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I can’t stop thinking about JoJo Siwa

staff note

YouTube is where I go when I want to be entertained — effortlessly, thoughtlessly, mind-numbingly entertained. It is a perfect receptacle for that desire, overstuffed with content tailored exactly to my scatterbrained preferences, algorithmically designed to be easily digested and impossible to look away from. According to the “recommended” videos YouTube’s homepage thrusts at me upon arrival, I have a weakness for talk show clips, “Key & Peele” skits and compilation videos centered on drag queens, movie stars and drama-hungry makeup gurus.

This mathematic anticipation of my interests is what drove me, slack-jawed and stimuli-deprived, to encounter a video titled “HOUSE TOUR!! — JoJo Siwa.” I had fallen into a JoJo-themed rabbit hole the night before, wherein I spent an hour reading through her Wikipedia page, trolling her Twitter and Instagram profiles, reliving the summer between eighth and ninth grade when I ravenously consumed nothing but “Dance Moms.” YouTube was paying attention to my search habits, and it served me JoJo on a silver platter. I clicked without hesitation.

Before we get into all of that, I would like to provide you with some context: Joelle Joanie “JoJo” Siwa was born May 19, 2003 (thank you, rabbit hole), into a world that was on a swift but forceful downward decline. Then-President George W. Bush had accused the Iraqi government of hiding weapons of mass destruction only a few months earlier, and by JoJo’s birth, the War on Terror was fully fledged. A year later, in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg would launch Facebook from his Harvard dorm room and transform the landscape of the internet forever. Everything was changing, pitching us deeper into the clutches of the attention economy, and at the center of these converging events was an all-American desire for distraction — the kind that eats up our disappearing free time in service of the late-capitalist pressures we so desperately want to eschew. 

Reality television exploded in the 2000s and remained highly profitable into the 2010s. Richard Hatch and Kelly Clarkson, the first-season winners of “Survivor” and “American Idol,” respectively, became household names. Myspace, which reached its zenith in 2006, gave way to Facebook which gave way to YouTube, then Twitter, then Tumblr and Instagram and Snapchat. We uploaded our lives online and mediated their pleasures through four-inch-tall screens. For those born after the turn of the century, performing — their talents, their personalities, their selfhood, in ultimate service to the altar of profit — was all they ever knew.

And so JoJo did what any other kid reared in the aughts would, at one point or another, dream of doing: She became a child star. (Maybe it’s unfair to say JoJo had any agency in this choice — in the same way that the name “JoJo” inherently necessitates either a life in show business or in clownery for the unfortunate individual to whom it is given — but that’s a different conversation altogether.) Her break came when she starred on “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition,” a spin-off of dance instructor Abby Lee Miller’s main project, “Dance Moms,” whose cast JoJo eventually joined. Miller is known for her cruel tutelage and bad attitude; JoJo and her mother, for their part, were equally catty during their time on the show.

By 2016, at the age of 13, JoJo left “Dance Moms” and began to build her brand in earnest. While on the show, JoJo had started to don her now-signature hair bows, large and colorful and overwhelmingly childish, pinned against her similarly infamous (and frighteningly tight) ponytail; in 2016, she released a line of bows to be sold at Claire’s, the retail bastion of girliness. She also dropped a single that year, “Boomerang,” an “anti-bullying” song so insidiously banal and inoffensive that it may very well have been focus-grouped into existence. Then, in 2017, JoJo signed an overall talent deal with Nickelodeon, meaning everything she produced from that point forward — her music, her clothes, her dance routines, her Tweets and YouTube videos, her image — would be controlled by the company.

Back to the house tour video. It opens with a quick promotion: JoJo’s worldwide “D.R.E.A.M.” tour (do we think JoJo has ever listened to Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.”?) is adding 50 new cities to its schedule. That seems like a lot. Then JoJo is standing in front of a Spanish Colonial house, smooth off-white stucco, clay tile and iron trim allover. It sprawls more than it towers, taking up preciously sparse acreage, the way most expensive homes in Los Angeles tend to. JoJo, using her uniquely raspy, high-pitched, fast-paced voice, catches me up: She just moved in three days ago. Before we enter the house, she again reminds me that she’s going on tour.

Inside is worse than outside. Gaudier, I mean. The foyer is blindingly white and marble and cold, the ceilings are vaulted and everything is open. JoJo’s voice, which is loud at any volume, echoes against my eardrums. She shows off a candy bar, a shaved ice machine, a toy claw machine, a custom-made billiards table, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a basketball court and a designated merchandise room, which houses “every product under the sun” that’s JoJo-branded — “T-shirts, bedding, blankets, socks, underwear, lunch boxes” and much, much more.

By the time JoJo had kicked me out of her house with a final plug for her tour — she’s leaving us to “play in [her] room because [her] room is awesome” — I was baffled. I doubled back to her Wikipedia page to confirm that, yes, she is 16 years old, despite her overall affect communicating that she is far younger. In the heyday of childhood Disney stardom, this was the age in which everything started to fall apart: At 15, Miley Cyrus posed for Annie Leibovitz in nothing but a bed sheet; at 17, Demi Lovato tried cocaine for the first time; at 18, Joe Jonas took his first hit of marijuana. And yet, here is JoJo, on the brink of legal adulthood, wearing an outfit she markets to 10-year-olds.

Is she okay? She must be, because her (loosely reliable) net worth is $12 million. To date, D.R.E.A.M. The Tour has sold over 500,000 tickets, earning a whopping $26.9 million. (It is currently the fifth-most profitable concert tour in the country, right behind Madonna’s.) Her two YouTube channels combined have 13 million subscribers and rake in around $9 million dollars a year from advertising revenue alone. And then there’s the hair bows and T-shirts and backpacks and lunch boxes, and whatever else Nickelodeon has deemed profitable to stamp her image onto, all of which helped finance her multi-million-dollar mansion I had the displeasure of visiting, with its garish novelty décor and bubblegum furnishings.

That’s all to say: I can’t — I cannot — stop thinking about JoJo Siwa. She is American excess, corporate greed, the worst parts of TikTok and the D.A.R.E. program, all bound up and held together with a $16.99 “Unicorn on Fleek” bow, and her grift shows no signs of slowing down. If Miley Cyrus and her Disney cohort killed the tween star, then JoJo is resurrecting it, and we are utterly helpless to stop her. 

Nina Wilder is a Trinity senior and Recess editor.

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