It would easy for Todrick Hall to be bitter. The 31-year-old singer and YouTube star has spent years attempting to expand his musical career beyond his viral Internet fame, with little success. Starting with his brief, ill-fated stint on American Idol in 2009, Hall has experienced a canceled MTV show and a failed audition to play the Scarecrow in NBC's live adaptation of The Wiz. But in a recent conversation with Rolling Stone, Hall revealed that he's anything but discouraged. "Nothing is a bad experience, no matter how horrible it is," he says, "if you can find a way to look at it in a different light."
Fittingly, Hall's new visual album, Straight Outta Oz, transforms his frustrations into art. The project gracefully intertwines the classic tale of The Wizard of Oz and Hall's life story, while openly commenting on gun violence, racism and homophobia. "I didn't want to do it if there wasn't anything that I could add to the story," he says.
Hall's fans were quick to show their support; the hour-long video released on his YouTube channel has already racked up more than 1.5 million views, and the album peaked at Number Two on the iTunes pop chart, just beneath Lemonade, the album that helped inspire it. "I would have never, ever imagined that I would be anywhere near Beyoncé on the charts," Hall says. He's currently on the road with a stage version of the show through August 12th.
He spoke to RS about his relationship with superstar manager Scooter Braun, why gay people love The Wizard of Oz and how he wrote his most personal project yet.
How exactly did YouTube come into the picture for you?
It was completely and purely accidental. I just decided one day that I was going to upload a video with my friends singing a fast-food order at McDonald's, my favorite restaurant [laughs]. We rehearsed it for, like, 30 minutes to an hour, and then went and performed it, and then put it up online. We went to go see Sex in the City 2, and when we came out [of the theater], the video had gone viral.
The moment that it clicked for me that this was, like, a thing that I should keep pursuing was when I walked out on the street, and people were just like, "Are you the McDonald's guy? Are you the YouTube guy?" They were recognizing me more from that than from seeing me on American Idol. So I'd say while I was in a transition and figuring what I was gonna do with my life, I found YouTube, and it ended up becoming my life for the past four and a half years.
In the description of the Straight Outta Oz video, you reveal that this album was born out of a lot of frustrations that you've been dealing with throughout the past year. What exactly has been going on?
I've found myself feeling that I was talking to people and trying to explain to them why Hollywood was homophobic and why Hollywood was racist. And if you're not a gay man or woman in Hollywood, you might not agree that Hollywood is homophobic because the homophobia is not directed towards you and your talent. If you are a Caucasian actor or actress, you might not feel like roles are unbalanced. It bothered me so much to the point that I was losing sleep over it; it was affecting my relationships with other people, and I was becoming a very bitter person. I decided one day that me complaining about it wasn't going to change anything, and if I wanted people to understand my point, then it would be better for me to put that into my art and my music. I could have spent millions of dollars getting the best therapist to help me get over this, and I, for free, wrote a musical that expressed everything that I feel about the industry – the good the bad and the ugly.
I was really struggling with my relationship with my manager [Scooter Braun], because I felt like he wasn't noticing me. And I felt, in some cases, if I was a different type of person entirely, he would look at me with the same amount of talent and say, "Wow, I can do something with him."
What is the relationship with you two like now? Because you did throw him some shade on the album.
Scooter and I have always had a very interesting relationship. But the cool thing about it is that I went to Scooter before I ever did this. I'm not a person who would throw shade at someone without telling them first that I was going to throw shade. I went to Scooter and told him, "I'm gonna make you the villain in the story," because some parts of the story were true. Obviously, it was heightened for the character, but some of it was inspired by actual incidents that I had with Scooter. But Scooter was such a team player and was, like, so down for it and thought it was great and funny. I think it's really cool that we can laugh about the situation, because life is too short to be bitter or angry with someone. Sometimes relationships don't work out. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't work out, and then they do!
You've also been dealing with the loss of your MTV show. What was that process like of finding out that the show got cancelled?
