At a certain point in the mid-2000s, savvy advertising agencies en masse began targeting an increasingly younger subset of child consumer, driven by the notion that kids’ persistence and nascent desire would sell material goods better than ads targeting parents and their pocketbooks ever could. The advertisers’ coveted tween market—kids aged 8 to 12, generally—was an early stab at influencer virality that preyed on gendered notions of the way girls socialize; in 2007, CBS News interviewed the CEO of a firm called “Girls Intelligence Agency” about how they relied upon very young “secret agents”—scouted to proselytize the latest toys, clothes, and the like—to their friends. “If the alpha girl likes a product,” according to CBS, “she tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and it spreads like a virus.” The headline, “Marketing to ‘Tweens’ Going Too Far?” reflected a growing parental distress that bare capitalism was worming its way into their babies’ inchoate brains before they could apply critical analyses to what they were being sold.
In 2019, when toddlers floss on smartphones and babies in strollers on the subway seem like they learned to work a tablet out the womb, 8 years old seems relatively grizzled. On July 21, a Sunday evening, sweating voluminously in the 90-something heatwave outside Queens’ Forest Hills Stadium, I thought about the oughts’ tween marketing paranoia, now hopelessly naive or prescient or both, as throngs of parents escorted their trotting, rainbow-and-sparkles-adorned 5- and 6-year-olds past me in the line to see JoJo Siwa, their wholesome overlord.
Virtually all of the kids I saw wore their hair tied up in high ponytails festooned with double-fist-sized bows, mimicking the hairstyle Siwa has worn since her nascent days as a 10-year-old star in the Dance Moms universe. It’s a hairstyle that JoJo wears now, at age 16, almost defensively: “Wrap it up, tie it with a bow,” she sings in her song “Hold the Drama.” “I don’t wanna get old too fast/I wanna make these good times last.” The lyrics are common enough for a pop single, but as they also mirror those from an old Madonna song—“Where’s the Party,” 1986—and the uniformity of the outfits reminded me of 1980s Madonna, too: A person whose fashion was so distinct and easily transposed by her legion, she rubber-stamped a generation in her image.
Many of the bows worn by the procession of tiny girls in Queens were identifiably bought from JoJo’s signature line, purchasable on Claire’s or Amazon for around $10-$15, and part of various JoJo ventures that have raked in millions. The kids, too, dressed in looks from JoJo’s various clothing ventures—skirts of iridescent paillettes; layered neon tutus; inspirational t-shirts with a color palette best described as “unicorn.”
I saw at least six girls wearing the JoJo’s Closet Birthday Dress from Target, made from a neoprene-like fabric and featuring cascading cap sleeves cut to look like a layer cake. It approximated rave gear you might see at a corporate techno mega-festival, if all the attendees were between two- and four-feet tall.
“You all look so cute tonight! You’re dressed just like me!” JoJo screamed into the mic, when she first hit the stadium stage; her opening act, mother-daughter country duo The Belles, had just closed out their set with an ouroboros cover of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” The kids in the audience roared and stomped their feet, juiced not just that their teen idol JoJo was finally there to regale them in all her sequined splendiferousness, but also because JoJo’s holistic sparkling energy has the general overall effect of radiating out and making children lose their shit.
Even though she was equipped with a microphone, she screamed into it while addressing the crowd, as though if she didn’t put forth 110 percent of her voice into it, her six backup dancers and fractal-influenced digital visuals might not be invigorating enough. More than any crafty marketing guru of the 2000s, JoJo is out here earning that check.
JoJo’s general manner of speaking is vehement, though, even apparently in polite conversation—in a May interview with Today’s Natalie Morales, talking about her lack of dating life, her raspy alto and quick-wittedness struck a note somewhere between Liza Minelli and Joan Rivers, a little bit like a jaded adult comedian who had somehow unwillingly time-traveled across the entirety of YouTube.
