Doja Cat skyrocketed to fame with a song about cows and is now a huge name in music. How did she become a viral star, and what did it cost? Watch this video for our deep dive into Doja Cat and internet stardom.
Doja Cat, TikTok, and the Ups and Downs of Viral Fame
Doja Cat is no stranger to breaking the internet. But, in many ways, this top singer-rapper also is the internet — an artist born of, inspired by, and, ultimately, beholden to its unique language and fleeting fascinations. Her big break came from the joke song “Mooo!” that became a popular meme. Then “Say So” became a hit after it soundtracked a viral dance challenge on TikTok. Thanks to these platforms, her songs have landed in the Billboard Top 10, been featured in the hit movie Birds of Prey, and even scored a remix from Nicki Minaj.
So this star who’s built her career around being “meme-able” makes for a fascinating case study in just how social media and the need to “go viral” are affecting the music industry. Here’s our take on Doja Cat’s modern brand of stardom, and what her career tells us about the ups and downs of viral fame.
How to Make It on the Internet
Most of the world first met Doja Cat through her 2018 video “Mooo!” which found the singer, among other things, dancing with French fries stuffed up her nose. But this memorable introduction, which has netted her more than 71 million YouTube views and counting, actually came along some five years into her musical career.
Her debut single, “So High,” released on Soundcloud, attracted the attention of RCA Records in 2013 and was featured on the TV show Empire the next year. But despite her early successes, Doja Cat failed to gain much traction. Her 2018 album Amala didn’t generate much buzz either, even from Doja herself.
Doja Cat: “I’m not, like, personally, I’m not even crazy about that album.”
Then came “Mooo!” The song was never intended to be taken seriously. Doja was — as she often is — just hanging out with her fans on Instagram Live. She was riffing on her cow-print costume, just having fun. She freestyled a series of clever lyrics, and, encouraged by her Instagram audience, she finished “Mooo!” and its accompanying video clip in just under a few hours.
Doja Cat: “It was an inside joke that everybody just happened to see.”
This unlikely jumpstart for her career introduced Doja Cat to a huge mainstream audience. Although it seemed like a fluke, “Mooo!” was only born after years of Doja Cat honing her craft. Yet it’s undeniable that Doja Cat seems to have an innate flair for catching the internet’s ever-shifting wind in her sails. She’s naturally hilarious, capable of ad-libbing meme-worthy jokes about subjects as banal as birdwatching. She has a knack for harnessing up-to-minute trends.
She’s also adept at two of the internet’s most valued currencies: absurdist humor and sex. On “Tia Tamera,” she serenades her own breasts, using the names of the stars of the ‘90s sitcom “Sister, Sister.” She also knows the value of visuals — arguably, the most distinctive element of her work. Whether she’s twerking while wearing nothing but a cherry emoji, or dressed up as a sexy cat-lady-boss, smuggling live mice, Doja Cat has shown a knack for cultivating the kind of “found object aesthetic” that proliferates online — art that’s based on the juxtaposition of the quotidian and the unexpected, or on the displacement of objects from their natural habitat. Doja Cat has made the internet a crucial component of her career and planted her flag on one corner of it, in particular.
TikTok: Maker of Today’s Stars
Doja Cat is one of the best examples of an artist who’s built lasting success in part through channeling popularity on TikTok, the video-sharing app that’s become almost synonymous with “dance challenges” featuring everyone from teenagers to dogs to Dame Judi Dench.
In January 2020, a TikTok user named Haley Sharpe uploaded her own choreographed dance to Doja Cat’s “Say So.” She was the first in more than 20 million “Say So” videos on the platform, and that viral fame translated into making “Say So” a Top 40 hit worldwide. Other Doja Cat songs “Juicy,” “Boss Bitch,” and even her 2016 track “Candy” have all seen a surge in popularity thanks to the app, and Doja Cat is clearly aware of just how much she owes to her TikTok following. Her official “Say So” video includes both those dance moves that made it go viral and the TikTok user who created them. As Rolling Stone wrote, “[TikTok] has become a staging ground for hits — Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” … Ambjay’s “Uno,” Y2k and bbno$’s “Lalala,” and … Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” — before they crash into the mainstream.”
But what is it that makes a TikTok hit? Looking at TikTok’s most popular songs, we can identify three key elements to a songs’ success. One is that the song must sound different. Maybe it’s direct, conversational speech, unusual sound effects, or simply a unique chord progression. Doja Cat excels at this, consistently keeping her listeners guessing with a diverse repertoire, and creating characters to deliver her songs.
