JoJo Siwa Warned Us About This

It began on March 11th, 2024 with a robot-narrated “warning” posted on JoJo Siwa’s TikTok account: “The following content is not made for children and may be disturbing or offensive to some viewers. May contain sexual themes, violence, strong language, traumatic scenarios and flashing lights. Viewer discretion is advised.” It was time for JoJo Siwa to grow up, to become an adult, to undergo a public metamorphosis that would accurately reflect the woman buried within the glittery girl who’d made her famous.

JoJo Siwa was going to sing about girls and dating and gay chaos and bad decisions, and she would do so in a flesh-toned bodysuit, or while suggestively biting her lip or grabbing her crotch in a frenetic dance, or while topping a dancer on a sandy soundstage christened “Karma Island.” And JoJo Siwa was going to do this with complete confidence, bless her heart, and even before the full single and video actually dropped last night, it was hard to find a social media user who had not already been exposed to its hook.

While her rebrand was unlikely to be flawless, it was made increasingly clear that it would be, at the very least, something.

threesome

JoJo Siwa in the music video for “Karma”

Siwa’s not the first young celebrity to clumsily attempt to cross this particular bridge — from cherubic child star to a grown-up who experiences sexual desire — but she may be the first out lesbian pop star to do so, as few others have hit that precise combination of being both incredibly famous and incredibly out at such a young age. (Siwa will turn 21 in May.) Far fewer have the financial resources Siwa does to fund her own album production and music video. The “uncharted territory” of it all is compelling to me as a scholar of lesbian pop culture — what does this journey look like when uninformed by and unconcerned with the male gaze? Is there any lesbophobia lurking beneath her negative reception from the mainstream? Would they think more highly of her if she was surrounded by shirtless men rather than two girls at one time? And is the cringe coming from within the community at all informed by internalized homophobia, or does JoJo Siwa’s entire deal exist on another plane altogether that many simply cannot abide for completely unrelated reasons?

On the Viall Files podcast this week, Siwa said she expected the video to shock people and turn heads — that was part of the goal, really. But she wanted more than just that. “I definitely want to be taken seriously,” she explained, and then added: “But I kind of realize that no matter what I do, no one’s gonna take it seriously.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 01: (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) JoJo Siwa attends the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California on April 01, 2024. Broadcasted live on FOX. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

In the days and weeks following March 11th, JoJo continued to hype the single and its accompanying video, and reactions ranged from, “I’m gonna lie, this song slaps” to “this song always fails to put me in a good mood!” to “This song helped me through life. I was in labor for 15 hours. I was in excruciating pain. Thankfully this song was playing and the baby crawled out of me to turn off my phone. Thank you.”

There were parodies and there was commentary and there was JoJo herself. She began sharing clips from rehearsals in which her costume evoked memories of Ziggy Stardust and/or Jem and the Holograms. Moments tumbled forward on her timeline at a precedented pace: JoJo Siwa crying in her Lamborghini, JoJo Siwa listening to her own song in her Lamborghini, JoJo Siwa getting really unfortunate tattoos. She rhinestoned her head and ears while telling us that it’s been so gratifying to hear people compare her transformation to Miley’s “Bangerz” moment, to note that she’s becoming an adult and “an artist.” She leaned over to the camera, Hey-Mamas style, in acid-washed rhinestone-encrusted jeans and 75 silver chains, lip syncing “I was a bad girl, I did some bad things.” She ranked the lyrics to the few clips yet released from her own song while wearing a baseball cap seemingly designed to replicate the experience of entering a room through a beaded curtain. She did her dance.

“For as much shit as people are giving JoJo Siwa, I am so thoroughly entertained,” TikToker Jake Shane posted on Tuesday. “I can’t even begin to describe it. Every red carpet interview. Every TikTok. Every snippet. Like — I can’t look away! I can’t look away! The dance! The fucking dance? The dance.”

