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Jai Paul, Tumblr and the moodboards we left behind
I’m not lying when I say that no fellow South Asian man has ever looked as cool to me as Jai Paul does on the cover of Bait Ones, a collection of stolen music that was leaked to the internet in April 2013. The artwork in question—which was posted on Bandcamp alongside an album’s worth of pilfered demos—features a photograph of Paul set against a collage that serves as a sort of ‘moodboard’. There are a number of animals present (an Indian elephant, a black-footed ferret, an American black bear), a few high-end sports cars (an Alpha Romeo and a Lotus), a couple of soccer players (Ben Gill, Gianfranco Zola) and public figures ranging from actress Emma Watson to Mahatma Gandhi. In the foreground of the image, a head-and-shoulders shot of Paul dominates the frame. He’s wearing a ‘90s Chelsea Football Club shirt under what looks to be an Adidas track jacket, with teal eyeblack streaks framing his cheekbones and a meticulously-arranged, top-heavy hairstyle. He’s clearly of South Asian descent and just as unmistakably British in his style. Meeting the camera’s gaze, Paul appears both defiant and vulnerable, equal parts tough and tender. The pose he strikes is not one we often see from either male pop stars or South Asian men. Jai Paul has always felt distant and unknowable but somehow, I’m not sure I’ve ever found a musician more relatable.
Perhaps part of the reason that image resonated so strongly with me was that it used a familiar visual language. At the time that Bait Ones leaked, I was working as an intern at Tumblr, spending hours of my day analyzing trends on the growing social media platform. Tumblr was a place where people created similar multimedia collages as a means to express, explore and bond over their identities. Before I had even listened to the music, I understood Jai Paul as yet another young person attempting to make sense of himself by pasting disparate parts into a whole.
Even if the album art didn’t resonate with you, if you listened to Bait Ones around the time it first leaked, the music likely did. Here were 16 songs in various states of completion that were by turns soulful, mysterious, futuristic, playful and yearning. There was a clear kinship with the U.K.’s most cutting edge electronic music, a production aesthetic drawn from DIY bedroom pop and an approach to songcraft that recalled giants like D’Angelo and Prince. No one knew why these songs had suddenly appeared—we’d learn years later that unfinished demos had been stolen from Paul and posted online without his knowledge—just that they had been made by a promising and reclusive English musician. Demo leaks have since become commonplace and major artists like Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert have had to reshape whole albums to account for them but in 2013, it still felt intrusive to listen to leaked demos. Even so, the unfinished, unmastered songs on Bait Ones sounded quite unlike anything I had ever heard before.
The day after the album leaked, I sat in my Brooklyn bedroom listening to it on repeat. I was supposed to see some bands play with a friend that night at Silent Barn, the scrappy DIY space that had recently been reborn as an ambitious (if still scrappy), multi-purpose arts complex. But the pull of Jai Paul’s world was so strong, I tried to weasel my way out of those plans. My friend ultimately convinced me to leave my apartment, which turned out to be worth it, as the sound person that night decided to just play Bait Ones in its entirety in between sets. The music sounded even more radiant over a PA system at full volume, in a room full of people who seemed equally excited to hear it. At the time, there was a makeshift barbershop in the back of Silent Barn called “Deep Cuts” and before we left, I convinced my friend to get his hair cut to look like Paul’s. That night, I went home and posted some thoughts about Bait Ones on my Tumblr blog.
In those days, Tumblr was the ideal place to start a conversation about an enigmatic, niche artist like Jai Paul. Twitter and Facebook existed at the time but Tumblr was distinctive: tighter knit, friendlier, more tribal. Tumblr was founded in 2007 (incidentally, the same year that Jai Paul uploaded his first song, “BTSTU,” to his MySpace page) and from the start, it allowed users to upload images and videos, making it an inherently visual platform—Twitter wouldn’t add these features until 2012. Thanks to a threaded reply feature (another innovation that pre-dated Twitter’s “retweet”) it was also a rich space for writing and conversations. My little corner of Tumblr was full of music critics—some professional and many of us amateur—who spent their days unpacking and arguing about the trends of the moment. Each morning, I would sit down at my computer and check my Tumblr “dashboard,” to see if there were any exciting conversations happening. Star critics like Nitsuh Abebe used Tumblr as a space to think out loud, blogging veterans like Matthew Perpetua wrote sharp, pithy pieces and new voices like Lindsay Zoladz were beginning to assert themselves in the critical sphere (plenty of today’s most visible critics first got noticed on Tumblr, including Pitchfork’s reviews editor, Jeremy Larson, who was first invited to write for the site via a Tumblr direct message). Much of the writing was what you might call “bloggy”: personal, rambling, self-aware. Unlike mainstream criticism, which aspires to an objective perch (the kind of stuff you might read in Pitchfork, the New Yorker or the New York Times), Tumblr critics wore their idiosyncrasies proudly.
