It’s Mad Tsai’s World and We’re Just Living in It

As we anxiously await his upcoming EP, let's look into this rising popstar's music journey this far

Mad Tsai first gained popularity on TikTok for sharing his emotionally vulnerable songs.

Photo illustration by Ryan Quan

Words and art by Ryan Quan

Musical Artist of the Month: This monthly column is JoySauce social media editor Ryan Quan’s attempt at getting you to love these underrated and under appreciated API artists as much as he does. The series will combine fun facts, conceptual graphic work Ryan’s created as an ode to his favorite lyrics, and a few of each musician’s songs, to give you a crash course on these talented rising stars. 

At only 22 years old, musical artist Jonathan “Mad” Tsai sits pretty at 3.3 million TikTok followers on his main account (and another 100,000 on his “spam” account), with over 80 million total likes across his videos. He only started posting on the app in 2020, but it didn’t take him long to go viral. Since then, he has released several singles and a full EP, with another on the way. The new project, teenage nightmare!, was announced earlier this year, but its full release has been unfortunately postponed.

The openly bisexual rising pop star uses his art to share his journey of identity, sexually and otherwise. He makes catchy pop songs with heart-rending lyrics that often deal with his relationships with both men and women. Through his personal style, he isn’t afraid to reject gender roles and blend the ideas of traditional masculinity and femininity. On his Instagram, you’ll find him wearing football pads and tights in one photo and a cheerleading uniform in the next. He sports painted nails, pleated skirts, star-shaped eyeliner looks, and he rocks it all. As we anxiously await his upcoming EP, now’s the perfect time to look into the icon’s rise to stardom.

Photo illustration of an angry dog, framed by a red star, with the words "BOYS BEWARE" repeating in the background.
Mad Tsai's "boys beware" is about something many of us can relate to: being into hot toxic men.

Originally, Mad Tsai didn’t intend to pursue music professionally. Despite writing songs in his bedroom since he was 13, he was accepted to UCLA as an English major and planned to be a journalist. But he didn’t let this ambition distract him from his passion. Itching to make music again, he took some songwriting classes and joined one of his university’s acapella groups to keep the dream alive.

But it wasn’t until he blew up on TikTok that he really started considering a career in music. In his first original song to go viral, “Young Nights,” Mad Tsai shared his feelings of uncertainty and regret after high school. This was at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, when many people were seeking the transparent vulnerability that Tsai offered in his lyrics. Fans quickly latched onto the singer as he posted more videos about insecurities, high school bullies, loneliness, and other topics that we can all relate to but often have trouble putting into words, let alone songs.

Many of Tsai’s videos garnered millions of views, hundreds of thousands of likes, and countless comments begging him to record full versions of his songs. This support pushed him to release his first debut single, “Boy Bi,” in late 2020, which hit 1 million streams on Spotify in only a month. The song is about his journey to accepting his bisexuality, and he even used it to come out to his mom.

Illustration of the words "Happy endings only happen in my head" inside the silhoutte of someone's side profile, alongside various pink stars.
The continuation of "Stacy's Brother," "in my head" reveals that the relationship fell apart.

The traction Mad Tsai gained online inspired him to continue making music and release a full EP, homecoming!, in 2022, all while getting his undergraduate degree. But receiving so much attention at such a young age was a double-edged sword for the singer. In a conversation with OutWrite, UCLA’s queer magazine, Tsai discussed the negative impact it had on his mental health. “I think being a teenager and going viral was this weird experience that I genuinely wouldn’t wish upon a lot of people because ... you start to associate your self worth with a number,” he confessed.

After going viral for “Boy Bi,” Tsai shared that people began prying into his personal life, trying to find out everything they could about him. Having so many eyes on his music also meant that he was on the receiving end of hateful comments and unfair criticisms. People called his music “cheesy,” but as Tsai put it himself, “I was literally a sophomore in college at home in my bedroom just trying to figure shit out.” Of course, he’s grateful for his platform and how it jump-started his music career, but he hopes to carve his own path and grow as an artist, especially now that he has graduated from UCLA (with a major in music industry and history) and is focused on his career full-time.

Illustration of the lyrics "It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world and I'm the king!" in a messy, handwrittern font over a background splattered in paint.
Created during a dark point in his life, "mad's world" is one of Tsai's favorite songs that he has written.

Last year, Mad Tsai took a break from the Internet after the passing of his grandma. On TikTok, he shared how being assaulted by someone in the industry also impacted his mental health and forced him to take a step back from music. Further, he received homophobic remarks after the release of his single, “stacy’s brother,” a queer retelling of the hit “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne.

But during his time away, Tsai was able to process his trauma and be kinder to himself. He has since bounced back and is busy making new music and performing live. Although his new project, teenage nightmare!, was postponed, he did release music videos for two singles off the EP, “all-american bitch!” (not a cover of Olivia Rodrigo's song; it just coincidentally shares the same name) and “mad’s world.” Despite the delay of the full EP, his fans are beyond excited for this new teenage nightmare! era, which seems angrier and grittier but just as emotionally vulnerable as his homecoming! era.

Just last week, Mad Tsai shared his Discord server on his Instagram story, posted snippets of new music on his second TikTok account, and announced a “mad tsai active era” on his X (formerly known as Twitter) account. So it’s fair to say that we can expect big things from the singer very soon.

Illustration of the lyrics "I'm just chasing the American Dream" from Mad Tsai's "all-american bitch!"
Tsai had already written and teased snippets of "all-american bitch!" when Olivia Rodrigo released a song with the same name.

We’re all on the edges of our seats waiting for new announcements, but we also hope that Mad Tsai doesn’t overwork himself. The music industry can be harsh and unforgiving, but he will succeed as long as he takes care of himself. His loyal fans will support him through anything, and we know that any time he takes away will be followed by an honest and vulnerable explanation for his absence.

In a community where pushing our feelings and problems to the side is the norm, it’s refreshing to see a fresh Asian talent open up in both his art and daily life. It’s rare for someone with this big of a following to readily embrace their identity and emotions without fearing how it might impact their career. Mad Tsai is the representation this young, queer generation needs to feel comfortable in their skin and disrupt the systems that force us to pretend that everything’s fine.

Published on July 3, 2024

Words and art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.