most middle schoolers, Wagner was involved in a variety of extracurricular activities, but she recognized that there was something unique about being able to play this instrument. According to Wagner, Rodgers was only the third elementary school in the nation to have a steel ensemble at that point in time. She said, “This was always something special I knew I had that not a lot of other people around the country had.”
When the world went into quarantine, Wagner took home the University’s steel drum to practice. Throwing herself into music was a way to cope with all the heavy things going on in the world. The goal was never to go viral. Earlier that year, Wagner joined TikTok with her roommate for fun. “I was making whatever was funny: trends and stuff. I never intended to become a TikTok musician,” she said.
On May 27, 2020, Wagner casually posted a TikTok from home, playing the beginning of the song “ZEZE” by Kodak Black, without any idea of the magnitude of the response that video would get. “For the first few hours I had like 10 likes, maybe 12, 15 likes on it, and then all of a sudden, I remember it was around 9 or 10 at night, it all of a sudden just went off. I got about 500 views in the first day and then in the next week it had gotten to a million.”
That sudden level of exposure was jarring for Wagner. She said, “At first I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to have to process what people were saying.” Mean comments started rolling in. “Somebody said my nose was bigger than my talent, which I know isn’t true because I’ve been playing this for years,” she said.
In addition to comments from thousands of strangers on the internet, she began to get recognized in public. While working at a summer camp, a teenage camper recognized her. Then, she started seeing comments on her videos from other University students.
In the fall she began getting an influx of comments accusing her of cultural appropriation. People commented things like, “You don’t know what you’re playing. You just bought it from Amazon. You shouldn’t have this TikTok.” Wagner said the accusations hurt because people were accusing her without knowing her history. She explained that she has been playing for years under people who taught her the history and origin of the instrument.
In addition to the criticism, she said she also gets numerous positive comments from Trinidadian and Tobagonian followers who say, “I’m so glad that our instrument is getting exposure. You’re bringing something new to a lot of people and we’re really proud of it.” She said hearing those positive reactions from people who have a more personal connection to the instrument keeps her going.
130,000 followers don’t come without a commitment. Wagner said coming up with ideas for videos is simple since she mostly takes suggestions from followers or joins trends. She said, “Getting it out there is a whole other thing. I’ve had to learn how to engineer audio in certain ways to make it sound good. There’s a lot of time put into that that a lot of people don’t see. I’ve put money into certain things to make it sound better.” Producing one video can take anywhere from five minutes to multiple hours.
The commitment is worth it to Wagner because of the positive feedback she receives. She said it has helped grow her confidence and has made her want to keep creating. “I realized it was a medium for me to have a musical outlet while also impacting people. With COVID-19 and everything super, super heavy I was bringing something nice to people. Even though it could be hard for me, seeing the end result always made me happy.” Making some money as a member of TikTok’s Creator Fund and by livestreaming music doesn’t hurt either.
Wagner didn’t always feel so positive about her TikTok fame: “I used to be embarrassed by it because with TikTok there are people who get famous for being pretty, or they get famous for having a nice body, or they get famous for already being famous. To me, being someone who is playing things like Mario Kart music, I always kinda saw it as embarrassing because it felt childish,” she said. It’s taken some time for her to be proud of the content she creates, but now that she’s seen how it helps bring positivity to others, her confidence has grown.
Being a TikTok musician has become a huge part of Wagner’s life, but she wants people to know it’s not her whole life. She said, “It’s just so big to me, but also there’s other things that are even bigger in my life than that.” She doesn’t like the title “TikTok famous,” because “it doesn’t mean you are famous, or you have a more privileged life. It just means you have good internet connection.”
She pointed out that it’s not natural to meet someone for the first time and have them comment on the number of followers she has on a platform. “Being TikTok famous isn’t part of my personality,” Wagner said. “My TikTok, it’s a character. I do this one thing on TikTok, maybe a couple of things. That’s not who I am.”
Wagner commented on how weird it is that having 130,000 followers on a platform has become a normal part of her life. Yet, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that crazier things have happened than 3.7 million people watching a college student play a steel drum on TikTok. 
You can see the sensation by following Wagner’s TikTok: @j.waggie.
- Interview with Jenna Wagner, 02/25/21.