On Doja Cat's tumultuous yet oddly victorious year. Plus, Taylor Swift and the prison of online fan culture.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, the Internet rejoiced over a musician attending an inconsequential early-season football game. The musician was Taylor Swift, whose latest masterstroke was materializing in a luxury box at the Chiefs-Bears game in Kansas City. It was America’s sweetheart, in the American heartland, taking in the great American pastime—naturally, the reactions ran the gamut, but nearly all leaned positive. For three hours, Taylor held the nation captive with reaction shots to each Chiefs touchdown, casually tossing out profanity and slamming vodka crans, arm in arm with Kelce’s mom, radiating wholesome and authentic enthusiasm.
This sort of meticulous spectacle production and conversation planting is an exact and perfect inverse of Doja Cat’s last few months of controversy, echoing her entire aggrieved career. On the contrary to the Los Angeles artist, Swift is the prime example of essentially living your life on your fans' terms and fabricating a fairytale for their consumption.
In theory, Doja’s recent provocations in both her music and personal decisions ran the risk of being career-destroying. As Doja put it recently, in an unusually candid and vulnerable deep dive at Las’ Lap with Ebro, these are acts of intention: “I’m way too fucking famous, 100%, and I’m doing what I can to slowly but surely separate myself from this narrative or whatever this world is that I built. I’m fine-tuning it and tailoring it to what I want out of it.”
Let’s quickly recap: It’s a relationship that publicly dates back to November 2022, but in early summer of this year, TMZ captured Doja Cat in Mexico with a comedian who goes by J.Cyrus (about as far as you can get from a hulking and nimble, wholesome and cornfed professional football player). The comedian has faced somewhat vague allegations of what amounts to being a dickhead and occasional creep on Twitch. A backlash followed news of his relationship with Doja, with many of her fans voicing displeasure, disappointment, hurt, or, in some cases, rage over her questionable choice in partner. Of the many issues the Ebro interview addresses, the notable absence is J.Cyrus. In fact, the third rail has been conspicuously absent from the “news” since late summer.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Taylor Swift was involved in a similar controversy earlier in the year, as she rekindled a relationship with The 1975 lead singer and generally controversial figure Matty Healy. Swift’s fans responded with the sort of concern you might have if you were a young child and your mother started dating Matty Healy. There was an open letter, in which her decision to date a person who made off-color jokes on a podcast was equated to an implicit endorsement of hate that “targets and hurts people from the Jewish, Black, Chinese, Inuit, LBGTQ+ communities, as well as women.” Within a month, the once reportedly serious relationship was over. I am woefully unqualified to read the tea leaves of celebrity gossip trades in an attempt to discern what was real—in what quickly went from early reports of a potentially serious partner she “really likes” to “not really compatible” over the span of a few weeks—but through Swift’s willingness to engage in the critique, going so far as to publicly apologize to a target of Healy’s stupidity, Ice Spice, and throw her on the “Karma” remix—it’s fair to at least posit that this backlash contributed to the quick and tidy dissolution of the relationship.
"I’m way too fucking famous, 100%, and I’m doing what I can to slowly but surely separate myself from this narrative."
It makes for a fascinating contrast with Doja Cat, an artist whose career has been as chaotic and tumultuous as Swift’s has been expertly managed and scripted. The formerly extremely online 27-year-old has been in an Internet spin cycle of adoration and cancellation for as long as she’s been famous. There was a requisite old tweets scandal as she began to blow up, with several uses of the “F word” in her archives, which she alternately laughed off and took seriously. There was an old song that, depending on your interpretation, made light of police brutality. There were allegations of her participation in Tinychat rooms doing race-related kinky shit with incels and white supremacists. Each of these controversies were not dealt with, then kind of dealt with, and then both artist and fan seemingly agreed to move past it, with neither party quite happy with the resolution.
But the J. Cyrus scandal appeared to be a bridge too far, with Doja exhausted by having her childhood issues with identity, her sexual proclivities, and now her choice in partner held up, inspected, and evaluated by the fans she has voiced both love for and resentment of. On the flip side, her fans grew tired of her questionable choices and shitty responses to their concern. As the criticism of her relationship blew up, in what felt like reactionary exasperation, Doja blocked and insulted critics and rejected the very idea of “Kittenz” as a body politic on Threads. It’s the self-appointed name of her fan base, mirroring the devout and powerful online armies that have risen up around divas like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift. This time, the provocation seemed to work. Overnight, she lost 300,000 followers across platforms. Doja more or less copped out when pressed by Ebro on the subject. Of what she called the “I hate my fans” misquote: “People who get it, get it... I don’t need to explain my sense of humor, or explain comedy to anyone. If people don’t see the joke then they don’t see the joke.” Which of course, was Doja belatedly acknowledging and explaining the joke.