The second most important element of TikTok success is a satisfying beat drop, crucial for those dramatic transitions that allow users to make energetic videos. They deliver a satisfying moment of surprise. Finally, TikTok hits usually have lyrics that are easily lip-synced, or, more importantly, dance-synced. The dance challenge for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” for example, has a separate move for every adjective in the chorus.
Constantly reinventing herself, colorful, sexy, and sarcastic, Doja Cat is the ideal musical artist for the digital age. But there are also some major downsides to getting famous via the Internet.
Doja Cat: “Somebody’s gonna be mad for some reason, about something.”
The Pitfalls of Viral Fame
All fame is tenuous, but internet fame can be especially fleeting. Sometimes, it can even be punishing.
Big Boy: “Doja Cat, how do you deal with social media? Do you look at any of that clutter?”
Doja Cat: “So much of the bad ones hurt my feelings.”
Less than a month after “Mooo!” broke wide, Doja Cat faced backlash for a resurfaced tweet from 2015, where she’d used a homophobic slur to refer to popular rappers Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. She’s continued to attract controversy for parodying Cardi B, as well as for “throwing shade” at Nicki Minaj’s fans.
The swiftness of the outrage has since made Doja Cat an emblem for the overreach of “cancel culture,” as well the paradoxical nature of modern stardom. Social media demands transparency and “realness” from its celebrities, things that Doja Cat is often lauded for, but it also punishes people mercilessly for the weaknesses that “realness” inevitably reveals.
Doja Cat: “It’s about talking about the issue and educating people on the issue instead of trying to make them hate themselves.”
There is also the perpetual danger that, in the never-ending search for edgy content, creators end up crossing lines they shouldn’t. Viral fame can also be a double-edged sword, creatively. The internet tends to latch on to things that are new and surprising, only to abandon them when the novelty wears off. K-pop sensation Psy, who “broke the Internet” when his 2012 single “Gangnam Style” racked up billions of views and briefly took over the world, has struggled to duplicate its success ever since. So far, Doja Cat has avoided the fate of being pigeonholed for “Mooo!” through constant reinvention.
Doja Cat: “I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.”
But at the same time, the pressure for each new hit to look and sound different from the last has made it difficult for Doja Cat to create a distinct musical persona. Doja Cat’s visuals are also usually an amalgam of common internet fads: ‘90s nostalgia, big butts, bright pastels and neons, 8bit animation, anime, weed, and, of course, cats. That kind of trend-hopping can make her work seem ephemeral.
Anthony Fantano: “The more I listen to it, the less I feel like I have an actual grasp of who Doja Cat is as an artist, what is her sound, what is her style, what is her anything?”
Doja Cat’s trendiness can also lead to overlap with the work of her contemporaries, adding to the risk of blending into the crowd. The video for “Rules” evokes several recent hits, with its Western aesthetic that nods to Lil Nas’ “Old Town Road,” cat prosthetics reminiscent of Teyana Taylor’s in Kanye West’s video for “Fade,” and shots and styling choices that are eerily similar to Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
There’s always an element of luck involved in viral fame, and notably, both of Doja Cat’s biggest hits were more or less accidental. The need to replicate that success, and the lack of correlation to the actual effort put into creating it, can lead to a uniquely uncertain future for musicians who become virally famous. Artists may see their creative life-spans shortened and find themselves unable to achieve longevity after the dance challenge has died down or the joke gets old. Fortunately, Doja Cat has put in the time for her “overnight stardom.”
And through her successive singles, she’s already proven herself more than just a funny meme. She has assets that are uniquely suited to our digital age, the kind of creative restlessness that keeps people guessing, and a sharp sense of humor that can be ironic, absurdist, or just plain goofy.
Doja Cat: “I can be myself, and I can be a silly goose, and I can do whatever I want, you know, and somebody’s gonna like it.”
And, as Doja Cat pointed out in an interview with Elle, this sensibility is very much in demand: “We need people who are open to doing something with theme, something with a cartoonish twist,” she said. Whether or not she’ll prove able to create an imprint that stands the test of time remains to be seen, but it’s clear we need Doja Cat right now.
Song, Sandra. “The Internet Isn’t Impressed With Doja Cat’s “Apology” For Homophobic Slurs.” Nylon, 29 Aug. 2018.
Smith-Strickland, Stephanie. “Why Cancel Culture Doesn’t Work.” Paper, 6 Sept. 2018.
“Cardi B Claps Back At Rapper Doja Cat For Mocking Her Bars In Resurfaced Video.” Capital XTRA, 9 Aug. 2019.
Leight, Elias. “‘If You Can Get Famous Easily, You’re Gonna Do It’: How TikTok Took Over Music.” Rolling Stone, 12 Aug. 2019.
Penrose, Nerisha. “Doja Cat Just Wants to Make Rap Colorful.” Elle, 11 Nov. 2019.