This quality makes her an intriguing entertainer: She is aware of and caters to the fact that her base audience is much younger than she is, though she’s been in the business for a good amount of her life. Her concert seemed geared to very young kids’ imaginations, a narrative wherein JoJo wanted to reach a place called D.R.E.A.M Land via a giant time-traveling bow that was somehow lost or stolen (spoiler: the dog did it). To get to D.R.E.A.M Land, JoJo and her audience needed to “visit” a melange of other fantasy lands before she could arrive, which manifested in the form of costume changes and corresponding tracks. At one point, while in a land of sports during which she and her backup dancers dressed in sparkly, Elton John-reminiscent baseball costumes, she sat at a piano and talked about the sweltering weather. “As my friend Freddie Mercury would say—well, he’s not my friend, I wish he was my friend,” JoJo said, “The show must go on.”
At 16, JoJo’s spent the majority of her life as a public figure, from Dance Moms to YouTube to Nickelodeon, and so she’s well versed in the art of giving interviews: “The bow for me is a sign of someone who is a good person,” she told Today’s Morales, “someone who is a Siwanator. Say you’re at school and you don’t really have someone to sit with at lunch. So you see a kid, or someone, wearing a JoJo Bow. You know that they’re a Siwanator, which means that they are kind, they are nice, they are strong, they are powerful, they love everyone, they support everyone. They wanna be your friend; they wanna be everyone’s friend. That’s what being a Siwanator is. So if you have a bow in your head? You are a Siwanator.”
“I cannot disclose,” she continued, “how much the bows have made, technically.”
JoJo is an influencer, the tween marketer’s alpha girl, whose outsize cachet among young girls is as steely as any of the 2000s ad execs could have dreamed. At her show, near the adult beverage bar, which had the shortest line of any stadium concert I have ever attended while attempting to procure a $14 margarita, two children who couldn’t have been older than seven begged their mothers for “JoJo Juice”—a five-dollar, nonalcoholic fruit punch garnished with a rainbow gummy candy, named after videos Siwa posts in which she douses juice over her head and screams a lot. (Last week, during a Buzzfeed live event, Siwa did not perform but recreated these clips onstage with “spaghetti sauce, milk, and blue paint,” per Rolling Stone.) The mothers declined, though the kids continued to beg; the allure for them was clearly the perceived proximity to JoJo rather than the juice itself, which was advertised by a photocopied printout.
But Siwa seems to run on sugar, and at one point stopped her hyper performance to conduct a call-and-response for the audience’s favorite candies. (I admit I screamed when she coyly shouted, “Gummi bearrrss?”) It was an introduction to her objectively best song, “Kid in a Candy Store,” a typically uplifting bop with something approaching trap bass and a sing-songy pre-chorus somehow equating a candy shop with the ultimate attainment of one’s dreams.
At the Forest Hills show, where my friend and Jezebel contributor Harron Walker and I seemed to be the only adults unaccompanied by children, Siwa’s performance was an evolution. At first, her impeccable modern choreography and cheeky, upbeat banter was mesmerizing; then we were drawn in by her psychedelic Debordian visuals, many of which consisted of a thousand cut-out JoJo heads folding in on each other over neon backgrounds. Soon, the D.R.E.A.M Land storyline was the most compelling aspect, becoming weirder and trippier as the sun set; the fact that she preferred energetic, cheerleader-y screaming to measured singing over her backing tracks added to the feeling of displacement.
And by the time she started speaking in tongues to a “unicorn”—a staging that approximated possessed jazz scatting and seemed to be utterly normal to the children around us—we were at the edges of our seats.
Who is JoJo Siwa, is a common question among those uninitiated to her rainbow ways, but it’s also a question that adult fans are searching to answer. She apparently lives in a giant home decorated entirely with her merch nestled among neon signs; she is the most enthusiastic teenager I have possibly ever seen, tantalizingly joyous to her legions of sweet young fans. I thought about Ashley O, the Black Mirror character portrayed by Miley Cyrus, which supposedly mimicked the way her real-life internal sorrow contrasted with the ever-happy image teen pop stars are supposed to project. But I can’t fully subscribe to the idea that JoJo’s internal life is far off from the unicorns and glitter smiles she projects—for one thing, she’d have to be a world-class performance artist if she were faking it this vehemently. Her show was like stepping through a looking glass by design, and it was nice, even if for just a couple of hours, to imagine that everything was as shiny and fun as she made it out to be, capitalist construct or not.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)