How Radio Disney Shaped Modern Pop-Rock

Of the many guest spots on Willow Smith’s punk album, Lately I Feel Everything, one stands out: Avril Lavigne on “Grow,” which evokes the bold 2000s pop-punk the latter became known for.

“I wanted ‘Grow’ to sound like it was on Radio Disney in 2007,” Smith told W Magazine. “So I hit up Avril Lavigne; I wanted that 2007 Avril angst. When I heard what she did with what I sent her, I felt like I was transported back to my tween days, in the car, just screaming, ‘I don’t have to try to make you realize!’”

Smith is far from the only artist to embrace rock music on a recent release, or to reference Radio Disney’s brand of pop-rock, which blends clean hooks with heavier elements like distortion. This crossover between Disney and rock continues. 

 

 

This trend started in 2000s as a result of Disney artists making guitar-heavy pop, which was partly influenced by the popularity and appeal of different types of rock. It filtered into media for younger audiences like Radio Disney. And the network’s enduring influence is clear. For today’s generation of rock acts, who are more diverse and representative, Radio Disney provided influences who were not just straight white men. From the long list of Disney-affiliated artists making rock music, to 2000s pop-rock artists making comebacks, to today’s artists trying to recapture the Disney-rock sound, Disney has shaped the modern rock resurgence in a big way.

Radio Disney was launched in 1996 and closed this year. It was a station that was geared towards children and served as an extension of the Disney brand’s musical universe. It featured songs from Disney movies and shows, as well as songs by Disney stars. But it also played a lot of pop music (like Britney Spears, *NSYNC and Aaron Carter) and helped many artists launch their careers, including Justin Bieber and Nickelodeon actress-turned-pop-star Ariana Grande. By 2009, the network had 30 million weekly listeners.

In the 2000s, pop-rock — and specifically pop-punk — was extremely popular, so naturally it too made its way to Radio Disney. Yellowcard was frequently featured on the network, and The Click Five, Bowling for Soup, Plain White T’s and We The Kings all appeared on Radio Disney Jams compilations. Bowling for Soup later performed the Emmy-nominated theme song, “Today Is Gonna Be a Great Day,” for animated Disney Channel series Phineas and Ferb — and even went on to appear in an episode.

 

 

The aughts rock boom made an impact on popular music, even songs marketed for teens and children — introducing younger audiences to rock and sparking young women’s interest in that style, both as listeners and players. The sound of Radio Disney was sugary, bright, typical 2000’s pop with a rock backbone. Rock was popular at the time, so it naturally made its way into many spaces, including children’s media. Pop stars found it easy to switch between a harder and more traditional sound without having been in a rock scene or ever played in that genre before. 

Radio Disney’s pop-rock roster presented a women-led alternative to the male-dominated Warped Tour scene. (In its final run in 2018, only 7% of the Warped Tour lineup included women.) Many young women were interested in rock and turned to Disney to find a group of artists that they could relate to. Many of the women making music in the Disney space weren’t seen as rock artists because of their gender, even though their music proved otherwise. Earlier pop-rock stars played on the station included Michelle Branch, Ashlee Simpson and Skye Sweetnam (who now fronts the metal band Sumo Cyco). Their style featured prominent live guitars — often acoustic picking at the beginning with loud, distorted chords during the chorus and the occasional solo — but was heavily vocal-driven. 

“Through the years I was always into more guitar-driven sounds,” Sweetnam told VICE. “When I was first playing my pop music I had three, four guys from Hamilton who were in my band. [They] all paid their dues as musicians from the ground up playing punk.”

Radio Disney was a key platform for Lavigne, an influential artist of the era whose songs were more rock-leaning then her peers. “I was definitely aware that I was doing something different,” She said. “I realized pretty quickly that the way I dressed was making an impact far bigger than I was.”

 

 

The same time, Disney actresses were creating music in this vein with Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan, as well as Aly &AJ perfecting a rock-flavored pop. One striking feature was the fact that the chorus was more rock-oriented than pop, whereas many pop-rock songs did just the opposite. Hilary Duff’s Metamorphosis had its harder moments on songs like the title track, “The Math” and “Come Clean.” Lohan’s “First” hinges on a distorted riff before launching into a turbo-pop chorus. Aly & AJ’s 2007 album, Insomniatic, was a pop album with a noticeable guitar influence, including songs “Chemicals React” and the title track.

