Doja Cat on Remaking an Iconic ‘Grease’ Song for Pepsi Ad, and How She’ll Bring Both Beauty and ‘Cringe’ to VMAs

Like seemingly most of the rest of the planet, Doja Cat has always had an affection for the world of the Pink Ladies — that is, “Grease.” So it wasn’t as huge a stretch as it might seem for the singer who hit it big with “Hot Pink” to take on the role of Sandy and sing “You’re the One That I Want” for a Pepsi commercial that has its broadcast premiere during Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, a show she also happens to be hosting.

Asked if she grew up on “Grease,” she says, “I’m shocked that anybody hasn’t. I met someone once that didn’t know about ‘Grease.’ I was really, really shocked. It’s the most iconic film in the world. And my favorite was Bad Sandy. I feel like that’s so cliche, because everybody loves Bad Sandy., but that’s the best Sandy, in my opinion.” (A glance at the lyrics for recent hits like “Kiss Me More” might indicate that it was a foregone conclusion that Doja Cat wouldn’t favor the “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” Sandy.)

Doja Cat told Variety about cutting her remake of the film’s climactic song as well as retrofitting the costume design for the 1-minute-45-second spot, which has premiered already on YouTube in advance of its VMAs broadcast bow. It’s for a new Pepsi brand called Soda Shop, so the capping scene of the commercial inevitably takes place in such a shop, leaving the Rydell High bleachers behind. There are a lot of nods to director Randall Kleiser’s film, although the directive was not to follow the movie into exact period-specificity.

“With Bad Sandy, we just went full crazy mode,” she says. “We were like, ‘Hey man, put some spikes on this, get some black vinyl. We want it to be opulent and shiny and dark and intimidating.’ What I really loved about the original Bad Sandy (as played by Olivia Newton-John) is that she had a very simple look, and I feel like back then it was better to be more minimal. But for modern times, we took like a very dramatic take on Bad Sandy, and I think we killed it. I feel like it’s like a heavy metal Sandy, if she was into like death metal.”

She’ll admit there was a disagreement over how period to go with the more innocent look that starts off the commercial. “We spent a lot of time on outfits for a good Sandy,” Doja Cat says. “It turned into an argument in that I wanted there to be a knit sweater involved, and that (discussion over the) knit sweater got heated, and only because we didn’t want it to be so on the nose of the ‘50s. Other than that, I think we absolutely 100% nailed it,” she says, indicating she was OK with the blue dress that made the final costuming cut. “Good Sandy was beautiful, a very cute girl, but not out-of-this-world sexualized. And I think we got that. But I was dying for that knit sweater!” she reiterates with a laugh.

Of her director for the spot, Doja Cat says, “Hannah Lux Davis is fantastic. She really knows how to bring out like the beautiful side of anybody. This needed a very glossy, beautiful, graceful touch to it, and she always brings that, so we really trusted Hannah in that regard.”

For the track itself, Doja Cat collaborated with the producer Y2K, best known for rapper Bbno$’s song “Lalala.” Is there a longer version coming?

“We did not do a full-length version,” she says, regretfully.  “My friend, the producer, is begging me to just finish the whole thing. So I’m kind of down for that. It’s a very good idea to do the whole thing. I think people would really enjoy it. Some people will absolutely hate that I’m trying to recreate an iconic moment. I really hope that I’m not ruining it for anybody. And I probably am; there’s seven billion people on this planet, so not everyone will like it, but most people will.”

Singing “You’re the One That I Want” didn’t necessarily come naturally, even with her having grown up on the 1978 No. 1 single, which was originally a duet between John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John but belongs just to Doja Cat in this rendition.

“This was the most difficult song to do, singing-wise,” she says. “I had a very hard time singing a lot of these parts of the song, and it’s because back then, music was so carefully done and had layers to it. Now it’s like you put a beat and you just loop it and then you sing over it — and a lot of that is still good now, but it’s not like the way it was back then. There’s a lot of chord changes in the song, and it was just beautiful to try to understand and attack it in that way. And I feel like my voice is like…” She pauses for self-assessment. “I will say my voice is okay. Sometimes I have good seeing moments, sometimes I have really bad singing moments. But this was one of those songs where I had to nail it, and I feel like I did. Or I did the very best that I can,” she laughs. “And I feel blessed that Pepsi trusted me to do this song, which is such a hard song to sing.”

On the MTV VMAs Sunday night, Doja Cat will be performing a medley of “Been Like This” and “You Right,” both from her “Planet Her” album, which has fared remarkably well in the marketplace this year. She’s been on a roll of knockout awards-show performances, from her shady look on the Grammys to cavorting with aliens in a corn field on the IHeartRadio Music Awards this summer. Without wanting to spoil too much, she says her performance this weekend will involve very different choreography.

“If I did the same thing every day, I’d lose my mind, and that’s been my whole life,” she says. “I can’t do the same thing every day. I had a really hard time in school (because of that). So that’s the definition of my career. and I wanted to do something that felt completely opposite to the last thing I did. A lot of the things I do are like hip-hop dance. And I haven’t fully embraced my breakdancing, popping side. But for this, I wanted to do contemporary/modern dance. It’s very expressive and beautiful, and visually it’s compelling and just registers really nicely on stage. And I wanted to go for a very ethereal and soft but intense kind of presentation. So it’s been really fun learning that. And my back, my neck, my shoulders, and my legs are gone after trying to learn this. But it feels very natural, and I’m very excited for how it will look in the end.”

Is there anything or anyone to whom she’d correlate the style she’s going for with Sunday night’s dance? “Absolutely. One artist that I look up to the most is FKA Twigs. She is peak perfection when it comes to performing on stage. And I think she’s very into that contemporary dance world. With that kind of ethereal-ness that she has, I feel like she is like the epitome of beauty. And I saw that if she’s taking parts from that (style of choreography)… it felt like it was only her, but we need more people exposing this beautiful form of contemporary/modern dance. And so I had her in mind when I wanted to create something beautiful in that sense.”

With choreography to learn, does she even have time to get nervous about the seemingly less back-breaking work of hosting the VMAs?

“The only thing I’d be nervous about is people telling me to do anything that I don’t want to do. That’s kind of it,” she laughs. “The thing is, when I talk, I ramble, and I go on for a little too long, and that’s just a character trait that I have. I hope I don’t do that that night. But I think it’s going to be very fun, and I’m just going to do what I do, which is be cringe. That’s basically it. God help us all.”

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