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Before she dropped her song “Karma” on Friday, JoJo Siwa spent several weeks letting the world know that she was done with bows and glittery-y pastels. In March, she posted a parental advisory message on her Instagram grid — teasing a new (and more explicit) era.

It became clear immediately that the 20-year-old was hoping for a rebrand built on shock-value: photos of the openly gay star embracing two girls at once, wearing Kiss-inspired face paint and teasing lyrics about being a “bad girl” were rolled out in the weeks following the content warning. Once it dropped, “Karma” was a major shift from her usual anti-haters empowerment fodder. Instead, Siwa sings about how cheating leads to bad karma, a nod to some romantic drama the singer had been embroiled in not too long ago.

We’ve seen this play out numerous times before: over the last few decades, a child star making a dramatic jump to a more mature public image has become a rite of passage. In the Eighties, Michael and Janet Jackson perfected the form, not only reclaiming control and independence but also establishing themselves as musical geniuses in the process. By the 2000s, a new wave of teeny-bopper pop heavyweights were desperate to branch out and widen the age range of their audience — and therefore their cultural cache as well. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera kissed Madonna on the VMA stage (and further explored what it means to have sexual agency both in their music and public performances). Justin Timberlake partnered with Timbaland and Pharrell to make more grown and sexy R&B. Years later, Miley Cyrus would twerk her way through the Bangerz era, shedding any memory of her halcyon Hannah Montana days, while both Justin Bieber and Nick Jonas would pull a few pages from Timberlake’s blue-eyed R&B playbook.

For the women who explored a professional coming-of-age moment, something as simple as wearing a little less clothing or singing more openly about sex and relationships beyond Radio Disney-friendly lyrics about handholding and heartbreak was enough to create a media firestorm, anger parents, and alienate more conservative audiences. Over the years, the tricks have been so cut-and-pasted by every pop star that they almost seem like a given once a teen star is between the ages of 18 and 21. The shock of it all has been watered down, especially as the cultural conversation around sex and sex education has become moderately more open-minded and realistic since the days of child stars wearing purity rings.

Siwa’s “Karma” wants it too badly. Arguably, Siwa was the biggest network-backed child star since Cyrus and Jonas’ Disney era. While Ariana Grande and Zendaya came out of Nickelodeon and Disney respectively in the years following, both didn’t reach household name status until they left those shows. Siwa, however, had built a children’s entertainment empire with her massive merch deals, YouTube channel, tours and Nickelodeon specials. Her reach was much younger than the child stars who had been famous in the years leading up to her rise; shows like Hannah Montana and Victorious as well as any generation’s boy bands appealed more to the double-digit tween base while Siwa’s content was raking in the kindergarten set who would proudly sport her bedazzled bows and rainbow-emblazoned clothes.

Based on Siwa’s own taste in the ostentatious, it makes sense she would go for an over-the-top and hyper-referential version of the coming-of-age career moment. She has not been shy in noting how much she wants her Bangerz moment. The failure, however, is not only lacking a previous teen pop career moment that broke beyond her audience-bubble and would give this moment more weight (her musical offerings were fairly minimal prior to “Karma”) but also her believing that much of what she’s doing is still shocking culturally in the first place. There is surely overlap in Siwa’s core audience with those attending tours for big ticket pop stars like Olivia Rodrigo, whose music skipped over the teen pop trappings even while she was still attached to her Disney show. At Rodrigo’s Madison Square Garden shows, there are as many twentysomethings as there are grade-schoolers screaming “I still fucking love you” during “Drivers License.”

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Regardless of the reality TV, YouTube viewership and merchandising deals, it’s clear Siwa is banking on music as her priority going forward. She indicated this in my 2019 interview with her as well, citing Freddie Mercury as her biggest inspiration. “I literally sleep with a piano on my bed,” said. “I do see myself going into more musical music that will be timeless.” She tried her hand at masterminding a young girl group on her reality competition Siwa’s Dance Pop Revolution. Since then, a former member, mother and sources close to production recently spoke to Rolling Stone about the group’s experience, alleging a toxic environment created by Siwa and her mother as well as allegations of bullying and grueling rehearsal hours for the underage performers. (The Siwas denied all allegations in a response via their counsel, alleging that the member’s mother was the abusive one.) Even with the controversy looming, Siwa’s own music career is going full steam ahead, as she is releasing music through a major recording label for the first time.

During that 2019 interview, Siwa also expressed her own feelings on what it looked like for previous generations of child stars, especially the moment when they begin to feel trapped and need to break out of their family-friendly chrysalis. But it seems like relying on tepid shock and hate-watches could be more of a trap for her than any bow-tied high ponytail could have ever been.





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