Home Features John Duff On Why ‘Iconic’ is Overused, Paula Abdul Calling Him ‘Strange’

John Duff On Why ‘Iconic’ is Overused, Paula Abdul Calling Him ‘Strange’

John Duff (THEGING3RBEARDMEN/ Steven Trumon Gray and Chad Wagner)

In his 2018 debut music video Girly,singer-songwriter-director John Duff is seen imitating some of musics biggest pop icons, replicating the shot-by-shot choreography of Madonnas Hung Upvideo and Mariah Carey’s gesticulations and eyelash-batting in Heartbreaker.It was impressive, like Duff had been practicing his whole life. And, well, basically he had been. In the case of Britney Spears’ “Stronger,hed been mirroring Spearschoreo since grade-school summer camp. 

For the hip-pop mid-tempo Rich,his follow-up to Girlyreleased in September, the 30-year-old performer created a satirical and celebratory commentary on pop cultures love-hate obsession with the rich and famous, in part by impersonating Kim Kardashians internet-breaking, butt-exposed cover shoot. Duff, who graduated with a B.F.A. in musical theater from Syracuse University, also currently stars in Cubby, his film debut that its director, Michael Blane, describes as a story about three different generations of men looking for acceptance and love.” 

When I connected with Duff recently, he had just gotten acrylic nails and was feeling very Marilyn Monroe-Mariah Carey, like helpless, like I cant pick things up with this hand.He clanked his nails on a table for me to hear over the phone while we talked about making a place for himself in the music industry after believing there wasnt one for him, experiencing homophobia from Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on The X Factor, and being understood. 

How did you end up here? Is this what little John Duff envisioned for himself? 

I started as a talent show kid because there arent really outlets for an artist when youre in third grade, but I think my idea was to always be a performer. Growing up in a suburb of Baltimore, there werent many opportunities to really be on a stage, so I did get into public speaking, and musical theater, and those became my main outlets. Then, of course, I went to college for musical theater, graduated, did shows in New York for years and then found my way to Los Angeles to write music. The rest just made sense to me. I like the big imagery of the old days, and people who really were doing something, not just … well, I dont know what the other people are doing, honestly. (Laughs.)

Who are the other people?

(Laughs.) Just, you know, all the other artists that Ive kind of been a little bewildered by. For the generation that uses the word iconicmore than anything, I think we have some of the least iconic imagery thats existed in pop music in the last couple of years.

Growing up, you were a Janet, Madonna and Mariah fan, and so you do seem to have an appreciation for an era when real artistry flourished.

Well, its not just real artistry, its also budget that they put into everything. My sisters are 43 and 45, so I had them in high school driving me around when I was in first grade, and second grade. And my sister had (Mariah Careys) FantasyCD single and I stole it from her. 

Did you start imitating Mariah and other pop icons in your youth? 

Yeah. I spent most of my time in my basement, and I had Janet Jacksons video collections and Michael Jacksons HIStory video collection, and I had Mariahs live Thanksgiving special and I was an American Idol kid, so I had all these things on tape and I would just watch and watch and imitate. When it came to start performing in talent shows, I think I wanted to do Britney Spears just because I could really dance then, but my parents were very insistent that I stick to the classics, so I did Elvis and Frank Sinatra. Michael Jackson was the first time I was allowed to bend a little. I mean, I didnt have friends until junior year of high school that was the first time I had any semblance of a social life so it was just me, by myself. So I know the words to every song. Im like a savant. 

In 2018, you posted a video of you singing a song you wrote called Thoughts and Prayersto YouTube, and I think I was surprised to find out that you can actually sing, only because I dont expect much from gay Instagram.

Oh yeah. I kind of had fun with that when Girlywas just coming out by letting people think I was going to do something stupid and then once it came out I think a lot of people wrote it off as a fluke, which is like, go off. You can totally do that. Because I know what I am. With Rich,wed done the video a while back and the song is like god, my managers gonna kill me for saying all of this, but it was never my favorite song, but the imagery made such sense to me. So it was sort of supposed to follow up Girlyright away, but we were having some issues with the original producers of the song because not everyone in Hollywood is nice. I dont know if you knew that?

So Ive heard. 

(Laughs.) Theyre not all in it for the art of it, thats for damn sure. And so we had a lot of issues, and it took some time, but I ended up getting to work with Alex Delicata, whos a great producer and has created songs that are some of my favorite songs, and he really turned that one around. So in terms of production, I love it. Very happy. But Im really happy for everything thats to come. 

Whats to come? Is there a full album on the way?

