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JoJo and the Difficult Pop Comeback

Rising above the chatter about hair relaxing treatments and indie lipstick brands, there is screaming. It comes in waves, unannounced. The epicenter of all the screaming is one corner of BeautyCon, housed at New York City's Pier36 on a recent weekend. It's the corner where famous beauty and lifestyle vloggers, who have admirably parlayed their DIY beauty skills into full-time careers, descend from an upper level to greet their dedicated fans below.

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For the Are We There Yet? actress and fashion vlogger Teala Dunn, 18, the crowd will amass a battle cry of adoration, yelling "Teala! Teala!" as she snaps photos of her fans from up above. For Dance Moms personality-turned-beauty vlogger Chloe Lukasiak, 14, young women will jump the "pink carpet" media lines to get closer pictures of the star. And for 19-year-old superstar Bethany Mota, who has declined formal interviews in lieu of Snapchat ones, girls will shake and sob like early Beatles fans. Then, performing later in the day, there is the 24-year-old singer JoJo.

This is "Too Little Too Late" JoJo. The youngest person to ever have a Billboard mainstream No. 1 single at age 13. The girl who signed a seven-album deal with Blackground Records at age 12. But the singer went silent before reaching her third record, bound by a contract that made it impossible for her to release any new material. Now freed from that contract and on a new label, the powerhouse singer is poised for a comeback. A few months ago she released a three-single "tringle," a neat little collection of the house-inspired dance song "When Love Hurts," the Christian pop-tinged "Save My Soul," and the intense power ballad "Say Love," all of which make sure to showcase one thing: JoJo can seriously sing, and she's never stopped.

"Making a comeback at 24 just feels like such a weird thing to say," JoJo tells me over the phone prior to her BeautyCon performance. "It's a reintroduction into mainstream life, the mainstream music world. But I've always been in the studio and always had music on my mind and in my heart." While stuck in her contract at Blackground, JoJo was recording and re-recording a new album. In 2014, she won a lawsuit and was freed from the label, but had to leave all of that music behind. It's a choice she's made peace with. "There will always be more songs. As long as you're living, there will be more life and more music," she says. "I think I'm the type of person who just kind of keeps it moving. Whatever cards are dealt to me, I think, okay, this is where we at."

JoJo backstage at New York Fashion Week in 2005. Photo: Getty Images/Carlo Allegri

So this is where JoJo's at: performing at a beauty and lifestyle convention. And if there was a place to help her rein in a new era of her fanbase, it's here. Some vloggers, like Jeannie Mai, Nikki Phillipi, and Whitney White, were excited for the return. "That [music] is from when I grew up. I haven't listened to her new music — just the old stuff — but JoJo's the bomb," vlogger Whitney White, 29, tells me.

"I think what happened with her label was horrible," said musician and WinkyLux collaborator Lily Lane, 23. "The fact that she finally has creative control and is making this amazing music that's really her— I can't wait to see what she comes out with."

At 24, she's a bit of a relic in this internet-centric atmosphere, a representation of how teenagers became "IRL famous" a decade ago.

Still, I got as many blank stares from panelists and vloggers as I did excitement from the other BeautyCon stars. Attendees either flat out did not know who JoJo was or, depending on their age, had good, albeit hazy, memories of her biggest hits. "I hate to say it, but she really did drop off the face of the earth," says attendee Gabriella Murphy Goldberg, 24. "As a third party to the situation, it's like what happened to her? Now that I know more about her situation I'm really pumped to see her comeback."

And: "It's smart for her to be here playing for a younger audience," says attendee Sunny Kurup, 17, who's excited for the JoJo return. "These are girls that should be her fans, right?"

Well, yes and no. While BeautyCon is a convention for showcasing beauty products from big brands like NYX, Essie, and Garnier, it's also a place for alternative brands like Carol's Daughter, Glossier, and WinkyLux — brands started by women trying to fill gaps in the market. The stars here are teen vloggers like Mota and Maddi Bragg, who turned talking about makeup with a camera in their bedrooms into a lucrative job — all before they were old enough to drive. "Who wants to be a businesswoman!" convention host Jeannie Mai yelled into a mic at one point as a crowd of teenaged women roared. Even without a beauty line or vlog to her name, JoJo's presence still feels fitting here among young women building mini-empires for themselves.

Photo: Getty Images/Andrew Toth

But the irony of JoJo performing at a convention like BeautyCon is that, while she shares quite a bit in common with the famous teens who rule the show, how one obtains and maintains stardom these days is completely different from when she was 16. At 24, she's a bit of a relic in this internet-centric atmosphere, a representation of how teenagers became "IRL famous" a decade ago.

"I think it's really cool and enterprising how there are these girls who are taking things into their own hands and letting people in on their ‘secrets' or tips and tricks," JoJo tells me about the beauty vlogging world, one she participates in casually. She's supportive of the ways young people get lightning-fast famous these days, whether in the beauty or music world. "There are now so many different ways to get to that point," she says. "I think it takes the power away from 'the man,' the big companies that don't have a heart, and puts the power back into young people."

If there's one thing JoJo wants to prove with her third record, it's that she's okay. She seems eager to put the past behind her and stresses that she didn't want to seem like "a casualty" of her situation. "I didn't want to harp on negativity, and I didn't want this album to be un-relatable," she says about the themes on her forthcoming album, which will dip into all of her favorite genres: house, R&B, and hip-hop. "You're not going to find me [singing about] being wrapped up in a contract because who knows how that feels? I wanted to find the fun and the victory and the resilience in this."

Towards BeautyCon's end, a modest crowd of 40 or 50 people begins to form outside at the stage for JoJo's set. The New York weather has turned cold, and girls are shivering, bare-legged in floral rompers. Nearby, convention employees begin to take down various "meet-up" booths for famous bloggers. But when the wavy-haired JoJo begins her 2004 hit "Get Out," the crowd, iPhones in hand, freaks out and sings along. More people begin to move outside. Her voice is exactly the same, though JoJo never did have a voice that matched her age. She performs all of her "tringle," the lyrics unknown to many in the audience. "Oh, you know this part by now," she says during the chorus of "Save My Soul." She finishes with "Too Little Too Late," the audience offering up backup vocals for her minimalist acoustic stage setup.

This small, cold crowd at BeautyCon is definitely not what JoJo deserves at this point in her career, but it's what she has right now. The setup might seem sadder if her performance wasn't so good. She's making the most of her tiny stage, her star vocals impressing audience members into gasps. Whether the fame she had ten years ago will return or not, JoJo has a realistic view of what her future holds. The singer spent almost a decade in record-making purgatory; she's not one to give up a dream easily. "I'm not Justin Bieber. My singles aren't going to skyrocket to number one. But I'm invested in the bills, you know what I mean?" JoJo tells me. "I'm committed to doing this for the rest of my life."


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