In 2019, attention on social media is a form of currency. The people with the most followers, the most likes, and the most retweets can access a tier of visibility not available to most. That’s both a blessing and a curse, especially for artists who rely on going viral to promote themselves and their music.
In mid-August 2018, Doja Cat crept on our timelines like a thief in the night and dropped an unexpected banger, “Mooo!” The song, with its irresistibly repeatable lyrics (“Bitch, I’m a cow”) and part sexy, part goofy accompanying video, was instantly memeable, which is all you need to pop off right now.
Less than two weeks later (still August), when the virality of “Mooo!” was starting to fade, Doja showed up in headlines again, but not in a good way. Someone sifted through her old tweets and found instances where she used offensive language; in this case, homophobic slurs. But instead of apologizing, Doja doubled down in self-defense. “I called a couple of people f****ts when I was in high school in 2015 does this mean I don’t deserve support?” she tweeted. “I’ve said f****t roughly 15 thousand times in my life. Does saying f****t mean you hate gay people? Do I hate gay people? I don’t think I hate gay people. Gay is ok.” It wasn’t long before people, including new fans like actress Debra Messing, gathered her together in a barrage of disapproving tweets.
Doja Cat was lifted up and carried out of the paint, all within a span of two weeks. Her situation illustrates the trickiest parts of going viral: She got caught up in a sudden rise in fame, and instead of procuring and securing the bag, she became defensive and made moves that were ill-thought-out and put a target on her back, leading others to tear her down from her digital pedestal. As fast as someone can catch their big break from viral success, they can be pared down to size.
Social media has been around long enough that we’re now able to see the ripple effects of virality. It was once a thing to simply go viral and let your 15 seconds in the spotlight become your defining moment. Now, artists are figuring out different ways to not only move past that moment that has stuck in the internet’s conscience, but also outlive it.
Unlike Doja Cat, who had already been in the game as a legitimate R&B artist for years, Atlanta rapper/singer Silentó did the opposite and went viral very early on in his career. Silentó had two underground songs out before releasing his inescapable 2015 “debut” single, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song took its name from two of the most viral dances of the moment, and its kid-friendly nature translated to a wide audience.
Silentó says it was always his intention to go viral. “I wanted to make something that would never ever leave my life,” he explains. “Something I can always benefit from for the rest of my life—that's why I made the song. [‘Watch Me’] was so big, and I worked 6 months on it to make sure it would never end.”
Going viral wasn’t just Silentó’s goal as a musician, it was a part of his daily life. “I was already viral as a person in general,” he says. “I've had followers since I was 12. On Facebook, I used to get thousands of likes just by writing quotes that connect to people, smiling in the picture, dressing with fashion.”
Silentó is now four years deep into his career, and he’s only 20 years old. Even so, he’s hyper-aware of the different ways people can, and do, acquire internet fame. “Some people can put things in place to go viral, or you can organically go viral by yourself,” he says. “You never know how people go viral. You might not ever get the real sensation from a person, or actually know if they did it organically themselves or if there was funding involved. Nowadays, that's what it is—but I never started like that.”
"When you're the first at something—where it's not understood—then you are the sacrifice." - Trinidad James
Doja Cat’s ability to glo off so quickly can be attributed to a few factors: She had luck on her side; she didn’t depend on an industry machine to push her; and most importantly, she had complete projects already available on streaming services that she could direct her new fans toward. In other words, she had a plan to capitalize on her 15 minutes of fame.
Even though she had all the right pieces in place, she wasn't able to keep the viral momentum going—which shows just how difficult it is to capitalize on a moment like that. In an interview two months after Doja’s “Mooo!” hit the ‘net, comedian, illustrator, and consistently viral tweeter Zack Fox looked back at how swiftly times have changed. “As quickly as ‘Mooo!’ came, that shit went,” he said. “We’re talking about something that did how many views on Youtube? [...] You couldn’t even pay somebody to be talking about that song on Twitter right now.”
