How Doja Cat Keeps Dodging Cancellation
The consistently viral pop star has bucked controversy thanks to a prolific career, including a new infectious album, Planet Her.
On the Billboard Music Awards stage in October, Doja Cat stood in front of a Broadway sign displaying the word “Juicy,” the title of her 2019 hit single. As the sparkly intro to the song built, Doja spoke directly to the camera, her bedazzled silver leotard winking. “Forget what you’ve seen and forget what you’ve heard because tonight I’m going to keep it real,” she said before sauntering into a medley: “Juicy,” then other recent triumphs “Say So” and “Like That,” all reimagined as a big-band stage number.
It was hard not to read into Doja Cat’s impressive homage to Chicago. Sure, it made for a theatrical interpretation of her hits. But it was telling that her inspiration was a musical about provocative, misconstrued women. It seemed like she wanted us to jettison our previous ideas about her and listen to what she was offering up now.
Since she got her start releasing humorous rap tracks on SoundCloud in the early 2010s, the 25-year-old star has seen the successes and pitfalls of a young career that flourished online: She’s gotten three Grammy nominations, has received backlash for using an anti-gay slur (she released three subsequent apologies after the first one was criticized), has had numerous songs become viral TikTok trends, contracted COVID-19 after mocking the virus last year, has landed three songs in the Billboard Top 10, and has dodged cancellation for being associated with disgraced producer Dr. Luke and allegedly white supremacists.
Like Roxie Hart, Doja eagerly takes to the spotlight, controversy and all. Today she released Planet Her, a galactic-themed concept album featuring her most sonically traditional Top 40 tracks yet, imbued with casually catchy hooks (the Ariana Grande collab “I Don’t Do Drugs” feels like a drug), zany lyrics (“Call him Ed Sheeran, he in love with my body”) and impressive guests (The Weeknd! SZA!). Though the cosmic theme isn’t really detectable beyond the lo-fi beats, Planet Her is filled with enough pluses (“Kiss Me More,” specifically) to keep the hazy vibes going all summer long.
But there’s no denying there’s an unprecedented Teflon-like quality to Doja, a pop star who spent her early years shitposting and freestyling online all while largely soldiering through controversy. And her particular brand of satire might be exactly why she hasn’t found herself alienated, even as she enters her alien era.
Before Doja Cat, there was Amala Zandile Dlamini. Born in the outskirt Los Angeles neighborhood of Tarzana to a Jewish American painter mom and South African actor absentee dad, Doja moved around with her mother as a kid, with stints in New York and a California ashram before resettling in Los Angeles. At 16, she dropped out of high school.
At the time, she was smoking weed daily and listening to D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, as well as then-reigning pop stars Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. She eventually began freestyling on her computer, ripping beats from YouTube and recording songs on GarageBand. Her stage name, Doja Cat, refers to a slang term for weed and also the fact that she was around a lot of cats at the time. “It was really just like a high thought,” she told VladTV in 2018.
Doja blew up in 2019 with the release of her sophomore album Hot Pink, but she’s been releasing music for nearly a decade. She self-published her first single “So High” — a psychedelic ode to stoners — on SoundCloud in 2012, and it caught the attention of a major record label. So, at 17, Doja Cat signed to RCA and Kemosabe Records, the latter of which was cofounded by Dr. Luke. (Later in her career, Doja’s association with the disgraced producer would prove to be one of her many lasting controversies.)
There’s no denying there’s an unprecedented Teflon-like quality to Doja, a pop star who spent her early years shitposting and freestyling online all while largely soldiering through controversy.
Before that happened, though, Doja initially flopped. She released her debut album Amala, a sly mix of playful R&B pop tracks featuring earworm hooks, in March of 2018 to minimal buzz. At its highest, Amala charted at 138 on the Billboard 200. As NPR’s 2018 midyear best album list noted at the time, the album may have been overlooked “likely because it came out when all eyes were on Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Kali Uchis' Isolation.”
But any artist in their flop era knows things can only go up if you embrace your setbacks. So Doja went back to what she knew worked for her in the first place: coping with the world by casually freestyling online. “There’s a lot of political stuff going on. I needed a break from that kind of shit,” she told Fader in August of that year.