Well, I don't know if I said this, but I never found out that the show got cancelled. I'm not upset with MTV, I had a blast. They gave me a bigger, wider platform to use. I also learned that, like, my best work comes when I don't have any limitations. When I don't have a bunch of people giving opinions on what things should not be a part of my brand. I think every time I've had an opportunity to just run wild and let my imagination free, people just respond to it in a much more real way.
But this is what I've learned; this amazing project that I think is, like, the one thing that I am most proud of out of all of the things that I've ever done, would not have happened without those things. I think God orchestrates everything that happens for a reason, and he meant for me to go through this struggle and through these hard times. Most of the best work that I've ever seen has come from people who have gone through a lot of heartache, and the best way for them to express themselves is through their music. This is what artists should do; when you're going through things, you should put that into your music and into your work because people can actually identify with it.
One album that did that was Lemonade, and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between that and Straight Outta Oz.
Making [this] a visual album was inspired the night that I saw Lemonade. I watched it and I was like, "I want to do that." And then I saw Hamilton, and I was like, "I want to tell a classic story in a new, inventive way." And that's already been done; The Wizard of Oz has already been told so many different times. I didn't want to do it if there wasn't anything that I could add to the story or tell it in a different light. So I put all of my eggs in one basket and spent a lot of time and effort on it, and Beyoncé was definitely a huge inspiration for it. So was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I just think is a freaking genius.
So was Zootopia by Disney. I loved the fact that they took so many political and social messages that needed to be talked about that oftentimes, people who run brands that are targeting demographics like children would be afraid to touch. They talked about race, they talked about sexism, they talked about stereotyping, you know? I was so proud of them for doing that, and I wanted to add that element into my project as well.
So it's pretty evident that you're a very big Wizard of Oz fan. What is it about the story that resonates so heavily with you?
Honestly, I don't know. [When I was a child] I always wanted to be in some other kind of world. Instead of dealing with real-life situations, I would come home and run away to this world in my backyard where I would literally just have this vivid imagination. And I was always making costumes and stuff. That was my idea of fun when I was a little kid, like all the people who knew me will say that I was always doing arts and crafts and writing musicals and putting on skits. I think I identify with the story so much because I grew up in a really small town where people didn't understand me, and I felt much like how Dorothy feels in the story. And all I ever wanted to do was get out and go someplace where people who were like me were there and I could make my dreams come true.
But also, I'm gay! You know, there's a reason why they call us "friends of Dorothy." A lot of gay people love the story, whether it be the rainbow situation, or the fact that the Tin Man's body is bangin', but there's just something about the story that attracts us to it. [Laughs]
"A lot of gay people love the story [of The Wizard of Oz], whether it be the rainbow situation, or the fact that the Tin Man's body is bangin'."
Walk me through the process of getting this album together.
I started getting all these ideas for the tour that I was going to do in March. I had decided that I was going to do the Straight Outta Oz tour; I came up with that idea with a little bit of help from my fans on social media. The whole goal was to tell the story of The Wizard of Oz through the videos that we already had on YouTube.
I wrote the opening song just for the trailer, and everyone was like, "I love this! It's so cool and dark and edgy – you should make something else like this." And so I started writing other songs, and around mid-March or the beginning of April, I decided I wanted to do a full-on musical. So I started writing this right after my birthday, April 4th. I wrote it all of April and half of May, and then the second half of May, I started filming videos. We filmed the videos all in two weeks and edited them in two and a half weeks. I didn't sleep for days.
Yeah, I've noticed that with a lot of stuff that you do, you seem to always have very fast turnarounds. Why is that?
I've always been feeling like I'm racing the clock. Like a lot of performers, you feel like you're getting old, and if you don’t put it out now, someone else is going to do it. And also, just the nature of being a YouTuber, when something is pop culture, you have to do it right then. You can't plan it for two weeks, because by then, two more huge pop-culture events have happened.
This tour was already being booked, and tickets were about to go on sale. So we were like, "Well, we can't do a Straight Outta Oz tour next year. If we're gonna do this, it has to be now." And so we took off work and worked on nothing but this project and figured out how we were gonna tell the story of The Wizard of Oz in a new way.
