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How MTV VMAs host Doja Cat became 2021’s signature pop star

Doja Cat wears a tight dress open down the front and with a feathery skirt.
Doja Cat, seen here at the 63rd Grammy Awards, performs pop stardom as a kind of chaotic data dump.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

It says a lot about Doja Cat that she spends much of her first big acting role staring at her phone.

Playing herself in a recent episode of “Dave” — the acclaimed FX series based on the life of the comedic hip-hop star Dave Burd (who records as Lil Dicky) — the happily eccentric rapper and singer strikes up a flirty text-message relationship with Dave after they match on an invite-only dating app.

We never actually see the two meet in the flesh, thanks to a characteristic bungle by the show’s protagonist. But watching Doja Cat carefully project an image of herself through her and Dave’s screens ends up suiting an artist who, more than any of her A-list peers, feels like a product of the internet — of its chat rooms and social-media platforms and of the streaming services that first allowed her to reach an audience as a teenager posting homemade songs from her bedroom in Los Angeles.

Nearly a decade after the earliest of those tunes began to gain traction, Doja Cat, 25, has moved from the digital realm to the wider offline world.

She was nominated for three awards at March’s Grammys, including best new artist and record of the year for “Say So,” her frothy chart-topping disco-pop hit. She’s the face of an elaborate new Pepsi marketing campaign. And Sunday night she’ll host and perform on MTV’s Video Music Awards — perhaps the last of the major televised awards shows with even a chance of attracting a robust and engaged Gen Z viewership.

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Set to be broadcast from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the VMAs will also feature performances by Justin Bieber, Kacey Musgraves, Olivia Rodrigo, Ed Sheeran, Normani, the Kid Laroi, Camila Cabello, Ozuna, and the extremely online phenom to whom Doja Cat can probably most relate — Lil Nas X.

“I’m just going to do what I do, which is be cringe,” Doja Cat (born Amala Diamini) told Variety of her plans for the evening, and indeed what’s remarkable about her ascent to IRL stardom is how much of her weird old internet self she’s brought along to the mainstream. Having outlived the suspicions of those who once viewed her as a novelty, she might now be 2021’s signature pop act: biracial, sexually fluid, rooted in hip-hop, openly ambitious and dressed as a cyborg (but a funny one, not a sad one).

Country singer Walker Hayes was a journeyman until a song about a date night at a chain restaurant. Now he’s on the verge of an unlikely crossover smash.

“Planet Her,” the album Doja Cat released in June, is a commercial juggernaut with five tracks that have each racked up more than 100 million streams on Spotify. (“Kiss Me More,” her smash duet with SZA, has nearly 700 million.) But it’s also genuinely strange, both in its individual moments and in the startling juxtapositions it lays out: “Payday” is a sprightly-spooky electro-pop romp in which she and Young Thug compete to see who can make their voice chirpier, while cuts like “Naked” and “Options” keep pushing the sexual adventurism a few ticks beyond where you expect; elsewhere, Doja Cat puts her creamiest R&B singing (as in “Need to Know” and “Imagine”) right next to her fiercest rapping (as in “Get Into It [Yuh]” and the ferocious “Ain’t S—,” where she switches up flows with a dexterity comparable to Nicki Minaj).

Even the lilting “Kiss Me More,” which has been knocking around the upper reaches of the Hot 100 for months, sounds odder the more closely you examine its squirmy vocal melody.

Certainly, Doja Cat — the daughter of a Jewish mother and a South African father — is a beneficiary of the natural eclecticism of the streaming environment, where idiosyncratic tunes can bubble up to Top 40 radio instead of having to fit programmers’ preconceived notions of a hit. And certainly she’s building off gains made by Minaj, who was helping to dismantle the barriers between singing and rapping back in the early 2010s. (It was a verse by Minaj on a remix of “Say So” that propelled that song to No. 1 — one of several reasons Doja Cat offers a shout-out to her predecessor at the end of “Get Into It [Yuh].”)

Yet Minaj seemed to lose interest fairly quickly in high-gleam pop, whereas Doja Cat on her third LP appears energized by the idea; she has yet to decide that monster hooks and futuristic grooves can’t be used to carry the cartoon voices and edgelord humor she once deployed in do-it-yourself rap songs like her viral 2018 single “Mooo!”

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But then why would she? In an era when performers’ iffy internet histories are routinely weaponized against them, Doja Cat’s resistance to being canceled may rival only Kanye West‘s. Somebody found old tweets in which she used a gay slur; somebody caught her bantering in a chat room evidently filled with creepy alt-right dudes. Doja Cat apologized, sort of, and said she’d been misunderstood — then she moved on, and we along with her. Even her long-standing professional relationship with Dr. Luke, the producer and songwriter whom Kesha has accused of sexual abuse, has for the most part gone unquestioned.

Which isn’t to say she hasn’t made slight adjustments to account for her newfound visibility. Asked by Missy Elliott in Interview magazine if she’s more cautious on social media than she used to be, Doja Cat replied yes before wistfully recalling the days when she used to go on Periscope (!) for “10 or 12 hours” to yell at random people. She also seems eager to deflect interest in her personal life; in a recent Apple Music interview she told Ebro Darden not to expect to hear who she’s dating until they’re married.

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Yet to conclude that celebrity has made her more guarded is to assume that we’ve ever known anything about Doja Cat in the first place. For all the hours and hours of content she’s poured onto the internet — the photos, the TikToks, the lengthy and digressive Instagram Live sessions — it’s still hard to know exactly who Doja Cat is; her personality, especially as compared to an open book like Cardi B, feels like a stitched-together assemblage of tics and jokes and willful provocations.

She’s performing pop stardom as a kind of chaotic data dump, seeing how readily the old systems can accommodate new information.


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