JoJo Siwa commented on Shane’s TikTok: “don’t look away 👀❤️‍🔥.”

jojo siwa tiktok three-grid

Most people don’t announce that they are entering their Adult Era, they simply do it and wait for the world to notice. Saying it can’t make it so. One yearns for Siwa to consider showing, not telling, as she boldly stares at the camera, dressed for glam rock yet singing synth-pop, and literally says she is a bad girl.

To return to the gendered gaze of it all, ultimately JoJo Siwa usually seems unconcerned with any gaze at all besides her own, which’s one of a few reasons why her evolution faces a formidable challenge. Siwa herself exists in a unique, self-created bubble. She’s been homeschooled her entire life (aside from a very brief third grade stint in public school), the majority of her projects have been self-focused, and she seems usually surrounded by people much older or much younger than her, many of whom work with her, for her, or adjacent to her. She grew up in the cutthroat world of competitive dance and has been subjected to critique and bullying and hatred from adults and strangers since she was nine years old, thus weakening her ability to sort through the noise for valid feedback. She’s not particularly tapped in to the zeitgeist, and perhaps never has been.

In some ways this has made her an unprecedented force as an out lesbian celerity — she has the privilege, the opportunity and the nerve to take some pretty big risks. She is resolutely unapologetic about who she is, and who she is is very gay.

But more crucially — known worldwide for her buoyant hair bows, Rainbow Brite aesthetic and raspy, hyperbolic, effusive endorsement of everything as “the best thing ever” or “the best day of her life,” Siwa’s specific brand is deeply tied to over-the-top childish iconography. Hannah Montana was a child because that’s how old Miley Cyrus was. But JoJo Siwa wasn’t simply the age at which one is a child — Siwa, even as a teenager, lived in a Lisa Frankish candy palace, surrounded by glitter and rainbows and unicorns, courting a fanbase of actual children who bought over 80 million of her signature hair bows. Her out-of-touchness may’ve been an asset for an adult creating children’s content without self-consciousness, but it’s harder, now, for this.

She’s occasionally overcome this association to be seen as a hot and cool adult, but only incidentally — most memorably, the clip posted by ESPNW after the 2021 MLB All-Star game, which inspired TikTok comments like “she’s so fine right there” and “I feel like she realizes how hot she is.”

DENVER, COLORADO - JULY 11: Media Personality JoJo Siwa during the MLB All-Star Celebrity Softball Game at Coors Field on July 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Tom Cooper/Getty Images)

Photo by Tom Cooper/Getty Images

But in general, JoJo’s brand is only not embarrassing because it was so successful. Transitioning that same attitude into her rebranded adulthood is going to be rocky unless it, too, is successful, and on April 3rd, Wikipedia was already confidently declaring, “On April 5, 2024, she released her official debut single “Karma” which received mixed reviews from the public.”

Mixed reviews won’t necessarily impede economic success or popularity, though. Last week, Siwa shared an article from Forbes announcing that her song was charting on Billboard despite being unreleased. Indeed, it had ranked on the TikTok Billboard Top 50, which measures the platform’s most popular tracks “based on creations, video views and user engagement.” As of 9:30 AM on Saturday, April 6th, the video has already racked up 7.1 million views and easily tops YouTube’s trending charts.

She knows how to get people talking. What I mean is — on some level, JoJo Siwa knows exactly what she’s doing.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 27: JoJo Siwa with FIJI Water and JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery at Ping Pong 4 Purpose 2023 at Dodger Stadium on July 27, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Kershaw's Challenge)

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Kershaw’s Challenge

Siwa perhaps is torn between the marketing antics that got her this far and the behavior that could actually move her to a new level — on The Viall Files, Nick begged her to remove the legendary decals of her face from her car (JoJo’s “Jojomobile” is plastered in cutouts of her face) and she refused, citing it as an effective marketing tool, while also acknowledging it posed a great risk to her personal safety. But what kind of sense does that make? JoJo is famous enough to not rely on her personal vehicle to serve as free ad space for her overall brand within Los Angeles metropolitan area. Perhaps the most revelatory admission about the car is her explaining that it was a gift from her parents, who thought it would help promote her tour. The wrap was a “full surprise” that has since become “a standard.” But to whomst? And why?

