How Doja Cat has become the biggest viral hitmaker in Pop (and on TikTok)

In just three years, Doja Cat has spawned more viral trends than anyone else in Pop has in a decade.

Doja Cat is Pop’s indisputable “it” girl. Her 2020 began with a No. 1 hit courtesy of the disco anthem “Say So,” and 2021 has her currently racing up the Hot 100 again with “Streets.” Both songs succeeded largely due to TikTok trends, and Doja’s success from the beginning of her career has been intrinsically linked to internet success which makes her a perfect case study for the requirements of pop stardom in the digital age.

While she only recently garnered significant success over the past year and a half, the rise Doja Cat has been in development for nearly a decade. Her early career was defined by internet chatrooms, where she would live stream to small groups of fans and craft songs with their input. She signed to Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe imprint of RCA Records at just 17 years old in 2012 and released her debut EP, Purrr! in 2014, which garnered modest success at best on SoundCloud and YouTube.

But Doja Cat’s rise to fame only began with her first viral hit in August of 2018: the absurdly comical and catchy “Moo!” Boasting lyrical gems like “Got the methane, I’m a farter (Woo),” “Moo” racked up over 75 million views in a matter of weeks after going viral on Twitter. While Doja maintains that she had no intention of making a viral hit with “Moo!”, the writing was on the wall: she interpolated both Kelis timeless dairy classic “Milkshake” and Ludacris’ “Move Bitch,” pasteurizing the latter by changing the refrain to “get out my hay.” These references alone couldn’t make a hit but combined with an insanely meme-able music video, Doja made the song’s success was almost inevitable.

Following the viral success of “Moo,” Doja Cat released her mainstream debut, the versatile and sexy Hot Pink, through RCA Records at the end of 2019. The album performed moderately at first, only reaching No. 19 on the Billboard 200 in its first full week of release, with its lead single “Juicy” barely missing the Top 40 despite TikTok traction. The album’s fourth rapid-release single, “Cyber Sex,” also generated a TikTok trend but was still not enough to turn Doja Cat into a household name.

However, that trajectory dramatically changed following one single dance video posted by TikTok star Haley Sharpe. Just weeks later, courtesy of a viral trend, Doja Cat’s “Say So” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 96 on January 15th. Doja and her team quickly capitalized on the opportunity, incorporating the dance routine into the song’s official music video and giving Sharpe a cameo appearance. While the TikTok trend peaked in late December of 2019, “Say So” didn’t ascend to the Hot 100’s summit until the following May, boosted by a remix with Nicki Minaj. But TikTok should still receive ample credit for the song’s success: the app’s popularity spiked dramatically in March of 2020 as most of the Western world began entering COVID-19 induced lockdowns. As TikTok surged, so did “Say So.” Like so many successes in the entertainment industry, it came down, in part, to timing.

The eventual follow-up single to “Say So,” “Like That,” also had brief viral TikTok success early in 2020 but only peaked at No. 50 on the Hot 100 due in part to the timing of its release months later in May. But flash forward almost a year to February of 2021, over a year after Hot Pink’s release, and Doja Cat has again created a viral smash. Following multiple renditions as a part of the Hot Pink Sessions, the album track “Streets” began igniting a firestorm on TikTok as the chosen soundtrack to the sultry “Silhouette challenge.” The trend saw millions of users begin innocent clips to the tune of Paul Anka’s 1959 classic “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” only to transition to “Streets” via beat drop where clothes are dropped, and only “silhouettes” remain. Again, Doja and her team acted quickly, pushing the song to be the seventh Hot Pink single, and released a “Silhouette” remix just last week. The song has since bulleted up streaming charts and the Hot 100, where it now rises to No. 18 with a bullet.

Doja’s rise to prominence is reminiscent of “34+35” collaborator Ariana Grande’s, whose debut single “The Way” burst onto the Hot 100 after she accumulated a massive social media following through Nickelodeon and YouTube. Grande too struggled momentarily, with follow-ups from her debut Yours Truly failing to match the instant success of “The Way.” Grande then hit the bullseye with her following lead single, “Problem,” an Iggy Azalea collaboration when her industry stock was at its peak.

While Doja Cat is the undisputed queen of the viral hit, she and her team should have pause for concern. Despite having industry connections like Dr. Luke for nearly a decade, her success thus far has seemed somewhat tenuous, requiring this viral success to thrive. And as many fans pointed out following her Grammy shutout, Doja Cat did not walk away with a single industry award for “Say So” despite numerous media performances, critical acclaim, and widespread commercial success.

But most notably, her chatroom beginnings were nearly her undoing; in the summer of 2020, a “cancel culture” movement – #DojaCatIsOverParty – began to take shape against her in response to self-hating comments she made about her race in a chatroom with predominantly white attendees. Given that her rise was produced partly due to her success on Black Twitter early on, the controversy was particularly damaging and even more of a betrayal. Though it seems that Doja has weathered that storm, it shows the internet’s potential to instantly break a rising star almost as quickly as it can make one.[1]Country star Morgan Wallen is currently embroiled in a similar situation at the peak of his career after being caught on film hurling the n-word outside of his Nashville home.

So what makes Doja Cat the viral hitmaker that others aren’t? It’s a combination of natural charisma, fortunate timing, and competent management. Doja has been a viral star from her beginnings on internet chatrooms and SoundCloud to the first viral gold she produced with “Moo.” She has continued leaning into the tactics that made her successful in the first place, whether by accident or purpose, which has allowed her personality and artistry to remain central to her public image. The launch of her career has also coincided with the rise of TikTok, which has seemingly chosen her as its first superstar. Doja Cat and her team have also successfully utilized tried and true pop formulas like the remix, which boosted “Say So” and now “Streets” with deadly accuracy. But she now exemplifies the still-nascent trend of musicians being expected to have a following before signing to a record label rather than after, which reduces risk on the label’s side. In some cases, it reduces the label’s usefulness to the artist, but the two seem to have made a strong pair for Doja Cat and RCA.

Doja Cat has contended that she doesn’t make music for money or fame, which does not seem to be her primary intention when creating her music. However, she markets and promotes that music is a remarkable talent, almost as good if not better than her musical work.

References

1 Country star Morgan Wallen is currently embroiled in a similar situation at the peak of his career after being caught on film hurling the n-word outside of his Nashville home.

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