In this week's Pop is Not a Dirty Word, Douglas Greenwood sheds light on the curious case of pop star and influencer JoJo Siwa, and what good this all-grinning 16-year-old could do to youth culture.
It’s two in the morning and I’m so deep into a YouTube hole that I can’t find my way back out. There’s a video I’ve found titled, in all caps and with three exclamation points, ‘BABYSITTING NORTH WEST!!!‘. In it, a 16-year-old girl with a Fanta-orange-slash-bleach-blonde ponytail and a sequinned rainbow jacket has invited Kim and Kanye’s first born child into her home.
The pony-tailed girl shrieks as she opens the door, running to hug North West as the camera pans in and out queasily, like an outtake from The Blair Witch Project. Meanwhile, North West’s uber-famous mother is left hanging. That is, perhaps, the perfect representation of this teenager’s power: her name is JoJo Siwa, and when she’s in the room, she’s all anybody can think about.
If you’re ever in the company of anybody under the age of 10, be it your kids, cousins, nieces or nephews, you’ll definitely know that name. A dancer, pop star and internet influencer, Siwa is the biggest kid’s TV sensation since Hannah Montana. 8.5 million people follow her on Instagram (not bad, considering you have to be 13 to have an account on the platform). Her net worth? A rumoured $12 million. Her Rebecca Black-like debut single ‘Boomerang’ – released independently without label backing – has over 700 million views on YouTube.
What we’re witnessing is the birth of a new superstar that seems inexplicable to anybody outside of her core demographic; a teenage girl, doused in glitter and loaded with energy, who has more clout than the rest of us will ever have.
While most young figures in pop culture have an element to their craft that’s cross-generational – 17-year-old Billie Eilish’s dark DIY-pop is a critical smash, for example – there’s something about Siwa that’s only alluring to those born in 2005 or later.
Ask most parents, or those over the age of 16 who have access to the internet, and their opinion will be starkly different. Most find her energy fatiguing, her rapid speech borderline terrifying. She is to today’s kids what the Teletubbies were to ours – only actually sentient, not made of foam, and infinitely brighter.
And she’s taking over the world at a rapid pace, her brand infiltrating everything from Target stores in America (a haul video in which she picks out one of everything with her name on it in the store is jaw-dropping) to an almost-sold out date at London’s 20,000 capacity O2 arena. She might piss off parents and the internet with her presence, but with stats like this, all the signs are pointing to her becoming pop culture’s leader of the free world. Is that terrifying?
Well, if planet earth is a burning cesspit fuelled by the flames of far-right politics, Siwa is doing everything in her power to ensure that today’s children don’t live their lives in fear. From her cutesy pop songs to her vast array of self-filmed vlogs, her frothy and harmless output is pretty much the antidote to our super woke Gen-Z army. Some might argue that such ignorance equals danger, but in reality, who has the energy (apart from Siwa, who’s probably preoccupied given she’s raking in thousands by the minute) to give a fuck about the actions of a teenage girl with a tween following? Especially one who’s not giving cops the middle finger or excessively using the word ‘cunt’?
There has never been anything like her in pop culture before. Heck, even Hannah Montana had started to steer off her goody-two-shoes path into rockier-pop material by her age. But Siwa is hellbent on remaining an influential, un-problematic figure to her audience for the foreseeable future. In many ways, she’s babysitting not only the most famous kid on earth, but every child who’s been plonked down in front of Nickelodeon or YouTube for a hot minute. She has the future generation of our planet in the palm of her hands, so it’s quite reassuring actually, that she doesn’t plan on becoming a tyrannical dictator at any point soon.
When we thought of ‘nice things’ in our childhood, it was play parks and bike rides and naff kids TV before school. That experience has been digitised now. And JoJo Siwa, in all of her glittering glory, is its de facto leader.