For about $5 ($10 for rush delivery), Nikki Muller ’05 and her comedy team will write you a funny song. All you need is an account at Fiverr.com (“the world’s largest marketplace for buying and selling small services, starting at $5”) and a short, simple prompt.
Here, for example, is part of the show tune I asked Muller to write about “getting interviewed by the Princeton Alumni Weekly” — a publication that first featured Muller after her 2012 video “The Ivy League Hustle” blew up YouTube:
SCENE: The curtain rises on a press conference where a gaggle of REPORTERS pepper NIKKI with questions. To the tune of a jaunty piano rag:
This just in!
Nikki Muller, is it true that you graduated from Princeton so long ago
And now you’re doing amazing things in Los Angeles? All over the world?
Aww, gee, NIKKI sings. She’s not used to so much attention. “Suddenly, I feel spe-cial again!” she belts out. But what does everyone see in her?
I just went back to my 10th reunion
Everyone had jobs and kids
Everyone was wondering just what is it that I did
Well, I said I did jobs and I wrote a play
And they all said gosh, that’s oh so BRAVE.
Because I did not become a doctor or bankerrrr ...
And I’m not yet married WOW!
It continues — you can hear it below — and ends with Muller hitting an operatic high note: IT’S MEEEEEEEE!
In 2012, Nikki Muller had a moment. “The Ivy League Hustle” became a viral sensation, racking up hundreds of thousands of views on Muller’s YouTube channel and earning her positive notice on websites like Jezebel and The Huffington Post. “I was like, yeah, I’m doing it! That thing I did matters!” Muller recalls now with a laugh.
The viral hook of “Ivy League Hustle” was simple: In just a few minutes, it managed to cater to Ivy League fans and haters alike. What begins as a rap diss against men who fear smart women — “I went to Princeton, b***h!” — soon morphs into a lampoon of elite entitlement. “Yeah you know they always told me that knowledge was power / So how come I can’t earn more than $14 an hour?”
VIDEO: The Ivy League Hustle (includes some profanity)
Muller has posted plenty of other funny videos to her YouTube channel. (Her “World’s Worst Bond Girl” character is one highlight; over the course of 12 webisodes, she obnoxiously proclaims her veganism, snoops around medicine cabinets, and invites her mother along on dates, to the chagrin of Her Majesty’s deadliest agent.) But “Ivy League Hustle” hit like nothing had before. At the height of Muller’s viral notoriety, CBS This Morning flew her from Los Angeles to New York to talk about her video. Muller was introduced as part of a new segment called “Busting Out,” a series highlighting “emerging artists who are starting to make a difference.”
In an accidental way, this mushy news-speak fits the provisional nature of most Internet fame. “Busting out” is easy enough. The real accomplishment is sustaining online buzz long enough to make a living. Muller acknowledged this challenge on air. When the CBS anchor asked about her dream job, Muller replied modestly, “I would like to be doing what I’m doing right now” — making videos, doing comedy — “but ... getting paid?”
This is the dream, not just for Muller, but for a generation of recent grads: the dream of meaningful work — a job that’s not just a career, but a calling. Making money still matters, but material gains aren’t necessarily the top priority for young workers. What’s exciting for many millennials is the prospect of doing both well and good. According to a 2012 Rutgers University study, half of millennials “would take a 15 percent pay cut to work at a company that matches their ideals.”
The result is a remixing of the traditional codes of employment. “In many cases, students’ definitions of success rely very little on what they earn or where they are in an organizational hierarchy, and instead on where they feel they can have the greatest impact,” says Pulin Sanghvi, the head of Career Services at Princeton. “People now think about how they’re doing with greater fluidity, and with greater anchoring in what is personally meaningful. Career progression has become unique to every individual.”
Still, you have to wonder: Does the millennials’ focus on meaningful work represent a genuine ideological change, or is it simply a way for recession-scarred young people to shift the goalposts of success? This is a generation, after all, that likely will fall behind their parents on traditional measures of wealth.
A lot depends on which millennials you’re talking about. “Meaningful work” is still something of a privileged pursuit: The same Silicon Valley startups that are offering Ivy League dreamers the chance to make some extra cash — your Ubers, your TaskRabbits, your Airbnbs — also are “disrupting” (if not eroding) middle-class livelihoods. Some young workers have joined the “freelance nation” by necessity; others have joined it by choice, hoping to Kickstart themselves into greener pastures.
