Jason Derulo has been having a good lockdown. “I find everything better in the pandemic, everything is good now!” the American multimedia pop superstar admits in a gust of laughter. “I haven’t had so much fun in a long time!”
Derulo is talking to me via Zoom from a hi-tech room full of video monitors at his luxuriously appointed mansion in Los Angeles. It is a home very familiar to his 31 million followers on social media app TikTok, where they can watch short goofy clips of Derulo dancing, cooking, singing, joking, pratfalling and getting up to all kinds of silliness in his vast modern kitchen, his luxurious living room, or around the 75-foot outdoor swimming pool that features a bridge leading to a pergola with built in bar.
“I’ve been building this house for about four years now and when I just got to the final stages of being almost done, the pandemic hit and I’m able to enjoy my place!” says Derulo with unabashed delight. He is the first musician I have spoken to since Covid19 struck who is prepared to admit that he doesn’t miss the rigours of touring. “I don’t miss the travelling, that’s for sure. It’s incredible. Last year, I only spent 60 days at home. To be here for months at a time, man, I’ve been so happy.”
Derulo is wearing a vest that shows off his muscular physique, and sports diamond ear studs and several gold chains. His beard is neatly trimmed, his smile is wide and he exudes upbeat American showbiz energy to a frankly cheesy extent. “I’m a very positive person,” he agrees wholeheartedly. “The negative things that happen in my life, I don’t want to put too much weight on.”
Indeed, he struggles to think of a negative thing to illustrate this remark. The best he can come up with is “say if I’m having a bad day ‘cos I’ve had an argument with my mom, I just take every negative thing with a grain of salt, and I’m like, OK, cool, keep going, yeah!”
To be fair, Derulo has plenty to be pleased with right now. Born Jason Desrouleaux in Florida in 1989 to Haitian parents, he has been active as a songwriter, producer and singer since 2009. He was a star by the age of 20, specialising in brash and melodious R’n’B pop with a tone of PG-rated sexiness, erring just on the family friendly side of raunchy and delivered with a high, fluid vocal style that resembles a heavily digitally processed version of his childhood hero Michael Jackson.
His numbers (as they say in the modern music business) are impressive: over 190 million record and download sales, six billion streams, and five number one singles here in the UK, where he seems especially popular. He has collaborated with Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj and British girl group Little Mix. At 30 years old, he was considered a bit of an uncool entertainment all rounder, treated as a figure of fun for his silly dance routines and pheromonal performance as vain feline Rum Tum Tugger in box office disaster Cats.
Then he started using Chinese-owned video sharing app TikTok to create comedic knockabout content, and his popularity skyrocketed – bringing him a new, young audience. TikTok specialises in short three to 15 second videos, and its biggest stars tend not to be traditional celebrities but young dancers, comedians, actors and filmmakers creating specialist content. Derulo is the second most popular established celebrity on the platform, close behind his movie star friend Will Smith.
He notches up around a billion views per month. “I’ve been able to show more of who I am on TikTok,” he says. “I was an arts kid, so I studied all kinds of entertainment my whole life, and this is like a huge stage. You get to see me act a little bit, dance, sing, cook, joke around with my family. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into. It’s a place where anybody can go viral, if you’ve got a good idea. It’s a really positive space. I hope it stays that way.”
Derulo has thrown himself into his new role as “King of TikTok” (his phrase) during the pandemic, churning out sharply edited content at the rate of around six posts a day with a team including photographer David Strib, content creator Max Goodrich and Derulo’s fitness instructor girlfriend Jenna Frumes. A video of Derulo being intercepted by Frumes whilst about to pat her bottom has over 123 million views. “I wake up thinking about TikTok now. It’s a lot like songwriting in terms of ideas being sparked. I get a concept from life but then you have to go into the studio and develop it.”
He works out of a second building at his home, with a state-of-the-art recording studio, photo studio and sound stage. He has astutely parlayed social media success into boosting his musical career, turning a 15-second sound bite TikTok dance craze into a fully fledged pop song, Savage Love, which went to number one in 12 countries, including Britain. “It’s been great to be able to pivot and bring in an income from this,” he notes.
Derulo recently dismissed a story that he earns $75,000 per branded post whilst hinting the sum was actually much higher. “I don’t see it as any different from when people did commercials back in the day, except I can do a lot more volume. Where people used to take all week to shoot one thing, I can shoot like three different brand deals in a day. But I really don’t want my page to become like a commercial, so I try to do it seamlessly, so you barely even realise that its an ad.”
Derulo doesn’t appear to have any qualms about using his popularity to promote sponsored content, although he says “there’s definitely things I won’t do. I turn down deals every day. I wouldn’t do a post that doesn’t fall in line with what I believe in, or doesn’t fit my brand, or if I think its not family friendly. Also, you might have a cool brand, but if it doesn’t lend itself to making good content, then I can’t do it either.”
