Pop

Doja Cat Is Becoming the Quintessential Gen Z Pop Star

Doja Cat
Ramona Rosales

Doja Cat photographed by Ramona Rosales on April 2, 2021 in Topanga, Calif.

Throughout 2021, Doja Cat has been transforming more and more of Planet Earth into inhabitants of Planet Her. The foundation has been there for years, but with Planet Her, Doja has firmly planted herself in the current class of pop music A-listers. On July 4, the LP became Doja’s highest-charting project on the Billboard 200 albums chart (No. 2), while marking the biggest opening-week sales total of her career yet, and the biggest opening day for a female rapper in Spotify history. If dominating the previous year with the Billboard Hot 100-topping “Say So” wasn’t enough, the resounding success of Planet Her and its singles have unequivocally solidified Doja Cat as one of the defining pop stars of this era. 

Although the masses are finally catching up, Doja proved her star power from the moment “Mooo!” went viral in August of 2018. The winkingly meme-driven novelty song expertly tapped into the specific brand of self-deprecation and intricate webs of online inside jokes that make up Gen Z humor. Like any smart pop star, Doja was able to capitalize on the viral success of “Mooo!” by launching a deluxe version of Amala, her debut studio album, in the following months. That deluxe version housed two of her biggest hits at the time, “Tia Tamera (feat. Rico Nasty)” and a remix of “Juicy” featuring Tyga. The success of the latter song led to Doja’s first Hot 100 chart entry and Amala’s first appearance on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The “Juicy” remix also ended up functioning as the lead single for Hot Pink, Doja’s sophomore studio album which spawned three Hot 100 entries: “Say So,” the No. 16-peaking “Streets,” and the platinum-certified “Like That (feat. Gucci Mane).”

Doja’s star power is a unique one; she is the pop star that best understands how to blend and bend the rules of the old school and new school, handling the ever-evolving ecosystem of TikTok trends with the same dexterity that she handles traditional blockbuster awards show performances and radio singles. The star power established from “Mooo!” and Doja’s history of producing multiple simultaneous hits from the same album is what buoyed the stability of Planet Her. Since the album’s release, it has remained in the Billboard 200’s top 5, with at least 55,000 equivalnt album units moved each week.

The natural starting point for Planet Her was obviously the SZA-assisted “Kiss Me More,” the breezy disco-tinged lead single that served as the perfect catalyst for the Planet Her era. Sonically and structurally, the song borrowed from the same blueprint as Doja’s signature hit, “Say So” --. she sings for the intro and hook, raps the first verse, and then returns to singing for the rest of the song. “Kiss Me More” also offered up a less obvious interpolation of Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 Hot 100-topper “Physical,” which was interpolated by Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa on “Prisoner,” and referenced in Lipa’s own “Physical” just a few months prior. The success of “Kiss Me More” was almost guaranteed; SZA alo was coming off of the biggest Hot 100 solo hit of her career so far (“Good Days”) while Doja was coming off the slow-burning success of her previous album’s “Streets.” 

Doja’s innate ability to crank out different types of hits helps her elongate her album cycles, in an era where artists are moving between records faster than ever. “Streets,” the final single from Hot Pink, started taking off on TikTok, along with the Silhouette Challenge, in late January -- around the same time that Doja and her team were deliberating what Planet Her’s lead single would be. “As you can probably tell from the album right now, there was really no shortage of opportunity and options in terms of the first single,” RCA Records COO John Fleckenstein remarks. “So, there was a lot of debate.”

Due to the internet-driven success of “Streets,” Doja and her team felt that “people wanted that big follow-up” -- which happened to be “Kiss Me More,” a song Fleckenstein describes as a “big pop juggernaut for the world.” The response from audiences has proven his assessment right -- “Kiss Me More” has already been streamed 378 million times in the U.S., according to MRC Data. The track debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, eventually peaking at No. 3 and becoming the third Top 10 hit for both Doja and SZA. Above all, the song was a duet between two of the brightest new additions to pop music’s royal court.

In fact, big-name collaborations like these have been key to cementing Doja’s spot as a capital-P pop star. Planet Her features a slew of A-list pop and R&B collaborators like The Weeknd and Ariana Grande as well as appearances from big-name guest rappers such as Eve, Gunna, and Young Thug. Before Doja landed on Planet Her, however, she had been using these big-ticket collaborations to climb the ranks of pop stardom -- the biggest collaboration of Doja’s career had been with Nicki Minaj, whose remix of “Say So” helped vault the song to No. 1, becoming the first Hot 100 chart-topper for both artists. But no artist has been as instrumental to Doja's pop inner-circle status as Grande. In just under a year, the two stars have joined forces three times: Positions’ “Motive,” a remix of Grande’s “34+35,” and Planet Her’s “I Don’t Do Drugs.” With six Billboard 200 No. 1 albums and six Hot 100 No. 1 singles to her name, Grande’s musical relationship with Doja helped further expose her to Top 40 listeners. 

The Weeknd is another top-tier pop star who joined Doja on her journey to Planet Her. The pair, who’d previously collaborated on the remix to After Hours single “In Your Eyes,” teamed up again for “You Right,” the second radio single from Planet Her -- which debuted at No. 11 on the Hot 100 and is still hanging around the top 20 six weeks later. The slick R&B-influenced duet slows down the tempo of the Planet Her singles while keeping two of the world’s biggest pop stars in constant rotation on Top 40 radio.

Of course, Doja’s previous albums have also spawned excellent fan-favorite collaborations with less mainstream artists, such as Amala’s “Tia Tamera” with Rico Nasty, Hot Pink’s “Won’t Bite” with Smino and even Planet Her’s “Options” with JID. (“She really doesn't collaborate with people unless there's a real intent, artistically, at her end, and that's the truth,” says Fleckenstein.) But with these new A-list collaborations, Doja has completed her transition from indie wunderkind to marquee name, proving her a worthy co-star and peer to the Ariana Grandes and Weeknds of the pop game. 

