Anywhere but America: Why Rita Ora isn’t any bigger in the US

At this point, it’s almost amusing. Rita Ora’s newest American single, “Girls”, is a crowded collaboration of four female artists including Cardi B. And even though the song has yet to chart (that is, if it ever will), it’s already garnered headlines for all the wrong reasons. People are deeming the song a tone-deaf exploitation of bisexuality, counterproductive to the LGBT community.

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It may sound premature, but extrapolating this negativity shrouding Rita’s new single, I already foresee “Girls” being yet another dud.

But why does Rita Ora, the talented singer and fashion trendsetter, fare so poorly in the United States?

In 2008, the Kosovian-born British signed to Roc Nation, an American label founded by Jay Z, but her first and only studio album so far, 2012’s Ora, was only released in Europe. In the last six years, Rita has been releasing a flurry of singles, but a new, complete body of work still evades her.

In 2014, only two years after her debut in the UK, she released “I Will Never Let You Down”, a gleeful love song penned and produced by then-boyfriend Calvin Harris. The fizzy electropop confection was intended as the first single to her second studio album, and topped the UK Singles Chart, but when it was prepared for an American release, the unthinkable happened: Rita broke up with the famous DJ.

Because Calvin was the hit’s sole songwriter, he had full control of the song’s media permissions, and allegedly restricted it: Rita was not allowed to perform the love song on television. How was she going to promote the song in the US if she was barred from singing it on TV?

The song was gaining fair traction over there, having made it to #77 on the Billboard Hot 100, but without necessary promotion for a singer relatively unknown in America, “I Will Never Let You Down” ended up a wasted opportunity.

Fortunately, Rita attained some success that year thanks to Iggy Azalea, who was blowing up the charts in 2014. She was the featured singer on Iggy’s “Black Widow”, a trap pop song co-written by Katy Perry about a vengeful lover.

The song propelled to #3, giving the singer the exposure she needed, but hilariously, her appearance in its music video drew comparisons to Rihanna. After all, at first look, Rita Ora does look like Rihanna, even without the wigs that the Barbadian singer’s donned before. It also doesn’t help that their names are quite similar: both start with “Ri” and rhyme closely.

Rita’s music is also not vastly different from Riri’s. Her first career single, “R.I.P.” was rejected by Rihanna before it was offered to her. Americans already have (and are obsessed with) Rihanna. They certainly don’t need what they perceive to be a carbon copy.

Meanwhile, Rita’s second album, which should have been released before 2014 ended, underwent major rewrites. Many songs were reportedly contributed by Calvin, and had to be dropped. On the red carpet at the American Music Awards in November 2014, Rita told a reporter that her next American single would be “Testosterone”. Alas, the song never saw the light of day.

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Meanwhile, the singer’s dual role as a fashionista was soaring: cue the tons of endorsements she signed back then with the likes of DKNY and Rimmel. Most of Rita’s American media appearances got overtaken by that of designers and street brands. She was even considered relevant enough to be offered a collaboration with Adidas to design a line bearing her own name.

Instead of being known primarily as a singer, she became a style icon. Ask anyone to name a Rita Ora song back then and they’d likely stammer, but show them a picture of her and they might just find her face familiar.

In 2015, Rita juggled both music and fashion. In February, she was featured Charli XCX’s “Doing It”, a song Rita had wanted for herself. In March, she was featured on Charles Hamilton’s “New York Raining” for the soundtrack of Empire, then gigantic on American TV, but the song barely appeared on the show and was never promoted. Both singles went under the radar.

In May, she released a new single of her own: “Poison”, which peaked at #3 in the UK. Rita never tried the song in the US; a good decision, since the electropop song was more befitting of European radio than American anyway.

In the later half of 2015, she readied her first single specially for the US: a sensual R&B duet with Chris Brown called “Body On Me”. It’s a brilliant urban jam in true R&B style, but even with a few televised performances (mostly done solo by Rita alone), the song never caught onto America; it didn’t even make the Hot 100.

That meant that Rita now had one certifiable flop in the US. While “I Will Never Let You Down” was held back by an unhappy ex-boyfriend, “Body On Me” had no sanctions but still failed to ignite.

In December, Rita filed a lawsuit against Roc Nation, unveiling the turmoil she’d been experiencing with the label all this time. She described it as an “orphaned relationship”, feeling neglected by the label that had expanded its portfolio to non-music ventures.

The singer and the label settled out of court and parted ways in June 2016, allowing Rita to sign to a new label, Atlantic. But by then, a considerable amount of time had lapsed.

Rita was no longer a fresh face in the US. Americans might not know her that much, but she certainly wasn’t an upcoming artist anymore worthy of noting. Conversely, her track record of failures on both main and featured singles meant she wasn’t a likely success story.

When Rita finally tried the American music market again, it was already 2017: three years since her second album was supposed to happen, and five years since her debut in the UK.

In between, she dabbled in reality shows: a judge on UK’s The Voice and X Factor, and even America’s Next Top Model, where she replaced Tyra Banks for one season. Viewers hated Rita and demanded Tyra’s return, so she wasn’t invited back a year later. The British acknowledged her as a bonafide singer; Americans continued knowing her as a fashion figure who warmed Tyra’s seat for a year.

Rita released “Your Song” in May, intended as the new lead single to a new album on a new label. The tropical pop song was co-penned by Ed Sheeran, who had scored a big #1 hit with the similar “Shape of You” earlier that year.

But even with a formulaic yet trendy sound, and a video that demonstrates the singer’s unusual talent of walking backwards, the song still failed to enter the Billboard Hot 100.

Back in the UK, she premiered “Anywhere”, an EDM song with an infectious drop that splices and loops the singer’s vocals. Its experimental sound was adored by critics, and with sufficient promotion, propelled the song to #2, her highest-charting single since “I Will Never Let You Down”.

Unfortunately, the song was never released in the US, even though some critics believed it was a legitimate shot for Rita to finally crack America.

Earlier this year, she dueted with Liam Payne on “For You”, the lead single for the Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack. It made the Top 20 all over Europe, but tanked in the US, lingering at #76. Rita, who has a minor role in the Fifty Shades trilogy, logged the film series’ worst-performing lead single.

Just compare: the first Fifty Shades soundtrack had scored two Top 10 hits (The Weeknd’s “Earned It” and Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do”), while the second spawned a #2 with Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik’s “I Don’t Want To Live Forever”. These numbers just illustrate that Rita’s star power was virtually non-existent in America.

And that brings me back to “Girls”, which features Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX. The idea of Rita organizing a foursome dates back to 2015 when she loosely considered pulling Charli, Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus together to remake “Lady Marmalade”, a stupid idea considering none of them have Christina Aguilera’s vocal range.

The single is being swarmed in America for its contentious lyrics: “sometimes I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.” Female artists singing about kissing girls may have been a thing in 2008, but a decade later, the social climate has shifted quite drastically.

Even with three more popular featured artists, it’s highly unlikely “Girls” will become Rita’s first hit in the US as a main artist. Time is pop music’s trickiest friend, and so many artists have damaged their careers due to extended periods outside the spotlight (Christina Aguilera, JoJo etc.) Even though Rita’s never taken an actual hiatus, she’s been talking about a new album since 2014. It’s been a four-year tease with no gratification at the end.

The album may eventually drop some day, but it’s not going to be an American hit. That just can’t happen anymore.

UPDATE: Rita has officially apologized on Twitter for the backlash to “Girls”, saying “I am sorry how I expressed myself in my song has hurt anyone. I would never intentionally cause harm to their LGBTQ+ people or anyone.” She also explained that the song was inspired by a “very real and honest experience in [her] life.”

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