So she released “NintendHoe,” an annoyingly catchy tune about being a gamer thot. “Bitch wanna roast me / 'Cause I got a Xbox One,” she sings. Then came the even odder track, “Mooo!” In a casual 2018 Instagram Live, Doja started singing from the perspective of a cow simply because she was wearing cow-print separates. “I just didn't know what to write about in that moment. And I thought, ‘You know what, fuck it. I'm tired,’’ she told Highsnobiety in 2018.
The idiosyncratic lyrics (“Bitch, I'm a cow / I'm not a cat, I don't say meow”) paired with impressive cow puns caught the attention of Chance the Rapper. “So now I’m a big Doja Cat fan,” he tweeted with a cow emoji.
The Live was a hit, so Doja turned the song into a DIY music video shot in her bedroom that was subsequently highly memeified. It also made her a star. “Mooo!” went viral, introducing Doja as a carefree, internet-friendly artist. The song made multiple lists for best music videos of 2018.
This wouldn’t be her only affair with virality. Doja’s career finally found mainstream attention with Hot Pink in 2019. Her singles “Juicy” and “Say So” surged on TikTok just as the app was disrupting and fascinating the music industry. Later, “Boss Bitch” and “Like That” would also join her growing pantheon of songs that are ubiquitous on TikTok.
But fans wondering who Doja Cat was quickly dug up her working relationship with Dr. Luke’s label. In 2014, Kesha accused the producer, who once frequently collaborated with 2000s pop stars Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Avril Lavigne, of sexual assault and battery. Dr. Luke has denied the allegations. While his legal battle with Kesha waged on, Dr. Luke eventually stepped down as CEO of Kemosabe Records. Around this time, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink publicized their negative experiences working with him.
Dr. Luke has made a comeback in the past few years, though he’s stayed out of the spotlight and produced under the aliases Tyson Trax, Made in China, and Loctor Duke. Last year, he received a Grammy nomination for record of the year as a producer on Doja’s No. 1 hit “Say So.” It was the first time he had been up for a Grammy since 2014, for his work on Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
His resurgence hasn’t gone over well with many artists in the music industry, and recent collaborators have hesitated to speak about him when asked. Singer Kim Petras released a statement on Twitter in 2018, clarifying her “positive experience” with the producer but saying that she didn’t want to “negate or dismiss” others’ experiences. Last month, rapper Saweetie skirted the Associated Press’s questions about Dr. Luke, who had produced her tracks “Tap In” and “Best Friend,” the latter also being a Doja collaboration.
Planet Her sees Doja and Dr. Luke working together again. He produced, cocomposed, and cowrote her recent single “Need to Know.” Still, it seems, Doja doesn’t publicly acknowledge their working relationship. She declined to comment on their connection, through her representatives, in a 2019 interview with Fader. In April, Dr. Luke provided a secondary quote to her Billboard profile about recognizing her talent early on, but she did not comment about him in the piece.
And yet it’s impressive how savvy Doja and her team are in gaining mainstream press while sidestepping her controversies. “You’re not supposed to ask me about that. Nope,” she said to the Los Angeles Times in 2019 about tweeting anti-gay language as a teenager.
It’s also helpful for Doja’s image that much-loved artists continue to collaborate with her. In 2020, she released a remix of “Say So” with Nicki Minaj. Doja then featured alongside Megan Thee Stallion this January on Ariana Grande’s remix of “34 + 35.” In April, Doja dropped “Kiss Me More,” an airy, irresistible bop with SZA, as the lead single of Planet Her. The Weeknd, Young Thug, JID, and Grande also appear on the new album.
When it comes to capturing public adoration, Doja has seemingly taken a page out of Nicki Minaj's playbook by being prolific. (Doja even thanks Minaj on Planet Her.) Like the rapper, Doja regularly hops on a feature. She doesn’t seem to be concerned with always saving her best work for her albums or worried that a collaboration dilutes her individuality. The effect is that controversy or the occasional flop song is not held against her in perpetuity — because soon enough she’ll offer us something new to listen to.