For the latter group (which includes Princetonians fortunate enough to graduate without much debt), this may well be the golden age of the “side hustle” — those survival gigs and passion projects that, taken together, add up to a new kind of working life:
Laura Hankin ’10 moved to New York after graduation to find work as an actress. That she’s done, but she’s also worked as a personal assistant, babysitter, flashmob organizer, and children’s birthday-party entertainer (“I get paid to sing to babies, basically”). Last year, during an acting dry spell, Hankin wrote a young-adult novel called The Summertime Girls. Now she’s writing and producing a Web video series.
Oh, and one more thing: “I was just back in Princeton at the Neuroscience Institute, getting my brain scanned to make money. They only pay $20 an hour in the scanner, but they reimburse travel, which is nice,” Hankin says. (She also gave a shoutout to Obamacare, which allowed her to stay on her father’s health insurance until she was 26 and then sign up for the New York health exchanges.)
Jason Pomerantz ’09 enrolled at New York University to study classical music composition after graduation, but eventually realized his greater passion lay in pop and rock vocals. After earning his MFA, Pomerantz picked up side gigs and survival jobs aimed at a career as a singer-songwriter: teaching music at the Harlem Kids Zone after-school program, giving private piano lessons, playing keyboards for and singing with bands, and providing musical accompaniment for children’s musical theater.
The fruit of all this labor was an album that came out in November; now, Pomerantz says, the challenge is “getting people who aren’t your friends to go and listen in some way.” To that end, Pomerantz has begun posting weekly cover songs to his YouTube page. He hopes that strangers will stumble upon his version of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and stay for the original compositions.
Morgan Jerkins ’14 graduated with the dream of becoming a novelist. “I got into freelancing because I didn’t have anything better to do,” she says. “I was back at home, getting my MFA [in creative writing], and I thought, why not add my voice to these conversations going on?”
Her frank Twitter missives — on topics such as James Bond, white female feminism, and President Barack Obama’s sermon after the Charleston shooting — caught the eye of editors looking to populate the expanding terrain of online media with fresh perspectives. In the past year, Jerkins’ writing has appeared in publications including The Atlantic and The Guardian. In an essay for Pacific Standard about her experiences as a black writer, she discussed finding a warmer reception online than in the MFA classroom: “On social media, there is certainty in the fact that writing does not have to be a lonely profession. For a person of color, that solidarity is invaluable.”
Jerkins has parlayed her online platform into assistant positions at Fuse, a literary agency; and Catapult, a new publishing house. “If this were 10, 20 years ago, I probably would have been working as a secretary at a publishing house or literary agency for three or four years, and then I’d go assistant. It’d be a lot slower.”
If these can be considered success stories of young Princetonians #freelancinglife, there are also plenty of headaches. Muller is 10 years into the chase. “There’s just been so many brushes with what seems like a career — hah!” she recalls. After “The Ivy League Hustle,” she says, “I had a few meetings with people, and I was sending out stuff and doing my best at what I’m terrible at, which is self-marketing. ... And then — SPLAT. ”
“People were like, ‘Oh, your YouTube is great; you could pay rent just with YouTube!’ But you’d have to put up lots of new content every week. I just can’t churn them out in that way. It takes me so long to make one of my videos! So a video a week, the thought of that, by myself ... oof, gives me indigestion.”
Muller had faced similar setbacks early in her career, having moved to Los Angeles just as a writers strike shut down Hollywood. “Sometimes I was like, ‘There’s literally no reason to live out here if nobody knows I exist. What am I doing?’”
The solution for Muller was to hustle on her own terms. She figured: “Well, I should be doing something every day. And the thing I can do is write my own stuff. Because otherwise you’re kind of just like treading water until you die. Like, what the hell is the point? I don’t want my life to be determined by an off chance. I could sit and wait to be seen with a thousand other brown-haired white girls who look the same, or I could write songs that nobody else could ever write.“
Nowadays Muller rarely sits still. She waits tables. She tutors. She Fiverrs with her improv troupe, a group called Robot Teammate & the Accidental Party, and performs comedy throughout LA. She also composes new songs and shoots videos to support her solo standup comedy act. A short film that she wrote, edited, and directed recently was shown at the Harlem International Film Festival. “I don’t mind working weird hours just to have my freedom,” Muller says.
Once a month, Muller travels from her home in Burbank to TR!P Santa Monica, a music bar with chrome-and-crimson walls and a weekly burlesque revue called TR!PTEASE. Muller serves as TR!PTEASE’s semi-regular warmup act. In the early days of the gig, she earned a share of the tips, alongside dancers like Egypt Blaque Knyle and DiDi Perks. Now Muller is paid mostly in free beer. Still, she says, “It’s rare enough that someone will give that kind of regular time on stage” — a solid 20 minutes to develop new material.