At this point I would say that I can genuinely look at my playlist of songs that Ive created and we have about 30 that I think are good enough to stand in their respective realm. Were trying to hone in on what exactly the introductory sound is, and Girlyand Richhave kind of set that up. But I think the next moves get a little more specific in terms of who I am and what my inspirations are and what I want to be. 

Are you still figuring that out? And as a pop artist, is authenticity important to you?

Well, thats the thing: Im a very, very layered human being like everybody else is. I guess I am actually a very deep-feeling and -thinking person, so thats kind of a hard thing to cover off the bat. I think Im being very authentic to my ideas, my wit and parts of myself in terms of the next couple of things were putting out, and there is sincerity there. But itll be a minute before I get to really give you some of the depth of my humanity.

Well, it took seven years before we got Mariahs Butterfly album, where she went her deepest musically. 

Sure, yeah, and we know that some of Mariahs really great, serious, deep works were written long before they came out or had been in the works for years, and so Ive got three songs on here that Im like, Oh my god, these are game-changer.” Theyre so important, but theyre not for right now. It doesnt make sense to lead with them. And my parents really dont understand that. Because they heard all of my music and theyre like, What about this one?Theres this ballad that they just its about death and Im like, How the hell am I gonna put out a song about death after Girlyand Rich?Its just not gonna happen.

What does your mom and dad think about the video for Rich

My dad told me this: We like the video.They prefer Girly,though. Richis melodically cocky and hip-hop-y and their generation just doesnt understand that at all. Like, swag doesnt process for them and thats fine. 

Youve expressed some frustration with the industry. Is it hard to convince these industry heads which songs you think should be out at this current moment in time?

Absolutely. I say it all the time and we know this is common talk around town: Nobody knows what is going to work now. Now, 10 years ago? Sure, they knew. Twenty years ago? They definitely knew. But no one couldve ever predicted (Lil Nas Xs) Old Town Roadwouldve been the biggest hit of all time. So theres a lot of people whose literal job it is to try to predict whats gonna happen.

Does being an out gay artist add to the challenge?

Its really weird. Its weird because we just all get compared to each other. Were looking to get on the same public interviews and the same whatever and thats probably how you end up getting compared is the same people are promoting you. So being an out gay artist, I dont personally think it helps or hurts me. I dont know about everybody else. And I dont even know what I mean by that (laughs). I can only speak for myself, I guess, is what I mean.

Have you ever experienced any kind of homophobia in the industry?

Absolutely. Look, in 2011, I was on The X Factor, Simon Cowells show. And of course this was not aired on television, but within three seconds of being on stage he asked if I wouldve preferred to have been born into a females body. This was 2011, so there was no representation. I think Sam Smith had just come out with a single, and I dont think he was gay. It was super hard for me to go on a show thats run by the same people who are selling those records and have no comment on my talent whatsoever. Paula Abdul called me strange.What was strange about me? That I was gay. 

Being a Paula fan, this seems like something that mustve been difficult for you to hear. 

Especially standing on stage in front of an audience of 4,000 with your family watching. Everything about it was mortifying.

Ive read that you were told that you would fare better in this industry if you played up your masculinity. At what point did that happen?

We shot this music video thats about to come out, and Im not playing a girl in it but I’m very androgynously behaved. I dont know, its just the mannerisms I wanna give. Its a little diva energy. And we went back and added another scene to play up masculine whatever because I think the song is the most mainstream Ive done, but is it just so we can make it easier for other people to digest? Sure. Sometimes its like, Oh, youre handsome so you should be doing it this way.Ive been told by other people, I see you being like a Sam Smith,and its funny because they bring up a gay person. Well, Sam Smith is already doing Sam Smith. 

There are also a lot of people who say I shouldnt be playing up my gayness in my videos. I view it like drag, sort of. Its just who I am when Im performing. Not that theres not elements of it in my life. Like, Im standing next to a giant Mariah Carey portrait in my living room; Im not pretending that Im a jock when Im off the field. Im the one walking around with acrylics. Had em for two weeks. So all the other girls using their press-ons can have fun, but, you know, Im committing to this. 

Also, we cant be more complex than just one thing now?

What it is, and Ive talked to my therapist about this: Theres this desperation currently to find identity within separation rather than within what makes us similar. People are desperately clinging to anything that keeps them misunderstood, and for me, I would be happy to be understood. Im happy for people to see me and say, Yes, I relate to that.For me, its been the most rewarding part of being who I am. And some days I wanna put on a pink shirt. That I wanna do the Mariah Carey Heartbreakervideo doesnt mean anything more than I wanna do the Mariah Carey Heartbreakervideo. 

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