There was plenty of debate on Tumblr but noticeably less bullying and negativity than we’re accustomed to on modern social networks. If you were a Tumblr user, you might recall the spate of “Fuck Yeah” blogs that became something of a Tumblr-specific meme, each one a shrine to a specific object, person or fandom. That was the general tone on Tumblr: positive, celebratory, irreverent. And perhaps it was that culture, coupled with the anonymity that the platform granted, that encouraged Tumblr users to also be earnest and vulnerable. Over time, Tumblr became a place to bond with others over shared identities and passions and countless subcultures found a home on the platform. As the authors of the academic collection A Tumblr Book: Platform and Cultures write in their introduction:
[Tumblr’s] platform opacity, in combination with Tumblr's liberal/progressive branding and reliance on pseudonymity (anonymity by way of pseudonyms) facilitated the development of "counterpublics'' on the platform, those groups who are marginalized in the public sphere and/or who are in conflict with it ideologically. From 2007 to 2018, Tumblr thus became a home and hub for many who were socially and politically disenfranchised: youth, LGBTQ+ and nonbinary persons, people of color, progresives and activists, feminist and queer fans, queer and alternative porn consumers, sex workers, the disabled and those with mental illness, chronic pain, or bodies that didn't reflect social ideals...Tumblr was, for many, a deinstitutionalized, underfunded, unauthorized, constantly on-the-run think tank-cum chocolate factory, a subculutral, countercultural place where alternative pleasures, education and resource sharing, creative and critical work happened.
As with all internet communities, Tumblr did have a dark side—abuse certainly existed on the platform and communities centered on depression and self-harm sometimes walked a fine line between providing support and glorifying mental illness—but by way of comparison to other platforms, the site felt civil, even empathetic. Identity-based services like Facebook required posts to be tethered to your name and by extension, your family, friends and job. Twitter, on the other hand, granted unlimited anonymity with almost no guard rails, resulting in a platform that seemed to encourage bullying. Tumblr, as the authors of A Tumblr Book put it, “offered participants the best option and tools for alternative networking among very limited choices.”
In hindsight, Tumblr’s conversational tone and affinity-based communities remind me more of the insular messageboards that I grew up using than of the widely-used, largely combative social networks we use today. Much like the messageboards of the past, Tumblr was not necessarily easy to navigate (what the authors of A Tumblr Book refer to as “platform opacity”) and as a result, not quite mainstream. Unlike other social media networks, Tumblr has no public follower counts, so it feels more egalitarian than, say, a platform where celebrities boast millions of followers. Tumblr users also tended to gather around specific shared interests, which provided a common frame of reference for communities on the platform. The result was that Tumblr’s userbase consisted of self-selecting groups of people with specific motivations for using the platform. Tumblr wasn’t a place you’d go to shout into the void for an audience of disinterested strangers. It was more like the Saddle Creek Records messageboard that I posted on in the early ‘00s: a place you’d seek out with the intent of conversing with like-minded people who shared your interests.
If Tumblr was a kinder, gentler social network, this was likely by design. In an interview at a 2012 tech conference, Tumblr founder David Karp revealed that the “re-blogging” feature that Tumblr launched with was intentionally designed to discourage what he called "the world of horrible anonymous Internet awfulness." "We racked our brains figuring out what to do instead of commenting," Karp said, according to an article in Forbes. "We realized we needed some mechanism for feedback... To say something you had to have your own soapbox over here and take what I say and you wrap your commentary around it. You're not allowed to just show up and say I'm a jerk. It's much harder to twist my words."