How did you get people like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Amber Riley and Jordin Sparks on board with this project?
I have no idea – you would have to ask them why they were crazy enough to come onto this project. None of them knew anything about the project or the concept. I would explain to them their one song, but they had no idea what they were even a part of. So I am, like, so flattered that people think enough of me to donate their time. They literally came and worked for free, for long hours, to make the videos happen.
It just gives me chills whenever I think about it, because I have looked up to all of these people for so long. I was a huge fan of Glee and Amber Riley's on there. Angels in the Outfield was one of my favorite movies next to The Wizard of Oz as a child, so to be able to work with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is just, like, such an honor. He's such a consummate professional, he shows up on set and always knows his lines and he takes direction well. Jordin Sparks is the sweetest person in the world; she's literally just the kindest, purest human being. What gay man hasn't hasn't walked around their apartment singing "Loosen Up My Buttons" by Nicole Scherzinger? Her talent ... her voice is ridiculous.
Yeah, "Papi" [featuring Nicole Scherzinger] is probably my favorite song on the album. And it was only the other night that I finally figured out the Oz parallel – "Papi," like the field of poppies.
Yeah, you got it! I put a lot of, like Easter eggs in there for people who are like, super Wizard of Oz fans, and I thought about planting even more. I put the poppies on her outfit just so that you'd kind of know, but I wanted it to be one of those things where a song can stand alone, or you understand it and you like it that much more.
On the album, you transform the death of the Wicked Witch of the West into a commentary on gun violence. Where did that idea come from, and what was writing and filming the video for "Water Guns" like?
I was thinking about how the Witch would be killed, and I was like, "Oh, we should make a play on that, and call them water guns." So when I wrote the song, I was thinking about things in the Trayvon Martin case. I wanted it to be a play on the Black Lives Matter movement. So I wrote the song, but I wanted to make it clear that I am not anti-police; I am anti-gun. I don't like gun violence. Not that anyone is pro-gun violence, but I wanted the song to feel like it's just about us all uniting as one, which is why I have the cops standing there in the song. The song is dedicated it to my friend Jill, because she was a cop who got killed.
But I wrote the song, and then that night, in a horrible coincidence, Christina Grimmie was killed. We recorded it the next day, and our hearts were so heavy. We were all thinking about that, and it was a very emotional moment on set. And then we went home and found out about the Orlando situation. We almost didn't put that song in the show, and now I feel like it's one of the most important ones.
You have a very unique perspective on that; not only are you a black man in the age Black Lives Matter, but you're also a gay man in the wake of the Orlando shooting. What was your reaction when all of that went down?
I was devastated. Even talking about it right now, it's almost too much. My first job out of high school was working in Disney World, and Pulse was my stomping grounds. I was there all the time. Every time I go on tour, I go to Pulse and perform there. I have so many friends who called that place their home, and the fact that something so horrific could happen in a place that I had been all the time ... it felt like someone went to my alma mater, my high school and did something like that.
"I have so many friends who called [Pulse] their home."
And it made me afraid. I second-guessed whether or not I should be going on tour, or if I should just wait to bump up security, or if I should do meet-and-greets anymore. And finally, I had to say, "You know what? You can't live your life afraid.” I just don't think that it's fair to my fans, or fair to me, or fair to life, like we should take advantage of the life that we have that's so fragile as we can clearly see.
I'm obviously not happy with the situation, and I don't want anyone to think that at all. But I was so proud of not just the gay community, but just of our country just coming together. All of those people lining up for miles and miles to give blood and to try and save these people's lives. Everybody was coming out in support and donating money and putting together fundraisers and benefits to help families out, like really warms my heart. I feel like I've never experienced the gay community so woven together and standing so strong ever.
On this album, you seem to criticize the idea of fame while also indicating a certain amount of respect for it. Can you describe your love/hate relationship with this concept?
I never came to L.A. to try to be famous. I love the work ethic of people who do live theater, who play in live bands, and I've always respected that. But I realized after American Idol that when someone is a fan of you as a person, you just being you, you're able to change people's lives. And that was a feeling that I just, like, got so accustomed to and I just loved.