When I ask where Derulo would draw the line between his private life and public life, he almost seems bemused. “I don’t know that there is a line. Its weird, ‘cos I wasn’t always like this. It just kind of happened with TikTok ‘cos I was having so much fun with it. It wasn’t until I went out into the street that I realised, holy shit, people know everything about me. You know what my room looks like, my girlfriend’s personality, the names of my nieces, my dogs, all of my interests. So now I’m having conversation with people I’ve never met before, we’re talking about all of these personal things.”
Derulo is just young enough to belong to a generation for whom that kind of exposure is normal. “I was talking to Will Smith about that, cos he’s been in the game a very long time, he’s been in the era where people guarded their privacy and now he’s thriving in this world where you share everything. He talked about almost sacrificing his life for people to watch as an educational tool, or for entertainment. I think I’ve done the same thing. It’s kind of like a sacrifice.” Really, what can you say to a man prepared to do pratfalls into his swimming pool for the common good? Thank you for your sacrifice, Jason.
To the question of whether he is ever embarrassed by things he shares, Derulo laughs. “Uhm, yeah! Absolutely. But I think you have to be willing to be embarrassed to do anything great. I’m literally putting myself on the line and letting it all hang out: the good, the bad and the ugly. I have to see it as entertainment first.”
Which seems a good time to bring up Cats, perhaps the most universally panned film of recent years, in which Derulo made his screen debut. “For the longest time, I was trying to figure out what’s the perfect first role? Cats checked all the boxes. You can’t get a more star-studded cast, you don’t get a more respected director than an Oscar winner, and Rum Tum Tugger is a legacy role, a standout character in a classic musical. Even when I saw the trailer, I thought it looked unbelievable. Like, I know some people saw it and they were terrified, but I got chills down my spine! I thought it was gonna change the world.”
He laughs, sheepishly. “It didn’t pan out. With all things that leftfield, it could either be considered genius or bat___ crazy. That’s the risk you take. It taught me a lesson. You can’t wait for the perfect moment, cause that might not be your moment. So you’ve just got to go for gold. That’s how I’ll move forward.”
This is Derulo’s power of positive thinking in action. He talks about using “every waking second at your craft to become the best in the world. Everybody wants the same dream, so how do you separate yourself? You’ve got to put way more hours in than everybody else. That’s basically the secret to success.” When I ask when he came to this realization, he says “I was really young, man. I decided at four years old I was going to be a musician, and I was going to 100 per cent be the best.”
Derulo’s confidence is hard to dent, and he responds combatively to any suggestion his oeuvre of catchy songs about love, sex and dancing might not represent a pinnacle in the art of songwriting. Regarding the apparent narrow scope of his subject matter, he objects “I think you’re wrong. I’m going to go down the list for you of smash hits that I have.” He proceeds to name songs and explain their deeper meanings.
The latest, for example, Take You Dancing, may appear on the surface just to be a ditty about clubbing but really it is comment on the pandemic. “It talks about ‘two steps to the bedroom’, cos we don’t need the dancefloor, you can show me all your best moves within our space.” So, I think we can file that under sex then.
Similarly, I have to stop him during breakdowns of early hits Riding Solo and Marry Me to point out that one is a song about falling out of love, and the other a song about falling in love. “Most singers talk about love, right?” he protests. “I’m not necessarily going to be talking about political things ‘cos I’m a singer. That’s my lane.”
When I raise the prospect of perhaps widening his scope, he retorts “Name me an Elvis song that does that?” To the obvious retort that Elvis wasn’t a songwriter, his comeback is “Name me a Whitney Houston song that does that?” When I point out that Houston wasn’t actually known as a songwriter either, he brushes the whole matter aside. “I can go down the list of a lot of humungous singers that changed the world, that didn’t necessarily talk about other things than love. That’s where it all begins. That’s where it all starts.” He suggests that, before anyone dismiss his oeuvre, “you really have to take a deep dive. I make all kinds of music, honestly!”
Politics, as he admits, is something he steers clear of. “I always try and keep in mind that I have a lot of kids that watch my page. Especially with TikTok, it’s really light and really fun.” When I ask how he feels about President Trump’s threat to ban TikTok in the US, he shrugs it off. “It’s something that’s added value to my life in terms of happiness, and in something to do during the pandemic, so it would be a sad thing. But I have sold two hundred million records. I have the number one record in the world! I don’t need the app, I just love it.”
Derulo comes across as charming, sincere and well-intentioned, if oddly innocent in his blinkered view from inside a celebrity bubble. He genuinely seemed to enjoy our interview. “You made me think a lot!” he declared at the end. And he definitely enjoyed the fact that, in a new normal for showbusiness in a time of pandemic, it was conducted from his sofa via Zoom. “Come on, man! Being able to do amazing interviews like this in the comfort of my own home! I mean, s___! Everything’s better in the pandemic. Why do we need to go back?”
Jason Derulo’s latest single, Take You Dancing, is out now on Atlantic Records