This trend was continued by the next wave Disney hyphenates. Ashley Tisdale’s 2009 album, Guilty Pleasure, was very much in the same vein of Aly & AJ and Duff. Tisdale described her song “What If” as “a rock ballad,” referencing the use of guitar and drums. Her songs “Hot Mess” and “Acting Out” switch from guitar-based verses to big, catchy choruses.

Demi Lovato & Selena Gomez displayed a more rock-oriented sound than their predecessors, which made their music more in line with the alternative scene. Lovato released the pop-punk single “La La Land” and guested on We The Kings’ “We’ll Be A Dream.” (They later featured on Fall Out Boy’s “Irresistible.”) Gomez was involved in a band called The Scene — also the name given to the underground alternative rock community — and guested on Forever the Sickest Kids’ “Whoa Oh! (Me vs. Everyone).” Gomez and Miley Cyrus both covered songs written by pop-rock icon FeFe Dobson — Cyrus’s 2007 album Meet Miley Cyrus included “Start All Over,” and Selena Gomez and The Scene performed “As a Blonde” on 2009’s Kiss and Tell.  

 

 

Emo Nite-attendee Lovato talked about the impact emo music had on them during an episode of the Ride or Cry Podcast. “This genre of music was the basis of our musical foundation in so many artists’ careers,” They said. “Especially in this generation because emo music was so popular when we were at that prime demographic age. So many of us grew up listening to that that whether or not we ended up doing that type of music later, we learned how to write music because of emo songs.” 

They also mixed pop, rock and electronic music together in a way that was in keeping with the neon-punk world they shared. This genre-blending is becoming more popular as rock popularity increases and the sonic boundaries are almost gone. Bold synths are punctuated by distorted guitar chords on Tisdale’s “Masquerade,” “Switch” and “Tell Me Lies.” Even on Gomez and the Scene’s electro-pop songs “Falling Down” and “I Got U,” there’s noticeable guitar. Lovato’s “Remember December” has a dance-pop verse and a full-on rock chorus. 

 

 

After about a decade, rock is experiencing a revival in the pop sphere, with a more diverse roster of artists including women, queer, trans and non-binary artists, along with people of color — whether it’s Phoebe Bridgers’ indie rock, Poppy’s avant-pop-metal or Rina Sawayama’s 2000’s-inspired take on pop-meets-rock. It’s no surprise that this new, more representative wave of artists involves so many Radio Disney-affiliated acts, with the platform having provided a women-centric pop-rock scene for so long.

With last year’s Plastic Hearts, Miley Cyrus dived fully into the rock sound first explored on 2008’s Breakout. Lovato appeared on a remix of All Time Low’s pop-punk crossover hit “Monsters,” which also features blackbear, and collaborated with Travis Barker on the “emo version” of their single “I Love Me.” Lavigne recently joined Mod Sun for “Flames” and performed her song “I’m With You” with YUNGBLUD. (YUNGBLUD also had a recurring role on the Disney Channel series The Lodge.) For Aly & AJ’s 2021 comeback album, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, as AJ recently told Vogue. “We leaned into the alternative-rock shades of our music that we’ve always wanted to embrace but weren’t quite brave enough to.”

And Disney’s experimentation with rock is feeding back into pop-punk with this wave. Meet Me @ The Altar also said they took influence from Lovato’s late 2000s work and the soundtracks to Disney Channel original movies like Lemonade Mouth and Camp Rock. “All of us are so collectively, kinda subconsciously, influenced by Disney rock,” vocalist Edith Johnson told The Guardian. 

 

 

But the Disney crossover is perhaps no better embodied than by 2021’s runaway pop success: Olivia Rodrigo. “good 4 u’s” Some of her listeners were shocked by her pop-rock sound, which was a marked departure from her pure pop singles. But “brutal’s” raucous, Riot Grrl-esque riffs and “jealousy, jealousy”’s blaring guitars also place Rodrigo in the lineage of Disney pop-rock.

The Disney-affiliated movement, which was led by women and nonbinary musicians, offered a vision for big, bright pop music with loud guitars and heavy drum beats. Radio Disney stars reinterpreted guitar-centric music in a way which opened it up to new audiences. It also demonstrated the enduring influence of rock — an influence that is still shaping music today, especially as the genre re-enters the mainstream in many forms. It is a key factor in the popularity of rock music in the 2000s. But it’s also about these fans and artists — no matter their background — embracing a style that’s bold in its emotions, assertions and instrumentation.

“Years later, I can listen to my songs and understand how they could connect deeply and emotionally with people,” Lavigne stated. “I was speaking up in my music.”

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