How Radio Disney Shaped Modern Pop-Rock | SPIN
“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. And this crossover between Disney and rock continues to flourish.
When this trend began in the 2000s, it was a result of Disney stars making guitar-heavy pop-influenced in part by the popularity of different kinds of rock, which filtered into media made for younger audiences, including 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, which launched in 1996 and shut down this year, was a station geared towards children, acting as a musical extension of the Disney brand. It highlighted songs from Disney shows and movies, and 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. For these pop stars, it was easy to slip in and out of a harder sound without necessarily belonging to a rock scene or having ever played in that style 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 who were interested in rock turned to Disney for a group of artists they could see themselves in. 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 key for one influential artist from this era: Lavigne, whose songs were more rock-leaning than 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.”
At the same time, Disney actresses were making music in this vein, with Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan and Aly & AJ perfecting a form of rock-flavored pop. A striking feature was having a chorus that was more rock than pop, while a lot of pop-rock songs did 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 continued with the next wave of 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.
On their early releases, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez demonstrated a harder rock edge than their predecessors did, making their music more similar to the alternative scene than many realized at the time. 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.”
This group of artists also combined pop, rock and electronic music in a way that was very much in keeping with the neon pop-punk world they intersected with. That genre-blending has increasing relevance now, as rock gains in popularity and sonic boundaries have dissolved almost completely. 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” pop-rock sound shocked some of her listeners, arriving as a marked deviation from the pure pop of her first two 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, led by by women and nonbinary artists, presented a vision of big, bright pop music that could also have loud guitars and heavy drums. Radio Disney stars recontextualized guitar-centric music in a way that opened it 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 has a lot to do with the impact of rock music on popular culture 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 said. “I was speaking up in my music.”