The singer JoJo and songwriter Diane Warren have teamed up for an official campaign song for the Biden/Harris campaign, “The Change,” and they both spoke with Variety about what led up to today’s release of the new track, which represents a new wrinkle in the often wild and wooly intersection of pop music and presidential politics.
“Diane called me all excited about this song that she had written, as she has before, about different songs for different moments,” says JoJo, who first recorded Warren material in her teen yeas. “But there was something about this that particularly made my heart open. What actually drew me to the song was the fact that there’s nothing political in the lyric” — which leans heavier on the need for a “me” change than a “we” change. “The fact that the Biden/Harris campaign is commissioning it for this moment makes a lot of sense, though,” JoJo adds, “because it’s going to take every single individual to decide to act on that change that they want to see in our country.”
There’s an extensive recent history of extant hits being adopted by political campaigns, from Bill Clinton’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” to the Donald Trump’s forcible conscription of classics appropriated without permission. Rarer in contemporary times are original songs commissioned by a campaign. But Joe Biden’s team found a willing and eager participant when they approached 11-time Oscar nominee Warren, who in turn enlisted JoJo, who came to fame as a teen queen in the 2000s and has become a resurgent favorite again in the last few years as a very grown-up pop-R&B stylist.
Says JoJo, “Especially during this experience of COVID-19 that we’re all living through together, I think we’ve all been maybe more introspective than we ever have been or were prepared to be, and I have realized that personal accountability is just something that’s probably on not just my mind, but other people’s as well. So when she sent it to me, it definitely resonated. And there’s nothing like the passion of Diane Warren — her passion is absolutely legendary — so to say that she got me excited is an understatement.”
Warren’s connection with Biden dates back to the 2016 Academy Awards. “He introduced ‘Till It Happens to You,’ the song I wrote for Gaga, at the Oscars,” she recalls, “and I got to know him a bit during that time. Gaga and I went to a couple of things with him for It’s On Us [the Obama/Biden sexual assault awareness initiative], and got to know him a bit.” Now, giving this song to the campaign, “it feels really like full circle with this,” Warren says. “And anything I can do to help him, I’ll do.”
Recently, “someone from the campaign came to me and asked me if I had a song, and I had just really literally just written ‘The Change’ like two or three weeks before. I loved the song so much, I thought, ‘I’ve just got to get the song in the world,’ and I didn’t know who I was going to go to, or what I was going to do with it. And then this opportunity arose and I was like: Oh my God, it’s the perfect song. Because it’s not really a political song per se. It’s more about if you want to really change things, you’ve got to make a change in yourself. And I thought that could be a great song for getting his message out. I sent the song in, and everybody just really went crazy over it.” The message, she notes, “is really about yourself, like, ‘I’m going to be the change. I’m going to start with my heart. I’m going to be the light that lights my way through the dark.’ It’s not one of these (rabble-rousing) songs, because I think that would be kind of trite to me, to do it the other way, or to do some angry song.”
There was a short path of considering other artists, before JoJo coming on board became the change that the song wanted to see… so to speak.
“There were a couple of other artists that (the campaign) had reached out to,” says Warren, “and I thought, you know what? JoJo would be so great for this. A few Fridays ago, I told her about it and I go, ‘Look, I’m going to send you the song. There’s other artists they’re talking to. I can’t guarantee that it’s going to be you.’ And she showed up — just ‘I’ll be there tomorrow!’ — came in and gave one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard. You’ve gotta admit, that vocal is insane, right? I’m like really meticulous about my melodies and I don’t want people changing things too much. But the changes she made, like where she went up an octave in the second chorus, it just lifted it. To me, that’s a masterclass performance.
“And then another major artist, I’m not going to say who, came in and wanted to do it. But JoJo had come in and gave her all with that performance. And when the other artist that was thinking about it decided ‘Yeah, I want to do it,’ it was like, ‘No, you thought too long. Someone else came in and owned it.'”
Warren says the idea was always to go young, not look for a boomer or Gen-X favorite. “Everybody was kind of on the younger side,” says the songwriter. “It was finding the perfect voice for the song, really, and ultimately JoJo definitely was it. It’s so funny because she’s been around so long that people think she’s an older artist. They don’t realize she’s 29 years old, because she was making records when she was 12. I worked on her second album, when I think she was 15 or 16. And now she’s a singer’s singer — she’s a lot of big singers’ favorite singer.”
For JoJo, it represents a tentative step into the political arena, for a performer who concedes she’s been reluctant to be out in the forefront as an activist in the pop sphere up till now.
“I don’t like politics,” says the singer. “But I care so much about people and I believe in the goodness of humanity, and that’s why I wanted to be involved in this song. Not because I feel particularly partisan, but because I think that this time at least calls, to me, to do that, more so than I ever have.” Was she worried about any blowback from fans of the other side in the national divide? “That wasn’t a worry. It’s just something that I accept, that I’m not pizza — not everybody’s going to love me. I feel passionately about the song and being a young person in this moment, and I was put on this earth to sing and connect with people. And I think a part of that is sometimes making choices that some people will love me for and some people will really not like me for. That’s okay.”
She continues, “When I said that I’m not political, what I mean is that I’m disappointed by the fact that we still have a two-party system. And I just think that there has got to be a better way; I would like to see that reimagined. But I think that the past four years have brought so much division, it’s made it so people can’t and don’t even talk to each other — don’t even see each other as human anymore — and it’s sad. So I believe in that which can connect all of us. And I think music does a great job of doing that. From a social issue standpoint, I felt more enraged, enlivened, and present in this than ever. So when I say political, it’s not that I don’t care about issues that are deemed to be political. It’s more that I care about human beings. And if politics are a bummer, I do believe that it’s our responsibility, given the way that our political system is set up, that we have to vote. This is our right. This is our responsibility. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes get sticky.”
She adds, “I’m saying it from a standpoint of women’s issues and issues that involve people who are on the lower side of the socioeconomic scale, who come from blue- collar working class backgrounds. That’s where my heart hits, and for people who have been historically oppressed. And that’s always going to be my main concern.”
JoJo shares Warren’s famous RBG love. “I’m actually wearing a gold necklace right now that Emily’s List, this organization that helps to get women elected into office, sent me that has RBG on it. I so respect those who have dedicated their life to that type of service. And after I saw the movie that was made about her, how could you not be moved and inspired by the force of this woman? And what a life of service and integrity. And I know a lot of people are concerned as to how her seat’s is going to be filled.”
Says Warren: “That’s not a good change, by the way, replacing RBG with the polar opposite and disrespecting her dying wish. That was so wrong.” Warren wrote the theme song for the “RBG” documentary, of course. “I’m so proud to have written that song and so sad… I mean, God, this year, right? Like, 2020, did you not f— with us enough, that you had to take RBG? But I’m proud I got to be a little part of her documentary. I was nominated for an Oscar for that song, and of course I didn’t win, because I’ve lost 11 times. But I got a really beautiful note, a funny note. She had a good sense of humor. I got a really lovely note from her when the song got nominated, and I treasure that. I have a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Emmy — and right next to it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s card. I consider that an award.”
Aside from “The Change” being used in commercials, social media and campaign events, JoJo is slated to perform the song on Stephen Colbert’s show on Oct. 22, following what is currently still scheduled to be the final presidential debate.