Why JoJo Matters

For the past decade, my go-to “favorite pop song” has been JoJo’s “Too Little Too Late.” I’m not sure it’s always been an entirely accurate answer (isn’t the point of one’s favorite popular song the fact that it’s always changing?), but there’s something about “Too Little Too Late” that continues to exemplify everything I want from the genre. The track touches that sweet spot of “so sugary it’s almost embarrassing,” while keeping you hooked with Adele-level pathos. Sure, it’s not The Kinks, Belle & Sebastian, or, even Sia. But when it comes to contemporary pop — post-Brian Wilson, post-Carole King, post-Prince, bona fide American Top 40 pop — then “Too Little Too Late” marks a kind of ideal horizon. I’m not trolling:

You could not dream up a more perfect pop track. It’s “Call Me Maybe” if “Call Me Maybe” were sung by a 15-year-old; it’s also “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” if “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” were sung by a 15-year-old. It’s a hate track. It’s a heartbreak track. In it, JoJo sounds wildly in control and past her years, while also like an undeniable, I don’t know, teenager. It’s hard to balance that fusion of innocence and experience, though it doesn’t hurt that JoJo’s a vocal prodigy. After almost a decade, the prescient maturity of “Too Little Too Late” — as well as the album on which it appears titled, get this, The High Road — baffles me every time.

It might have baffled JoJo at the time as well, yet you’d never be able to tell from her delivery. In a recent interview with JoJo, Jia Tolentino writes:

As a preteen — at a time when most of her peers were sweatily botching even the most rudimentary quasi-romantic encounter — JoJo had already mastered the kiss-off, as demonstrated in “Leave” and “Too Little Too Late” (the platonically perfect latter of which was co-written by Billy Steinberg, who co-wrote “Like A Virgin” and “I Drove All Night” and Demi Lovato’s magical “Give Your Heart a Break”).

“It’s funny,” she said, when I asked her about the fact that all the love interests in her songs seem like real assholes. “It’s almost like art predicted life for a minute there. ‘Leave’ and ‘Too Little Too Late’ were handed to me, and then when I started dating a few years later, I wondered if those songwriters hadn’t instinctively picked up on something.”

And herein lies a basic principle of the pop song: JoJo’s performance on “Too Little Too Late” is irreducible to any evidence of authenticity. She did not have to write the song, nor live its lyrics at the time of recording, for it to cut across as real. It’s real because it sounds real. We’re all bound to meet an asshole or two between 15 and 25. That’s the antidote of the enduring pop kiss-off, though its insights probably also do often come a little too late.

With the recent release of JoJo’s stunning III (dubbed a “tringle” for being a 3-track EP), it’s hard not to continue this imaginative reverse engineering of her career in which JoJo always was what she is now. As with everything she’s put out since The High Road, the tringle tracks an arc of creative development that’s hugely validating for anyone invested in “Too Little Too Late” as not a one-hit-wonder teen peak, but in fact, only the start of JoJo’s artistic trajectory. Following the mixtapes Agápē (2012) and #LoveJo (2014), the tringle sinks ever deeper into JoJo’s acknowledgment of R&B;, blues, and, even jazz. It’s an influence that you can spot as early as The High Road, where songs such as “How To Touch A Girl” sway with the double-time of a Cole Porter shuffle (there are even trumpets). That song sits easily as the prelude to love-in-the-club sex jams like “André” and “Take the Canyon” from Agápē that come a few years later. Each of JoJo’s albums flirts with promises that the subsequent one confidently keeps. And then some.

I agree with Jia in claiming “Say Love” as the tringle’s highlight, but every track on the EP is so wholly different from the other, that it’s difficult to put them in comparative conversation. “Save My Soul” rolls out a bass beat that’s perfect for either crying in the club or crying while speeding along a dark highway. “When Love Hurts” is upbeat enough to sound like a triumphant break-up anthem, but its lyrics suggest something more fraught. The chorus is essentially a repetition of “When love hurts, baby / Yeah, that’s how you know it’s real” — an assertion (or a plea?) about a relationship that might be as much urgent as it is over.

“Say Love” can’t help but remind me of Jessie Ware’s “Say You Love Me,” another song that asks for love in the form of an imperative. “Baby it looks as though we’re running out of words to say / And love’s floating away,” sings Ware, with the fitting delivery of drawing out the inevitable “running out of words to say,” before finally letting “love’s floating away” do exactly that. In JoJo’s “Say Love,” the lover also finds herself out of time:

Cause where I want to be is far apart
from where we are, from where we are.
And I thought I found the place where we could start
talk from the heart, talk from the heart.

The presentness of JoJo, of pop ballads, of “Say Love,” involves magical thinking — the faith that what we speak now is truly what we mean. Talk from the heart. Here, it’s just another JoJo track that quietly begs the undoing of too little, too late.

It’s also a reminder that it never really is.

Jane Hu is a writer living in Berkeley.