The critical design decision Tumblr’s founders made was forcing users to post any commentary about someone else’s post on their own page. Unlike Twitter replies, which are hidden on a user’s profile, Tumblr re-blogs appear front and center on the user’s own page. In order to post something mean, you had to be willing to do it in broad daylight, as opposed to deep within a comment or reply thread. And in order for your replies to have an audience, you’d have to build a following for your own blog—not an easy thing to do if you were logging on just to post negative comments. The reblogging feature was a simple piece of social design but in the lived experience of using Tumblr, it made a difference. Tumblr proved that the problems plaguing online discourse can in fact be addressed, if companies care enough to do so.
Jai Paul rarely uses his chest voice in the songs that appear on Bait Ones. Nearly every line on the album is sung in a whisper, falsetto or murmur. You can picture him singing these songs softly in his bedroom late at night, not wanting to wake up the rest of the house. This choice feels consistent with the image of Paul that was presented to the public, of a tinkerer who would rather be left to his own devices. “Music to me was just a hobby and, in a way, I didn't care about showing it to anyone,” Paul said, in the only interview of his career. To date, he has tweeted three times (one of those Tweets reads, simply, “Hi”) and officially released a total of four completed songs. The dearth of information available about him only added to the mystique surrounding Bait Ones—it made me want to listen more closely to the songs, in an attempt to better understand this person I felt an unspoken kinship with.
Paul might not be a showy singer but his vocals on Bait Ones convey a whole universe of emotion. He begs, preens, sulks and huffs his way through these songs; his intonation is often flat but the songs are nonetheless full of feeling. Paul delivers each line with total conviction but the songs are never weighed down by self-seriousness. Maybe that’s because the tracks (at least in their original, pre-streaming versions) are peppered with campy samples and sound effects: laser blasts, snippets of dialogue lifted from Harry Potter movies and “Gossip Girl,” clips from a Tomb Raider videogame. These samples sometimes cut through the mix completely, briefly obscuring all of the other sounds—a jarring and unorthodox choice. You’d think the samples would undercut or somehow cheapen the songs but they don’t. Instead, they help to establish a sense of place. You understand Paul’s headspace and his media diet, the passions he formed his adolescent identity around; maybe you even picture the magazines and DVDs strewn about his room as he was recording. Like with the album art, the samples form a sort of moodboard that give Paul’s self-portrait a colorful backdrop.
Paul’s magpie-like mindset can be seen in his approach to songcraft as well. There’s a ‘poptimism’ at play in these songs that felt radical at the time, a flattening of ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture that placed different genres, eras and musical traditions on equal footing. Paul seemed to draw from all of the different sounds he had been exposed to and in so doing, managed to synthesize Western and South Asian pop music more naturally and effortlessly than any artist who came before him. His most universally-beloved banger, “Str8 Outta Mumbai” builds its propulsive beat from tablas and finds a moment of pure euphoria in a vocal sample lifted from the soundtrack to a 1979 Bollywood film. A few tracks later, he transforms Jennifer Paige’s minor pop hit “Crush” into a smoldering, Prince-like vamp. Bait Ones closes with the towering “BTSTU” (short for “Back to Save the Universe”—a title I’d like to think was borrowed from a line in Radiohead’s “Airbag”), which builds from an acapella track to an almost cacophonous synth jam before tearing itself back down. “BTSTU” is one of few songs on Bait Ones that ever saw an official release and within a month of the CD single hitting stores, the song—which was recorded by Paul in his bedroom in suburban Rayners Lane at the age of 22—had been sampled by both Beyoncé and Drake. Go and listen to Drake’s recent B-sides collection, Care Package and the first sound you’ll hear is Jai Paul harmonizing with himself, before cooing in a sweet falsetto, “Don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me”.
