Ian Eusebio, an 18-year-old TikToker known as @ianwearspants, is lying on his bed while a camera hovering above slowly pans across him. Suddenly, he hits us with a reality check while a harp plays in the background.
“You have to stop romanticizing your life. Your life isn’t even that interesting. You can’t be the main character and also be annoying. Main characters are usually likable,” he says while the camera cuts to him despondently cleaning his full-length mirror, wistful for the freedom of the outdoors.
He continues, “If you’re the main character, then you’re the main character in a Tori Vega, BoJack Horseman, Piper Chapman, Ted Mosby kind of way. If you’re that type of main character, then you’re no one’s favorite character. Everyone is going to like the side characters in your life more because you’re annoying. Stay humble.” (This is the Gen Z version of identifying as a Carrie from Sex and the City.)
If you haven’t seen this gut check of a statement — a reminder that literally no one is thinking about you as much as you think they are — then you probably have a healthy relationship with TikTok. Congrats! But sound decision making is, of course, not main-character behavior. That’s the mindset of the supportive best friend, often played by Judy Greer in literally every 2000s rom-com or Michelle Beaute in literally every Netflix rom-com.
Eusebio’s video exploded on TikTok, with users utilizing the harp sound for quippy edicts about what we all should and should not be doing with our lives. Loren Gray, the megapopular TikTok star featured in Taylor Swift’s “The Man” music video, demanded we stop throwing parties during the pandemic. A gay twink known as @dinonuggets.jpg smartly told us we have to start sleeping with men shorter than us. Caroline Calloway advised that coastal voters swap their registered address to their parents’ swing-state home. (You probably don’t want to do this.)
The anti-main-character trend is classic youth-internet energy, parodying the belief that sassy, antagonistic opinions are in fact a personality and will garner you clout. Yes, most of the videos are TikTok’s version of a Twitter shitpost. TikToker Linda Dong called us all out when she said, “You have to stop telling your friends that you are on the way when you haven’t even left your house yet. You’re just standing there half-naked, scrolling on TikTok.” Ouch, that one hurt.
The trend started as a response to a May video by TikToker Ashley Ward. In her clip, she urges us all to be the main characters of our lives while a drone camera zooms in on her at the beach, like she’s in a John Green film. “You have to start romanticizing your life,” she says. “You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. Because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by, and all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed. So take a second. And look around, and realize that it’s a blessing for you to be here right now.”
Eusebio found Ward’s TikTok to be a little too saccharine for Zoomers. “I just thought it would be funny to have an opposite version of that,” he says with a laugh. What exactly does the word “romanticize” mean? “That’s just a buzzword that’s thrown around, but I’m not actually against people romanticizing their own life if that makes them feel better.”
The “You Have to Stop” meme isn’t just popular because it feeds Gen Z’s cynicism. There’s actual artistry secretly on display. The sound of this trend is a series of beautiful harp arpeggios. It’s a rendition of Odesza’s “A Moment Apart” recorded by harpist Hannah Stater, a graduate student at the University of Michigan.
She created the TikTok sound seven months ago, but it didn’t blow up until Ward and Eusebio used it for their videos. Then Eugene Lee Yang of the Try Guys used the Odesza original in his recent coming-out YouTube video. The combination of these three events and the ever-mysterious nature of going viral blew up the sound on TikTok.
It’s all been a bit of a shock to Stater. “Being a [artistic] creator on TikTok has been kind of frustrating, so I was kind of considering deleting TikTok for a bit,” she says, having been turned off by trolls unappreciative of her musical skills. Then the “You Have to Stop” meme was born with her music. “When [YouTuber and author] Hank Green followed me last week, I kind of freaked out. It’s surreal,” she says.
Stater, though, is most happy that daddy Dr. Phil McGraw hopped on the trend.
“You have to have to stop commenting ‘daddy’ on all of my posts. I ain’t your daddy. Hate to break it to ya, but I ain’t your daddy. And your real daddy is probably getting his feelings hurt. I appreciate the support. It’s a little weird, but I do appreciate the support,” he says in the video.
The video (with Stater’s music) even aired during Dr. Phil’s recent appearance on The Late Late Show With James Corden. “I didn’t really expect anything to happen outside of TikTok,” she says. “I was shocked.”
Take it in, Stater. Because, as it turns out, you were the main character of this TikTok trend all along.