Disney’s Pop Princesses Have Always Had a Pop-Punk and Pop-Rock Soul
Having already scored two No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the biggest opening week for an album by a female artist in global Spotify history, Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album SOUR has clearly taken the world by storm. But is it also ushering in a new era for teen pop-punk and pop-rock?
Prior to the album’s release on May 21, and following somber power ballad “drivers license” and the more upbeat, Taylor Swift-esque “deja vu,” listeners were caught off guard when they heard the pop-punk-influenced “good 4 u,” which garnered comparisons to Paramore’s raucous 2007 hit “Misery Business” and even led the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series star to perform a mash-up performance of the two tracks.
But Rodrigo’s rock influence carries throughout the rest of SOUR on tracks such as “brutal” and “jealousy, jealousy.” The album even sparked a flurry of social media chatter and claims that Rodrigo is one of the artists heading up the ongoing pop-punk revival, which is considered shocking coming from a teen Disney star — but it shouldn’t be. While Rodrigo’s largely Gen Z fan base may not remember, teen Disney stars have historically dabbled in rock, starting way back in 2003 with the company’s OG teen pop queen: Hilary Duff.
On her debut album Metamorphosis, the Lizzie McGuire star leaned into the genre through the drum-heavy hit single “So Yesterday,” and most notably on the bombastic (and slightly educational) guitar-shredding banger “The Math,” which compares a failing relationship to a tough mathematical equation. Sprinkled in-between bubblegum pop singles throughout her career were tracks such as 2004’s “Fly,” which features a piano intro so haunting one might mistake it for an Evanescence song, and 2005’s “The Girl Can Rock,” in which Duff literally declares herself “living proof” that girls can rock.
Duff’s penchant for pop-rock inspired an entire wave of Disney teen pop-rockers in the 2000s. Lindsay Lohan, Disney’s other teen queen of the time (and Duff’s then-mortal frenemy), learned how to play the electric guitar for her role in one of the most iconic fake bands of all time, Freaky Friday’s Pink Slip. She then forayed into pop-rock for her 2004 album, Speak. And actress Lalaine, who co-starred with Duff on Lizzie, attempted to follow in their footsteps with her own angsty single, 2005’s regrettably forgotten “I’m Not Your Girl,” and though her music career didn’t last long, the song remains a certified edgy smash (in fans’ hearts, anyway — unfortunately not on any charts).
Disney must’ve caught onto the perfect storm that was teen stars and rock music, because Hannah Montana premiered the following year. Centering on Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus), a teen living a double life as a rock star, fictional Miley’s real-life top-charting songs — including “Nobody’s Perfect” and the aptly-titled “Rockstar” — were undeniably pop-rock in sound. Cyrus’ own music career followed suit with hardcore bops like “Start All Over,” “Fly On the Wall and “7 Things.” The singer-actress must’ve felt especially comfortable in the genre, as she recently returned to her rock roots on Plastic Hearts, her 2020 album that features collaborations with rock icons Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett and Billy Idol.
Around the same time as Cyrus’ debut, Aly & AJ scored multiple pop-rock hits of their own in 2006 with empowerment anthem “Rush” and breakup headbanger “Chemicals React,” from their debut album Into the Rush. While Aly had already appeared on Phil of the Future, the sisters uniquely proved that Disney stars and pop-rock were a winning combo as they established themselves first as a musical duo before acting alongside each other in the 2006 Disney Channel Original Movie Cow Belles. Today, Aly & AJ’s music still features a strong rock influence, which you can hear on their excellent new album A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun.
Fittingly enough, as they first broke through on Disney Channel in 2008’s Camp Rock, Demi Lovato’s debut album Don’t Forget was almost entirely comprised of rock- and punk-influenced tracks, such as “Get Back” and the ultra-emo “Don’t Forget.” Since then, Lovato has gone on to collaborate with several punk acts, including We the Kings, Blink-182’s Travis Barker and All Time Low, proving that the genre is a true favorite of theirs. And while Selena Gomez has leaned largely into dance-pop (and, in later years, R&B-pop) for her own music career, longtime fans will remember that her first few releases included the aggressively sassy “Falling Down” and a hardcore collaboration with pop-punk band Forever the Sickest Kids titled “Whoa Oh! (Me vs. Everyone)” in 2009.
However, pop-rock took a backseat for Disney-launched pop stars following Gomez’s debut album with Selena Gomez & the Scene, Kiss & Tell. Until Rodrigo hit the scene, Gomez was one of the network’s final stars whose music achieved mainstream chart success.
More recent Disney pop acts, such as Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson and Sabrina Carpenter, have built modest, yet dedicated fanbases mainly through moody pop and dance tracks. They haven’t seen the top-charting, arena-touring success of their predecessors, though. And save for Billie Eilish, there’s been a noticeable drought in major teen pop stars in recent years overall. Maybe all the post-Disney pop stars need to bounce back are a few angsty guitar riffs?
While Rodrigo’s taste for rock- and punk-tinged production is exciting for today’s pop fans, it’s nothing new for Disney stars: it’s simply a return to form. But just because she’s following in the footsteps of the early aughts teen stars that preceded her, it doesn’t mean Rodrigo isn’t pushing the pop-rock genre forward in her own right.
Likely due to her record deal with Interscope and Geffen Records rather than Disney’s Hollywood Records — where Cyrus, Duff, Lovato and Gomez got their start — Rodrigo has been granted the freedom to divert from traditional pop formulas and even use mature language unsuitable for Radio Disney (RIP) listeners. In turn, Rodrigo’s pop-rock-laced SOUR is both nostalgic and future-facing; and an ambitious and mature debut, especially for a teen artist in her debut stage. Good 4 her.