At a certain point, I realized also that there are certain things that I'm not willing to do to be famous. And when I moved here to L.A., I would have done anything. It didn't matter. The song "Papi" is about a person who is very powerful who could help me get further ahead, and I'm not proud of the things I may or may not have done for what I thought would help my career. Now, I would rather have a small, loyal fan base than a huge fan base who likes a version of me that's not real.
How surprising was it when, on your first tour, you realized that your main audience was kids? Because there is a lot of your earlier content that is clearly not made for children.
I was shocked! I didn't know what my audience was going to do. And I'm nervous to go on tour this year. I struggled with this project because there are certain parts where I just wanted to be real. I think the Witch's character would say, "You got the wrong bitch." Like, she's mad. I was struggling with whether or not to put that in the show, and I'm still a little nervous. [Laughs] Because I don't want people's parents to come watch the show and be like, "Ooh, he's saying this word over and over again." But I felt like storytelling-wise, the Witch's character needed to be bad, so I did it. There's another number where I cuss when I'm talking to my mom, because I was a rebellious teenager, and I felt like storytelling-wise, it just made sense, you know? At the end of the day, we artists are so insecure about our work while trying to be vulnerable at the same time.
"Over the Rainbow" is such an emotional, beautiful song. What was it like writing about such a private moment between you and your dad?
It was difficult and I was pretty nervous about what my dad, if he saw it, would think. Because that was a really hard moment. I've talked to so many people, so many gay men when they've heard that song have been like, "It touches me." Because every single guy that I've talked to remembers this specific moment where they realized for the first time that they were different, or someone said, "Little boys don't do that." And when my dad told me that, it dropped my heart. I went to my room, and I just remember sitting there in silence thinking, "What did I do wrong, and how do I never do that again? Because I don't want to feel like this." And I didn't do anything wrong, I was just being me, you know. There was such a long period of time in my life where I legitimately felt that I was going to burn in hell because of the way that I loved. And when people described heaven to me, it reminded me so much of Oz, and, like, the Yellow Brick Road and the powerful man.
I think that eventually, society teaches boys that they're not supposed to do certain things, and they just learn and train themselves to act a certain way. Even if you're not gay, if you're just a feminine man, I think that nothing is wrong with that. We shouldn't be pressured to be more masculine when we naturally were created to be beautiful men who cry and are sensitive. I think it's crazy that we live in a world where you would have a very hard time finding an outfit for an infant who is a boy in pink or purple. God never said on the eighth day of creating the Earth that pink was made for girls and blue was made for boys, but it might as well have been carved in stone as the 11th Commandment.
What has your reaction been to the response to this album? What did it feel like to be just under Beyoncé on the iTunes pop charts?
I would have never, ever imagined that I would be anywhere near Beyoncé on the [iTunes] charts. With this album out, I tweeted one time. I was like, "Aw, people may buy it, they may not, who cares, whatever." And I got offstage from New York Pride, and someone came and showed us that we had broken the Top 100. Two hours later, we were in the Top 40. And I was like, "This is insane! This is crazy!"
This is a self-produced project. Like, I didn't have people helping me produce it. It just goes to show that you do not need anybody else to believe in you. I'm just taking that approach to everything. If I want to do something, I'm not going to wait around, I'm going to find a way to make it happen on my own, because that’s what I think true artists do. I didn’t think that I was a true artist before, but now I feel like I've created my first piece of true art. I think that's the most important lesson that I've learned here is that nothing is a bad experience, no matter how horrible it is, if you can find a way to look at it in a different light.
I've sat around for three years and tried to convince people that I could do more than what the box they were putting me in was allowing me to do. I waited and waited for permission when all I needed to do was go out and believe in myself. And in six weeks, I wrote something that has opened so many doors and changed my life so much. I have so many people reaching out to do interviews, and talk about the possibility of taking the show to Broadway. It’s like Glinda says in the story, Dorothy could have gone home from the beginning, but she wouldn't have believed it.