Like Minaj’s aesthetic maximalism, Doja’s artistry recalls the concept-driven artists of the early 2010s. A decade ago, Minaj, alongside then-newbies Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, embraced theatrical stunts and created fantasy worlds in their music videos, during award show performances, and on the red carpet. A year after Lady Gaga was carried in an egg on the 2011 Grammys red carpet and unhatched during her performance of “Born This Way,” Minaj brought a fake pope to the show. This was also the era of Katy Perry’s sugary sweet Teenage Dream confections.
She doesn’t seem to be concerned with always saving her best work for her albums or worried that a collaboration dilutes her individuality.
Doja has firmly jumped on board that rocket ship, launching into the current pop orbit. Just as Gaga returned to her conceptual ways last year with Chromatica, a celestial, steampunk album, Doja conjured up an ethereal, pastel world with Planet Her. “I want to bring people to different locations of Planet Her and show them the kind of people who are there and how the different races and species kind of connect with each other,” she told Audacy in April.
In turning her music into a visual fantasy world via her music videos and social media presence, Doja’s career is most akin to that of fellow shitposter-turned-pop-star Lil Nas X, who repeatedly noted Minaj’s influence on his career. (Lil Nas X even penned Doja’s entry on the Time 100 emerging leaders list this year.) Both have seemingly realized that lasting memes and endless virality can have more persistent impact than winning Grammys. While Lil Nas X stunts (such as releasing multiple remixes of his game-changing hit “Old Town Road” and creating Satan Shoes with the startup MSCHF), Doja’s internet success has taken root in her songs’ TikTok viability: Users have created dances and challenges to her tracks, like the silhouette challenge to “Streets,” ensuring an added layer of visibility that less-online artists may miss out on. She herself is a TikTok natural, posting addictively watchable slices of life and riffing on other popular videos.
Together, the two young artists are ushering back in the elaborate world-building alter ego, having grown up in the days of Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce, Minaj’s Roman Zolanski, and Gaga’s Jo Calderone. Over the years, Doja has taken on various personas in her music videos and performances: a cannibalistic cow, a robotic latex cat, a crop top–wearing turquoise space alien, a goth girl, and a severed watermelon.
However, both Doja and Lil Nas X have also experienced the pitfalls of being profuse and have also had to learn how to avoid being canceled. Unlike celebrities who release Notes app apologies via the invisible arm of a team, both artists aren’t afraid to speak directly in real time with their fans when controversy comes — and it always does if you spend your time tweeting as consistently as they do.
In May of last year, #DojaCatIsOverParty trended on Twitter after videos alleging she participated in public chat rooms with white supremacists surfaced, as well as her 2015 SoundCloud song “Dindu Nuffin.” The title is a racist catchphrase mocking Black people who state their innocence after experiencing police brutality. As Insider reported, Doja posted an initial apology on her Instagram before going on Live a few days later wearing just a T-shirt, her hair unstyled. She admitted her initial statement was “absolutely an edited piece from me and the people I work with” and told her young fans that her “behavior isn't something that always needs to be followed. I'm not perfect. I shouldn't be doing dumb shit.”
The Instagram Live made Doja seem accessible and honest. Another apology, this time for using an anti-gay slur multiple times, became a meme because of its breezy imperfection. But she didn’t dwell on it. As Vulture music critic Craig Jenkins wrote this week, “She’s online enough and smart enough to know that the only fate worse than being deemed ‘problematic’ is looking too bothered, too earnest.”
With Planet Her, we’re seeing Doja at her most polished and most like a conventional industry pop star. We’ve seen it before: Often, when a newbie makes it onto the Top 40 throne, fans eventually turn on them, as if artists, particularly women pop stars, can only be categorized as good or bad. It happened to Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and momentarily Ariana Grande, among others. For Doja Cat, who is internet savvy and refuses to stand still, these polar outcomes may simply not apply. If she can survive constant internet draggings, drop routine hits, and keep us all engaged, perhaps she’s setting a new format for the modern-day pop star — one on a planet of her own. ●