The mainstream pop scene, until recently, has been severely lacking in artistry and captivating aesthetics.
I’m not arguing that there’s been no aesthetically focused artistry in the past few years — that would be ridiculous. Stating that would ignore Beyoncé’s 2016 project, “Lemonade,” a genre-hopping album documenting the artist’s emotional reckoning with cheating and moving forward. Every single track was accompanied by a music video, a harrowing and expensive feat only accomplishable by an artist with a budget as large as Beyoncé’s.
Discounting the existence of modern musical aesthetic would also disregard artists like Lana Del Rey, a singer-songwriter who has been able to launch entire careers off of “manufactured melancholy.” Del Rey has successfully co-opted the “sad girl” uprising of the early 2010s, aestheticizing her pain and failures in a Plath-esque manner.
However, the heavy players who have been associated with the theatrics and aesthetics of music — Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, even Madonna — are either largely inactive or have slipped from the fame they once inhabited. But there are new players to the scene, like Olivia Rodrigo with her debut album, “Sour,” or the rising popularity of K-pop in America.
Enter Doja Cat, an artist that encapsulates the return to aesthetic music.
Born Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, Doja Cat has had an extremely successful past couple of years. Although she has been dropping music since 2014, her career didn’t hit its stride until the release of “Moo,” the 2017 viral meme track that delivered her music into the mainstream. Little did audiences know that this artist who had achieved meme status seemingly early in her career would serve looks and deliver bops over and over and over. Doja Cat has revived the classic art of performance in both her live concerts and her music videos, something so integral to artistry that has been lacking.
Doja Cat’s infectiously snappy lyrics are incidentally perfect for this new age of TikTok, where catchiness is king. The repetitive and palatable nature of pop music makes the genre ripe for dances or memes — often functioning as free advertising — that can propel songs to the top of the charts.
“Say So” was Doja Cat’s first huge mainstream song and owes much of its success and chart approval to the TikTok dance that popularized it, so much so that many of her performances of the smash hit have featured the dance. This was the first time I personally took notice of artists leaning into their TikTok fame and, likewise, the music industry favoring TikTok for promotion and even specifically tailoring music for the app.
On to Doja Cat’s live performances. As dubbed by a YouTube creator named water, Doja Cat is the next best performer. In their video, water highlights Doja Cat’s most recent performances, including but not limited to the Grammys and the MTV VMAs. Tight choreography and aesthetically appealing concepts are her bread and butter.
For example, Doja Cat’s recent performance of “Kiss Me More” at the Billboard Music Awards centers her in a black and white Thierry Mugler-inspired body suit on a bright set featuring the planets. Her backup dancers, wearing planets on their heads in reference to Doja Cat’s newest album, “Planet Her,” orbit around the artist. Their vivid blue and orange outfits directly juxtapose Doja Cat’s muted black and white getup, drawing a stark contrast between the performer and her dancers, the background and the foreground.
“Planet Her” features two extraterrestrial-themed music videos: “Kiss Me More” and “Need to Know.” These music videos are classic Doja Cat: They feature visceral imagery, all tied together with an otherworldly theme. “Kiss Me More,” featuring vocals by R&B artist SZA, highlights Italian Korean actor Alex Landi, known for his role as Dr. Nico Kim on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Landi plays an astronaut who crashes on a planet and is visited by two alien goddesses played by Doja Cat and SZA.
Landi serves as the main character of the music video, with Doja Cat and SZA as the ethereal objects of desire. Again, this video is quintessentially Doja Cat — a catchy summer hit with punchy, electric, captivating visuals that connect to a larger universe. The color scheme of “Kiss Me More” is bright and fun and definitively otherworldly, complete with pink clouds and off-pink sand.
Doja Cat deepens her dive into the alien aesthetic in her music video for “Need to Know.” In this video, Doja Cat fully commits to cultivating an alien vibe by painting herself green, wearing NASA-inspired T-shirts and riding to an intergalactic club in a spaceship. As opposed to “Kiss Me More,” this video has a more definite focus on Doja Cat herself, with the plot centered on her hookup with a blue-haired man in the back of the space club.
But why does all this matter? How can being aesthetically attuned improve an artist’s standing?
As an artist, your job is to tell a story, to entertain the masses. Your image becomes your existence; you give up your humanity in favor of becoming an icon — an idea, to put it dramatically. In a scene as superficial and fast-paced as the music industry, aesthetics and presentation can make or break an artist’s popularity and career. Think of Michael Jackson’s red suit in “Thriller” or Beyoncé’s black leotard in “Single Ladies” — if you can create even one flashpoint outfit or music video or song that sticks in the mind of the general public or culture at large, you’re golden.
Through her commitment to aesthetics and presentation, Doja Cat is carving herself into public perception. Although she hasn’t quite hit that “Thriller” status yet, her demonstrated consistency with both catchy hits and aesthetically pleasing music videos foreshadows her continued relevance and longevity.