“People are afraid of things they don’t know,” Siwa told E! News of the reaction to her ‘transformation.’ “Things can be scary for people. New things can be very, very scary.”

Jojo at the GLAAD AWards

Jon Kopaloff / Stringer

“Karma” isn’t a bad song. It’s catchy and fun and danceable. The music video is high camp, which’s ultimately is the language of our people.

TikTok musician Eternity posted a cover of “Karma” that JoJo Siwa duetted, and Brooke Butler did her own version, captioned with “what karma would sound like if jojo siwa drank whiskey and drove a truck.” In their hands, the song has real momentum and a kind of soul and self-consciousness missing from Siwa’s performance. They sing with honesty and despair. When Eternity and Brooke sing “Karma,” they’re not trying to be cool. They’re trying to be honest. The end result is that they do, in fact, look cool. It might take a few minutes away from cameras and her parents for JoJo to figure out what honesty looks like on her.

Throughout all of this, there have been moments when you can see a person who is truly straining behind the mask she created for herself to create a space for something authentic to grow. JoJo Siwa, like most 20-year-old girls and most newly out lesbians, wants to be hot and wants to be cool. Like most entertainers, she wants to be seen as an artist, and wants people to take her seriously. She wants to dress like G-Flip, she wants to talk about being a top on a podcast, she wants to seem dangerous and complicated, she wants to make music videos like Lady Gaga and wear outfits like Elton John but in the end she’s still profoundly unformed. Ultimately, that may be the only truly relatable and grounded thing about JoJo Siwa — how clearly she is yearning to be something she has yet to become. It is that unformed, baby dyke, desperately trying piece of ourselves that we recognize in her, and in that moment of identification, it’s hardly surprising that so many want just as desperately to look away.

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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3202 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. gen a and young gen z baby gays are obsessed with her and every movement she makes

    sure it’s cringe but you can’t deny the zeitgeist

    what’s cool and artsy and intellectual is mostly not what’s popular in any community

    cheers to having a mainstream lesbian pop star raised in a bubble and also we’re mostly adults who did not grow up with her and the bows and dolls and dances

    i know i have a forgiving place in my heart
    for every early 2000s pop star because they were my
    childhood

  2. Thank goodness for the anonymity, lack of budget, and presence of consequences that let most of us enjoy our cringe “I’m an adult now!” phases, grow past them, and allow the passage of time to cover them up! I doubt I’ll ever be a Siwa fan cause that strain of pop makes my brain hurt but as a person I just wish her a long gap year with an anonymizing haircut and dye job so she could figure out how to be whatever kind of adult fulfills her without commercializing it first.

    • +1,000! Transitioning into adulthood isn’t pretty or easy under the best of circumstances. I like your gap year idea.

      And honestly, making cringey videos is a hell of a lot safer than doing hard drugs or dating abusive assholes. I’ve been low key praying for her since she came out and I still just wish her Godspeed in her journey into adulthood.

  3. I kinda dig JoJo, I think she has a lot of guts and talent. Some of those dance moves, Goddess above !
    As an image breaker, this isn’t bad, just this side of wholesome while hinting at bad choices. Perfect for when your hormones start to kick in and you don’t quite know what a bad choice is, but you’re definitely interested in making a few.

  4. I can’t think of anything more lazy than making fun of her… I’m not sure if I’ll ever be a fan but the people making fun of her online are even more unoriginal and uninspired than her.

  5. Why do we always have to do this to women artists as they come of age? Like everyone ever always, this article claims to be aware of that pattern, but then drags her just the same. It’s misogynistic. I expected more supportive commentary from Autostraddle.

    We were so excited when she was on Dancing with the Stars and when she got her alternative lifestyle haircut. Why can’t we celebrate this too?

    A year from now, you’ll probably say you regret being so harsh, just like everyone always does. Why couldn’t you just not do it in the first place? Why even write this? I thought we were supposed to be supportive of each other. If she hasn’t harmed our community, why can’t we just live and let live?

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