The term “moodboard” might have a distinctly 2010s ring to it but the underlying concept is actually much older. Collage has existed in the art world for at least a century and more recently, the practice crossed over into the world of product design, where it became known as “moodboarding”. Thanks to its built-in feature set, Tumblr helped to popularize the moodboard as a means for digital self-expression beyond the corporate world. From the start, Tumblr supported different “post types” (text, quotes, images, video); most blogs on Tumblr made use of all of these media types and placed them side-by-side. And so individual blogs tended to look like digital collages, full of images scavenged from Google search results, quotes copied and pasted from articles and original, heartfelt diary entries. Looking at the first page of my old Tumblr blog, I see an illustration of Japanese author Haruki Murakami, a Soundcloud stream of a DJ mix I recorded, a “Simpsons” screencap and a photo of Ishmael Butler from Shabazz Palaces posing with two pythons on leashes. Where other platforms encouraged the curation of one’s identity into a narrow “brand,” Tumblr rewarded users who explored and expressed a wide range of interests. Some Tumblr moodboards even had ripple effects that were felt in culture at large: the late A$AP Yams famously launched the careers of superstars and rewired rap’s aesthetics all from the comfort of his Tumblr dashboard.
Pinterest, which was launched in 2010, built an entire service around the idea of digital moodboards and tied the act of making them far more explicitly to shopping and commerce. Pinterest ultimately became the more successful company by a wide margin—its stock surged 600% over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and it was recently valued at $51 billion dollars. Meanwhile, Tumblr reportedly changed hands in 2019 for just $3 million dollars, which, as many have pointed out, is roughly the cost of a modest Silicon Valley home. Moodboards on Pinterest are clean, organized and predictable—they always appear using the same minimalist layout. By way of comparison, there was no law that governed how Tumblr blogs should look. Similar to early social networks like MySpace, Tumblr allowed users to directly edit the HTML and CSS that determined how their posts were displayed to the world—users were free to tweak their layouts to their heart's content. Tumblr users could even give away or sell their custom layouts to others using Tumblr’s “Theme Garden” (taking a cut of theme transactions was one of the company’s early, failed attempts at achieving profitability). A variety of themes, ranging from sleekly minimal to maximally hideous, quickly proliferated.
This too, was intentional. In a 2014 interview with The Verge, Karp and other Tumblr employees explained the inspiration behind giving users control over how their pages appeared. “In the early 2000s, [the web] started to take a pretty sharp turn towards vanilla, white profile pages,” Karp said. “The draw to the internet for me was this idea that it was a space where you could really create an expression of yourself — an identity that you’re really, truly proud of.” Tumblr’s founders didn’t just see the platform as a place for cultivating and expressing a singular identity; they understood it as a tool for crafting multiple, discrete identities that could live comfortably alongside each other. “There’s not a one-to-one mapping between you and your blog on Tumblr, where there is that kind of mapping on other sites," Bryan Irace, lead iOS developer at Tumblr said, acknowledging the common practice of one user maintaining multiple—sometimes even dozens—of individual blogs with different designs. "I think people are proud of their Tumblr presence because it’s easy to make it an extension of your identity. It’s like a blank slate," early Tumblr employee Jacob Bijani said. "The way your blog looks is just as important as the content you share on it. I think that kind of personalization just isn’t in Facebook or Instagram’s DNA the way it’s always been for Tumblr."
As much as I love the music on Bait Ones, it’s hard to deny that its release derailed Jai Paul’s once promising career. For years after the songs leaked, rumors abounded, encouraged, in part, by Paul’s own silence on the matter. He had leaked the demos himself—against the will of his meddling label—and then played it off like it had been a hacker, went one rumor. Or, perhaps it was the other way around: his label and management had forced him to “leak” the music as a publicity stunt, to generate hype for a future release. As the years passed and no new Jai Paul music surfaced, these rumors came to feel more like wishful thinking.
In 2019, Paul at last addressed the leak in a public statement that accompanied the official release of Bait Ones on streaming (nearly all of the songs now have “unfinished” or “demo” appended to their titles and many uncleared samples had to be removed), as well as two new songs—the first new music he had chosen to release in seven years. In a public statement, he finally set the record straight: “I understand that it might have seemed like a positive thing to a lot of people—the music they had been waiting to hear was finally out there—but for me, it was very difficult to deal with,” Paul wrote. “There was a lot going through my mind, but the hardest thing to grasp was that I'd been denied the opportunity to finish my work and share it in its best possible form. I believe it's important for artists as creators to have some control over the way in which their work is presented, at a time that they consider it complete and ready.”