"I wish she could understand that people have the right to be upset about it.”
An 18-year-old Doja Cat fan from Los Angeles who wished to be identified by their Twitter handle, “UWT,” wrote to Complex via a message on Twitter, “I understand it in some ways cause that whole thing is about her private love life, she always hated when her fans talked about that…. she received a lot of hatred the past 3 years, so I feel she thought ‘Yeah people are mad at me again, it'll pass.’ But I wish she could understand that people have the right to be upset about it.”
To better understand why J.Cyrus had become such a lightning rod, I spoke to Twitter user Emma Incontro, an early twentysomething from Nebraska who was “neutral” on Doja prior to this year, a casual fan at best, but wasn’t neutral on J.Cyrus. Emma has personal stakes, as she was in community with the comedian as a Twitch streamer, and said she and friends both witnessed and were hurt by what she describes as “cheating, lying, manipulation, and grooming” in private messages. For Emma, the issue is less with Doja Cat than the “platform” she is providing Cyrus, who, with his increased visibility in a public relationship with an artist much more famous than he is, can be a threat to damaging more people, and could continue to trigger his victims. Emma can’t help but find Doja complicit in this when she says, “I think with a lot of celebrity relationships, it's none of my business. But I feel like for this one, for me and a lot of people I know, it felt more personal because it was someone who had hurt us directly in the past. We know what he does, what his history has been in terms of behavior. So she’s basically giving him a new, larger platform to do harm.”
Even amongst the supporters that stayed loyal to Doja, there are lingering issues and concerns. I spoke to Jerry, a 21-year-old fan from Houston who runs a stan account called “Doja’s Puto.” When asked about Cyrus, he rationalized: “Well, I'm not delusional, right? Obviously he's done things that I don't approve of, and I would just have to trust her judgment of people. Maybe there's something she knows that we don't know. But from my perspective, no. I would definitely prefer to see her with somebody else. I just think she deserves better.”
"I would definitely prefer to see her with somebody else. I just think she deserves better.”
While “Stevie,” a 23-year-old from Detroit who has grown up with Doja’s music, says, “It's very disappointing that she is in a relationship with him or even entertaining that for the simple fact that a lot of her fans are victims of grooming, and they use her as an outlet to get away from that. It is very disheartening and just very heartbreaking in a sense. But we can't change who she loves; we can't change who she dates, even if we want to.” Both Jerry and Stevie hope that, in the future, Doja will make better decisions. They’re doing what’s become the now near mandatory emotional labor of separating art from artist, but as Stevie says, even that can be difficult when you have this degree of access to the artist’s personal life, as she’s confronted by on the songs from Scarlet that appear to be about Cyrus. “As we all know, some of the love songs are about him. A lot of people that are casual fans wouldn't know that, but if you are a fan of her, you would know it. Even though the songs are great, in the back of my mind I was like, wow, it's about this asshole.”
Fan service is an increasingly murky proposition for celebrities. In Swift, we see the incredible rewards an artist can reap from slavishly, and brilliantly catering to your base. Her Eras Tour, the culmination of this decades-long work, could wind up grossing $2.2 billion, which would make it the highest-grossing tour ever, one that actually impacted local economies, and has added an estimated $200 million to Taylor’s net worth. It has made her a billionaire. This is due to a savvy fan base with a bizarre and previously unthinkably sophisticated investment in their favorite artist’s music charting, as they’ve celebrated each re-recorded release of old albums Taylor finally owns the masters of, as if they’ve never heard them before, and campaigned amongst their online community to pump streaming numbers. When you consider it in those terms, with those stakes, how much is a fling with a British shithead really worth?
In her interview, Doja describes the allure of becoming rich and famous, then belatedly understanding the cost of that level of fame was too high for her personally, which is a completely human and relatable sentiment, and appears to be a carousel she is actively attempting to get off, trading immense financial gain for peace of mind. Doja’s resistance doesn’t appear to be against the critique that her boyfriend is a creep or has done creepy shit; she refuses to publicly engage on the level where she’d have to confront that question. It’s a rejection of the Faustian bargain of breathless online celebrity fan culture, against the rigorous purity test each celebrity is held to by their fan base, which she sees as a losing proposition anyways, stating, “I don’t need to explain myself. I don’t need to prove myself to these people who are just going to project, no matter what I say. There are people who are incredibly dogmatic. It doesn’t matter what the fuck you do, what you say; they’re always gonna stand by ‘That person is evil.’”