One summer night, however, Muller is feeling rusty and decides to brush up on her classic material. Before heading up on stage, she greets the regulars in the audience with hugs and high-fives. “Her content is always interesting, educational,” says one smirking patron. “You always learn something new.”
What he means is that 90 percent of Muller’s musical-comedy routine is too blue to be printed in these pages — despite the fact that her sweet, lilting singing voice recalls that of a children’s television host. This tension is the point. “It’s like Mary Poppins singing about anal sex,” Muller says of her act. Her friends, meanwhile, have dubbed her “the Cole Porter of vagina songs.”
“People are like, ‘Oh, you’re clever, you can make clean jokes.’ And I’m like, ‘This is what’s funny to me,’” Muller explains. “I was raised super, super conservative. ... There was so much repression and shame, and most of my 20s was about learning how not to be ashamed anymore.”
After her set at TR!P, Muller is summoned for an audience with Lili VonSchtupp, the grande dame of Los Angeles burlesque. “The songs were great, and I loved how you combined it with the comedy,” VonSchtupp says with regal solemnity. Muller thanks VonSchtupp for the compliment and hands over a business card with her Facebook and Twitter handles.
“You’ve always got to have your cards on you!” Muller says on her way out of the club. “I’ve got probably like 1,000 of them. Because you never know! Maybe you get a follow or two off of it. One can hope.” This summer Muller ran into an agent she met back in 2007, when they were both starting out in Hollywood. He’s established now, and remembered her, and agreed to take her on. Muller’s excited. “He’s got people on real TV shows. He’s really motivated. And he knows exactly what I can do — he knows what languages I can speak, he knows that I can sing. He’s really stoked about my writing.”
Summer 2015 also marked the debut of Timeheart, a Rocky Horror-esque musical space odyssey that Muller wrote and mounted with her Robot Teammate teammates at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. The play was a yearlong labor of love. The group built the show’s elaborate sets in Muller’s garage and workshopped the script in the living room of her Burbank bungalow. The hard work paid off: Timeheart was the top-grossing show at Fringe and easily made back the group’s $5,000 investment in sets, costumes, and theater time.
Finding this group is the best thing that happened to me since moving out here,” Muller says. “LA is so superficial. It seems like everyone’s hedging their bets on each other, so nobody will ever give you a straight no on something, but nobody will go out on a limb to help you, either. Because they’re just hoping: ‘When she gets famous, then I’ll ask her for a favor.’ No one’s actually going to do anything for you. But here you have this group of people that are really committing to each other in a major way, financially and time-wise.”
The idea that friendship can serve as an antidote to doubt and despair is hardly new. But friend groups are especially important for millennials, who seem to be marrying later, if at all. (According to Pew Research, in 2014, 28 percent of Americans between 18 and 33 were married in 2014, compared to 49 percent of baby boomers of the same age in 1980.) In place of spouses, young people are anchoring their adulthoods to wider circles of friends, lovers, and creative collaborators.
Muller credits her improv team with helping her weather the uncertainties of life in LA. In the group’s shows and practices, she says, “we generally go to a fantastic place, an extremely playful and imaginative and fun place that just sort of celebrates life. You get rejected in Hollywood all the time. Improv is all about saying yes. It’s rare to feel like I can do whatever and it will always be right. It can be very healing, even. It’s like, gosh, who needs health insurance when you’re happy all the time?”
Recently Muller got the idea for another play — “a de-creation myth about the last two people on Earth.” It’s kind of Brechtian, but also funny, she says. Muller wrote the bulk of the play in two days. Reporting her progress on the phone, she talks in double time. “It’s physical, it’s gritty, it’s funny, it’s dealing with epic themes. My old theater professor told me that to create art is arrogance. And I’m like, well, yep, but I don’t care. You can’t apologize when you’re creating something.”
Since finishing the play, Muller has hustled to line up collaborators and producers. Along the way, all of her fears about her time in Los Angeles — Has she missed her moment? Will she ever get a break? Is she doomed to a life of bit parts and survival jobs? — have dropped away. Suddenly, she feels special again.
“I haven’t felt this jazzed for a singular purpose since graduating. I’m impossible to be around. ... It’s just incredible. Because so much of my life feels like an uphill battle — like maybe if I work hard I can make a viral video, but does that feed your soul?”
She follows this with an equally effusive stream of texts:
“Maybe someone will read this article and be into [the play] haha”
“My whole life just turned into sand and fell through my fingers and I don’t even care it’s so thrilling”
“I’m so freaking happy”
David Walter ’11 is a journalist in New York City.