He went on to describe the ways in which the trauma stemming from the leak impacted not just his release plans but his ability to make music at all:
There were some long term effects for me following the leak. There was a significant loss of trust. For the next 3 years or so this one event was all anybody asked me about. Everyone was convinced that the story they had read online—that I'd leaked the music myself—was true, so I had to repeatedly explain the reality of the situation over and over again. It was frustrating and disorientating to find that I had no ownership over the story (or the music) and that people were choosing to believe a different truth. I guess this all made it feel like I had thousands of people not believing me, not trusting me, and also that in some strange way I was responsible for all of it. On a personal level, things gradually went south and I had a breakdown of sorts. I was in quite a bad place for some time. I was unable to work and withdrew from life in general.
Recently, I've been having therapy of various kinds, and this has helped me get to a place where I can begin to think about returning to music. I am thankful for that. It has allowed me to understand some of what happened in 2013 a little better—not through anybody else's lens, but through my own, and through this, I've been able to acknowledge some of the trauma and grief. I've grown to appreciate that people have enjoyed that music and lived with it, and I accept that there is no way to put that shit back in the box. There was no way to fix what happened and continue down our original path. Looking back, it's sad to think about what could have been, but it is what it is and I had to let go.
The two new songs that Paul released were fantastic, if far more ambitious and refined than what we had previously heard from him. It’s hard not to wonder what the demos on Bait Ones might have sounded like, had Paul been given the chance to complete them and to what heights of stardom he might have ascended as a result.
Tumblr was such an important part of my life that in 2012, I attempted to become an intern at the company. I was in graduate school at the time and looking for a summer internship; as luck would have it, a person I knew through a previous job had just started working for Tumblr. It was a long shot but I reached out to him to see if his team could make use of an intern over the summer. It took four months of back-and-forth over email as well as calling in a favor from Clay Shirky (who was my academic advisor at the time) but in May of 2012, I stepped into Tumblr’s offices in a nondescript Flatiron district office building for the first time. I would end up working at the company for a full year.
If memory serves, Tumblr employed around 75 people at the time, split between the New York office and a recently opened satellite office in Richmond, Virginia. The Flatiron office was hardly opulent by Silicon Valley standards but to me—a broke graduate student—the catered lunches, cold brew coffee and beer on tap were truly luxurious perks. When the company moved into a new floor in the building, a chocolate fountain was set up to celebrate the occasion. Karp said he had suggested the fountain as a joke—the person he was talking to had failed to detect his sarcasm.
Much like its chaotic community, Tumblr the company was growing quickly and seemed to be in a constant state of flux. I remember being assigned to four different desks on various floors of the building and rolling up to three different vice presidents (none of whom seemed to last more than a few months in the role) during the year I worked at Tumblr. Most of the company’s previous interns had been college students who were relegated to stuffing envelopes full of t-shirts and stickers for fans; the folks on the community team didn’t seem to know what to do with a graduate student like me. I quickly set about trying to find ways to make myself useful. I found out that many of my colleagues wanted data about how people were using Tumblr but didn’t know how to get it. When I went to speak with the lone person in charge of the company’s data infrastructure, he quickly agreed to give me access to all of the company’s data, provided I didn’t require any additional support from him. And so I began investigating how people were using Tumblr—what posts were popular, what trends were emerging, when and why activity was spiking—using a rudimentary set of skills I had picked up in a data analysis class. But mostly, I spent my days browsing and posting on Tumblr. I felt like I had landed my dream job.
Increasingly, there was buzz in the press that Tumblr’s user growth had stalled and this was reason for concern from investors. The last desk that I sat at was next to a glass-walled conference room, where the perennially hoodie-wearing Karp met with an endless parade of middle-aged white men in business attire. I assumed that these people were either investors or board members. The meetings looked tense and became more frequent over time. At company meetings, Karp would speak animatedly about new features, design tweaks or ways people were using Tumblr but seemed much less excited about fundraising and financials. He was also open about his distaste for advertising and seemed to be desperately searching for another way for the company to turn a profit.