"Even though the songs are great, in the back of my mind I was like, wow, it's about this asshole.”
Doja has been reluctant to engage with her fan base in an open and generous manner, which of course is her right. She doesn’t want to pander and rightly fears the illusion of good faith exchange with a large, faceless, online hoard of millions. She doesn’t follow her friends online to prevent the sort of manic speculation market surrounding celebrity social media traffic cops. She explains, “I’ve been anxious and I’ve been depressed and I have body dysmorphia. I don’t like talking about that stuff because I don’t need to. Seeing the responses to that is not something I can handle. I’m a snowflake. I’m sensitive… I have a big fear of performativeness.” She’s intensely self-aware, which counterintuitively isn’t a great quality to have as a celebrity.
Doja Cat was probably never going to become a billionaire, and now that’s a certainty, but her refusal to engage with her fans, to placate their expectations of her and her rejection of the carceral parasocial relationship between artist and fan, and of the idea that an interpersonal romantic relationship is now a “platform,” can be read as what she considers self-care (arguably coming at the expense of innocent bystanders). We’ve started to see this railing against the online status quo from “free-thinker” types like Dave Chappelle and Killer Mike when it comes to politics or speech. This is something different: an artist telling her fans to stay the fuck out of her bedroom.
Doja saved her most interesting responses for Scarlet, her new dynamic, provocative, predominantly rap album, which is about as perfect and accomplished as any pop album I’ve heard all year. It’s an album directly confronting celebrity and the relationship with the public that puts her in league with Britney, Gaga, Janet, Beyoncé, Prince, Madonna, and, yes, Taylor, in tangling with her fame and mining her life for material. Much like Kendrick Lamar’s statement to his public on his bold therapy session Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, Doja is putting up boundaries, telling her fans not to embrace an idea of her and the contract of conduct that it comes with, but rather accept her for the person she is, or, even better, don’t think of her beyond her music at all.
It’s a dicey proposition. Scarlet made half the first week sales of her last album, Planet Her, in 2021 (the interview with Ebro feels very much like a latent admission of fucking up and attempting to apply a tourniquet to the album’s semi-flop). It’s impossible to draw a direct correlation from her anti-pop campaign in July to the success or lack thereof of Scarlet (also worth mentioning as possible deterrents: her return to her rap roots and the satanic imagery around the album’s release), but it’s equally impossible to dismiss it as a factor. Meanwhile, Taylor’s newly released The Eras Tour concert film is on track to become the top-grossing concert film ever, in its opening weekend. If you’re measuring “success” in streams and dollars, Taylor has no peer this side of Beyoncé. Doja, at least in the context of this rollout, would serve as a cautionary tale, a how-to guide if your goal is pissing off your fans and fucking up your bag.
"I don’t need to explain myself. I don’t need to prove myself to these people who are just going to project, no matter what I say."
The lines we draw in the sand allowing us to maintain a distance between an artist and their art continue to be an inexact science, but our expectations for the artists we worship continue to grow more distinct and all-encompassing. The case of Doja and Taylor suggests a troubling Orwellian trajectory of modern celebrity. Taylor’s solution, to simply dump an unpopular potential partner because your fans don’t approve, seems like an act of succumbing to a pressure no person should be subjected to in their personal life. Doja’s solution is to double down (last month, she was at it again, posting a since-deleted picture of herself wearing a shirt featuring Sam Hyde, an alt-right comic who has literal Nazi ties. Doja waived it away with Ebro: “People see me wearing a t-shirt of someone I thought was funny and think it’s an attack. It’s not an attack. It doesn’t affect the world. I’m more [of] funny guy in t-shirt. Wore it that day." She's also alienated and hurt supporters, refusing to engage with anyone taking issue with the potentially problematic partner she is seen as “endorsing” with her continued love and support. All in all, it seems unsustainable and unrealistic when it comes to continuing to have a viable career.
Jerry says, “I still stan her for the music. It's for the art. Now, of course, there's nuance to it. If she does something completely evil, then, yeah, at some point, I'm going to have to be like, OK, maybe I shouldn't be supporting her. But she lashes out at her fans, and then tells us she loves us. So it's a love-hate thing with her.”
At one point, in my conversation with Emma, I asked her what exactly she wanted from celebrities and artists in their personal lives, and what she thought she deserved in exchange for her fandom and support. She said, “Celebrities owe very little to people regarding their personal lives, especially in their relationships.” Then, she proceeded to tell me what she felt Doja Cat owed her.