Like Silentó, Trinidad James went viral shortly after releasing his debut song, “All Gold Everything,” but the song itself didn’t catch on when it was released without visuals. According to James, that was par for the course for newcomers. “When I dropped it at first, I didn't know anybody or anything,” he said. “I don't come from the music world: I come from the regular world and the street world. It's just like I'm putting a song out on SoundCloud, you know? So it probably had like 50 listens in a month. Nothing at all.”
James knew something had to be done to push the song further, so he dropped the video for “All Gold Everything.” With gaudy jewelry, a very real Atlanta backdrop, and a clear look at exactly who popped a Molly and started sweating, it rocked [Black] Twitter in the early stages of trending topics and hashtags. The video now sits at a combined 47 million views (between two identical videos uploaded to Trindad’s Vevo page). According to James, the meme-worthy visuals caught the eye of Def Jam, catapulted the song to gold-certification RIAA status, and led to it being interpolated in the 2014 monster single, “Uptown Funk,” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.
"If you’re doing something to go viral, make sure there’s a plan after that. Let the music speak for itself after you do this big plan." - Zack Fox
James is still making music, but he understands the improbability of lightning striking twice in the same spot. “It's not the easiest,” he says about moving past “Gold.” “It's a process. Especially since I was the first: It's almost like a sacrifice. When you're the first at something—where it's not understood—then you are the sacrifice. It's not nothing to, per se, get your panties in a bunch about. But you do need to figure out what you want to do, because you will always know [the feeling] everybody else wants.”
Texas rapper Tisakorean has a story unlike both Trinidad and Silentó, but like Doja, he had released a project (2017’s Stupid Dumb Geek) before coming across a viral hit. As evidenced by the brevity of the 12-track, 18-minute tape, Tisa was experimenting and just trying to land on a sound that was catchy enough to dance to.
While their timelines differ, Tisakorean moved similarly to Silentó by focusing on the physical aspect of music. Where Silentó focused on attaching himself to the most popular dances of the time, Tisa says he created a song (“Dip”) first, and a friend, Young Deji, “swagged that dance,” which became known as the Woah. (The exact origin of the Dallas dance is still in dispute, but it is believed to have been invented by recent Def Jam signee, 10k.Caash.) Travis Scott, Drake, and Odell Beckham, Jr. have all been spotted hitting the Woah in recent months, while Tisa’s official and unofficial “Dip” videos each hover around 1 million views.
Tisakorean says he’s not worried about his fans, old or new, getting stuck on “Dip.”
“I feel like I'm a creator,” he says. “I can create a book today and I would feel as strong as I did for ‘Dip’ as for my book. I always look at my stuff like: Because I created ‘Dip,’ I can create something else. I got the same confidence of what I got for ‘Dip,’ as I do for what I got next.” (For what it’s worth, Tisakorean has gone viral, again, for simply being himself.)
For anyone looking to be the next viral star, Zack Fox has a warning. “A lot of these rappers are broke,” he says. “If you’re doing something to go viral, make sure there’s a plan after that. Let the music speak for itself after you do this big plan, because imagine if Doja Cat didn’t have a whole catalog of music? If she didn’t have all of that and she just made ‘Mooo!’ then you’re kind of just sitting there in the water with this song that keeps growing bigger than you are.”
While Fox thinks any aspiring viral star should temper their long-term expectations (“People are going to forget about you”), he does believe in taking advantage of what’s in front of you: “I think the internet is there to be manipulated.”
Both James and Silentó say they wouldn’t change a thing about how their lives have panned out since their viral moments. “I look at ‘All Gold Everything’ as one of those key steps in Atlanta legacy, music-wise, that helped really get us to where we at right now,” Trinidad says. Silentó, meanwhile, is literally looking at the bigger picture. “I can go anywhere around the world and they know my song,” he says. “Every day, I get 2 million views, so I'm still going viral. Every child, every baby is gonna listen to my song.”