Over the course of that year, all three of the VPs I reported to expressed an intention to hire me but a full-time job never materialized. In May of 2013, it was announced that Tumblr had been acquired by Yahoo for $1.1 billion dollars. This was seen as a success for Tumblr at the time, especially given its stalled growth but in reality, it was the beginning of the end. In the years that followed the acquisition, most of the company’s founding staff would depart and its userbase would shrink to a fraction of its former size. Tumblr would ultimately get passed from one corporate owner to another—Yahoo, Verizon, Automattic—for shrinking sums. “The main reason Tumblr never worked out is that the platform never figured out a way to turn its large user base into ad dollars,” a Digiday post-mortem concluded. An anonymous former Tumblr executive quoted in that same article put it more bluntly: “I don’t know if David ever [gave] a shit about advertising.”
In June of 2013, I walked out of the Tumblr office on 21st Street for the last time, feeling a bit wistful for what might have been. The dreamy, pensive sounds of Bait Ones would have still been fresh in my ears.
The dream of a global South Asian pop star that Jai Paul represented remains unfulfilled. Paul’s most clear antecedent, M.I.A., quickly disappeared from the popular discourse following two groundbreaking albums and a truffle fry ‘controversy’; she now exists on the fringes of celebrity, where she dabbles in vaccine skepticism and white supremacy. And while Paul’s influence on popular music can be seen clearly—in the Weeknd’s genre-defying R&B, in Frank Ocean’s slipperiness, in the border-erasing pop of Grimes—no one who looks like me has made a serious run at international pop stardom since Paul disappeared. South Asian representation does seem to have improved in other forms of western media but celebrities like Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj often hew to the same type: goofy, self-deprecating, eager to please. Jai Paul was different: it felt like he was on loan to us from another universe, one where South Asian men are allowed to be sexy, complex and wildly creative.
I similarly see Tumblr’s influence in many of the online services I use today. In superficial ways, modern Twitter feels a lot like 2013 Tumblr: filled with “reaction .gifs,” inside jokes and pile-on conversations. But Twitter is also infamously plagued by bullying, toxicity and bots. When browsing the “Explore” tab on Instagram, I’m also reminded of the feeling of scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard, all of my various interests juxtaposed against each other in neat little squares. But then I remember that what I’m seeing is being determined by a sophisticated set of machine learning algorithms, in order to maximize my engagement and steer me toward advertisements. Serendipity is in short supply on Instagram; with each passing day, the app feels more like a shopping service curated by machines.
Every couple of years, Tumblr resurfaces in the news when a new generation of users discovers its charms, which remain largely unchanged. “How Tumblr Became Popular for Being Obsolete,” goes the 2022 New Yorker headline and indeed, the site has reported modest growth of its revenue and userbase in recent years. Amid the chaos of Twitter being taken over by Elon Musk—a man who seems hellbent on amplifying social media’s most antisocial tendencies—the New York Times ran a piece on “Twitter refugees'' and the less-than-warm reception they felt on Tumblr. The piece concludes that Tumblr’s niche appeal is unlikely to change regardless of how badly its competitors crash and burn. “Twitter has long been a platform where celebrities, brands, journalists and other public-facing entities thrive. Tumblr, with its aforementioned lack of follower count, typically anonymous user base and focus on the collective user experience over individual success, is not the kind of place that amplifies personalities.”
For me, using Tumblr was always less about amplifying my personality than defining it. Expressing myself through the creation of a digital moodboard felt intuitive—it’s a natural language for someone whose actual identity feels cobbled-together. Like many children of immigrants, I grew up having to navigate multiple cultural contexts simultaneously. The worlds I lived in coexisted in ways that were messy and hard to define—it was the friction between the different identities I held that ultimately shaped me. Maybe what I was seeking out on Tumblr was the freedom to express myself in a place where my identity felt less tied to my name, my background and my skin color. Maybe Jai Paul was attempting to do something similar, as he pieced together his own world in a suburban bedroom, far from the eyes of an expectant public.
Jai Paul still exists; so does Tumblr. But in the public imagination they’ve both shrunken from view, supplanted by more successful followers who were better able to apply their ideas toward profit and success. Still, their legacies remain, preserved perfectly in amber, reminders of moments of possibility that have long since passed.