When it comes to examining Doja’s rise and how she’s been able to sustain her success, it’s impossible not to bring up TikTok. The social media app is intrinsically tied to the cultural capital that Doja holds. The now-iconic TikTok choreography for “Say So,” which was created by Haley Sharpe and eventually featured in the official music video, may be the crown jewel of Doja-centric TikTok trends, but it’s truly just the tip of the iceberg. The Hot Pink era boasted songs like “Like That” (1.8 million TikToks created with it as its sound), “Rules” (64.2K), “Cyber Sex” (171.4K), and “Streets” (1.7 million), all of which became extremely popular sounds on TikTok and soundtracked everything from cooking videos to dance challenges. 

In just five weeks, a large number of the Planet Her tracks have also found virality on the platform. In addition to the album’s singles, “Kiss Me More” (3.7 million) and “You Right” (17.4K), “Need To Know” (1.4 million), “Get Into It (Yuh)” (176.4K), “Woman” (741.3K), and “Ain’t S--t” (655.7K) have all firmly lodged themselves in the current rotation of popular TikTok sounds. With Doja Cat, the focus and emphasis of an “official radio single” means close to nothing -- when she drops an album, be prepared for at least half of the tracklist to flood the airwaves, your playlists, and your social media explore pages. In fact, a month-and-a-half post-release, Planet Her still has five songs charting on the Hot 100 — a feat currently only matched by Olivia Rodrigo and her Sour tracks. 

Without all of Doja’s essence being bottled into one single at time, she been able to show off her musical versatility and guarantee stability for her album beyond release week. Doja’s hold on TikTok is so strong that even her unreleased songs go viral on the platform; “Freak,” which eventually saw a wide release, has garnered over 828,300 sound uses to date while “Boom” has acquired over 380,000 uses across several user-uploaded sounds. “The fan base tends to embrace [the songs] and turn them into the moments that they are,” Fleckenstein notes. “She’s the spark or the catalyst for these movements… it’s not something that’s manufactured. Mathematically, you can’t do the number of streams she’s doing across the number of tracks she’s doing. If this isn’t totally inherent fanbase organic activity, it doesn’t happen that way.”

While Doja’s rule over TikTok has helped characterize her as a new-school pop star, she hasn’t completely rejected the lessons and rules of previous generations. In fact, with her acclaimed awards show performances, Doja has actively embraced parts of what constituted an old-school pop star. Due to the rise of streaming and a focus on quick hit singles over genuine artist development, the level of performance skill amongst the new guard of pop stars often pales in comparison to their predecessors. Doja, however, has utilized her background in dance and her naturally animated personality to build herself into one of the most exciting and anticipated performers in recent years. 

Every time Doja hits the stage, she delivers a new aesthetic and a new sound. She performed “Say So” countless times between 2020 and 2021, but every performance breathed new life into the song. There was the beloved metal version at the 2020 MTV Europe Music Awardds, the Broadway version at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, the horror film-inspired performance at the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Awards, and more. More recently, the campaign for “Kiss Me More” included multiple awards show performances, most notably the intergalactic live television debut of the song at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards. That performance, which featured background dancers with floating planets as heads, transported us Earthlings to Planet Her just like the accompanying interstellar music video. Even live performance videos like the dynamic “Ain’t S--t” VEVO performance perfectly capture Doja’s performance energy. It’s an energy that balances franticness with precision, a difficult one to strike. 

Doja’s markedly animated performances are another facet of her social media dominance. Just as listeners will use her songs for every TikTok video concept under the sun, they will also use her songs to imitate her performance quirks. This convergence of the new school and old school is what makes Doja such a fascinating and pertinent pop star for this generation and this time in pop music. She’s pop, rap, R&B, and alternative all at the same time. She cannot get swallowed by internet controversy, because she herself is a child of the internet.

Last year’s various controversies were never a real threat to Doja’s viability as a pop star, because she embraces the mess of the social media era in a way that her predecessors could not. When the chat room controversy exploded last year and the world put a microscope on Doja’s relationship with her racial identity and incel culture, Doja was able to get out in front of the drama by cracking jokes about herself and controlling the narrative. Moreover, Doja’s professional relationship with writer-producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, who his former collaborator Kesha accused of sexual assault and physical abuse in a 2014 lawsuit to be freed from his Kemosabe record label, has garnered its fair share of scrutiny. But Doja has liked tweets suggesting that her continued collaborations with him likely are largely due to contractual obligation, stemming from a deal she signed with Kemosabe when she was a teenager, before the allegations. And for better or worse, Gottwald's involvement with her songs haven't dulled their commercial appeal.

Doja Cat is a pop star who will spend more time tweeting memes and trolling her fans than sending out links to her new music and videos. What she's tapped into isn’t necessarily relatability, it’s realness; she isn’t trying to create an image to relate to any particular demographic, she simply exists as herself on the internet like everyone else, and that’s enough. Whether she’s breakdancing to R&B on Instagram live or posting goofy Twitter polls in the middle of the day, she uses social media like a regular person. “That right there is what makes a modern star,” said Fleckenstein. “[Fans] want to relate to the person who’s actually singing and creating that music. It’s no longer a presentational game of twenty years ago, it’s more of an engaging discussion game with pop stars in the world today.” 

At once, Doja is ahead of the curve, yet strikingly familiar. A pop star born of the Internet Age with the knowledge of an old-school blueprint that she bends to her will, Doja Cat is well on her way to becoming the quintessential pop star of this generation.