Music

When Disney Secretly Repackaged Riot Grrrl

Radio Disney rock soundtracked a generation of teen angst.

Photo collage of Olivia Rodrigo flanked by Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Presley Ann/Getty Images, JMEnternational/JMEnternational for BRIT Awards/Getty Images, and Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images.

Olivia Rodrigo’s latest single, “Good 4 U,” comes from a long lineage of teen girl pop rock—that 2007 Radio Disney sound, as fellow young rocker Willow Smith put it. The 18-year-old Rodrigo’s trio of singles have garnered praise for paying homage to her female Disney Channel predecessors, who similarly explored the emotional spectrum of girlhood through their music, chronicling its cheesy jubilance, frustration, pettiness, adventurousness, and confusion. For young girls in the 2000s, Disney-produced pop rock provided an outlet for those budding teenage feelings of rage against various “machines,” defined as anything from annoying boys to the restrictions of youth—“they just don’t understand me” is perhaps the catchphrase of ages 12 to 19. At almost 21 years old, barely two years removed from this demographic, I’m still desperately on the hunt for self-definition; it’s an endless quest that, like all journeys, deserves a proper soundtrack.

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Radio Disney rock spoke to a generation of girls who grew up watching blogs, tabloids, and TV news conduct public crucifixions of women for daring to have fun, feel human emotions, or have a body—basically, for existing. And in our current cultural moment, where young girls face increasing pressure to cultivate their personal brands with the diligence of a seasoned PR professional—in short, to behave more like celebrity adults and less like teenagers—the prospective revival of the teen-focused pop rock formula has a powerful appeal.

For girls growing up in the 2000s, the pop rock espoused by our teen idols was a safe way for us to dip our toes into a wide variety of sonic expressions that were just rebellious enough to comport with our raging emotions, while still stamped with the Disney seal of approval. To call this music “Radio Disney rock”—named after Disney’s long-running, recently shuttered music station—isn’t a pejorative; it’s a nostalgic badge of honor. Our pop rock starlets were conduits of unapologetic emotional expression, in a world where girl passion is conflated with hysteria and treated as a punchline.

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Yet since the departure of the Disney Channel Class of 2012 in particular (Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, et al.), there has been a notable absence of veritable teen idols reaching success across TV, movies, and music. Which makes Rodrigo’s revival of the pop rock subgenre—complete with melodramatic music videos and hair-thrashing live performances—particularly thrilling: It provides an occasion for reexamining where “Radio Disney rock” came from, why it resonated with the young people making up the first generation of digital natives, and how it might just prove to have multigenerational appeal.

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Both Radio Disney’s and Radio Disney rock’s declines in the 2010s were likely inevitable, abetted by the 2010s EDM craze, the waning popularity of pop rock more generally, and Disney Channel idols’ own rejection of the genre in favor of slinkier, more danceable electropop. And in its wake, I can’t help but feel that pop music has become a little too slick, controlled, and adult. It might seem counterintuitive to compare Radio Disney rock—corny, corporate, eminently mockable—to the riot grrrl boom of the early 1990s, which used music for explicitly political purposes. But in its prime, the genre was a (diluted and safe-for-school) version of riot grrrl outfitted in the ideals of 2000s preteens. You might think of it as riot grrrl lite: music that attempted to speak directly to young girls without oversexualizing or infantilizing them.

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To understand the genesis of this genre, let’s go back … back to the beginning.

Prototypical riot grrrls Bikini Kill’s biggest hit, “Rebel Girl,” spoke of women as symbolic harbingers of social, cultural, and political revolution. But in 1995, the trajectory of the riot grrrl movement would be forever changed by a 21-year-old Canadian girl with a questionable definition of irony. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (1995), which remains among the 20 highest-selling albums of all time, brought the previously niche genre into the mainstream; in so doing, she ushered in the first cohort of emotionally vulnerable pop rock girls, like Natalie Imbruglia and Michelle Branch—girl-power singer-songwriters who would inspire the angsty sound and aesthetic of Radio Disney’s teen idols in the subsequent years.

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Expressive but nonthreatening, authentic but pop-friendly, the Alanis blueprint shaped the next decade of rock—female-fronted and otherwise. Jagged Little Pill was a standout success in a largely male-dominated genre and thus inherently politicized. Morissette’s popularity led to the widespread recognition of riot grrrl’s radical feminist ideas, and further to them getting tossed into a musical dryer cycle—where they were shrunken, washed out, and transformed into an entirely different garment—which is often used to discredit her brand of headbanging angst. But Morissette never claimed to be the leader of any social movement: Jagged Little Pill was simply a personal articulation of the unique growing pains it takes to become a woman that resonated internationally.

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Morissette’s influence would take time to crystallize in youth culture, in particular. In 1999, Disney debuted the Radio Disney Jams album series, filled with some of the station’s most popular songs. Released from 1999 to 2003, the first six volumes were full of the likes of S Club 7, Aaron Carter, 3LW, and other blockbuster, turn-of-the-century bubblegum pop and hip-hop/R&B acts. Rock was on the margins of MTV’s dominant monoculture, and rock that did exist in the mainstream was largely confined to bands composed of three to five spiky-haired men in their 20s and 30s (see: Blink-182, Green Day, Bowling for Soup, Sum 41).

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Yet all Radio Disney–approved acts have a firm expiration date. By 2003, all of the TRL-defining boy bands were on hiatus or had disbanded, and the pop princesses were on very high-profile crusades to be taken seriously. The music cycle was ready to turn again, and the synthy melodic math that pumped out teen pop hits like “Bye Bye Bye” or “Oops!… I Did It Again” gave way to a more stripped-down, acoustic sound. Finally, the young women who felt seen by Jagged Little Pill were making their own music. 2005’s Radio Disney Jams Vol. 7 revealed a definitive shift in the teen pop firmament, as Everlife, Vanessa Carlton, and other pop rock acts dominated the track list (and would continue to do so through 2010’s Vol. 12, the last installment in the series).

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In 2002 and 2003, a new wave of young people was inundated with Radio Disney rock in its purest form by its foremothers: Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne. The musical angel and devil on the teen population’s metaphorical shoulders, they reflected an early duality of pop rock. Lavigne embodied the “not like other girls” archetype, a staunch believer in chilling out, laying back, and scoffing at posers. Her debut album, Let Go (2002), is essentially the musical equivalent of a sneer, echoing across the world and reaching No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart. With a cover featuring Lavigne in all black in the middle of a blurred-out busy street, it’s a work demonstrative of the myopic turbulence of teenagehood.

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Lavigne’s rise accompanied rockism’s final stand against the prevailing teen girl pop of the time, a symptom of our eagerness to pit different interpretations of femininity against each other to imbue one with morality. A 2002 Entertainment Weekly profile pretty much sums up the insidious misogyny we still project onto teenage girls: “butt cheeks, dance beats, and gleeful artifice are suddenly out, while tank tops, rock, and ‘real’ are unexpectedly back in. … Pop tarts are assumed to be toast, especially now that tie-wearing tomboy Lavigne has been dubbed ‘the anti-Britney’ by her legions of new supporters.” Years later, Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Taylor Swift would be similarly framed in opposition to dance pop and female sexuality, compounded by their controversial lyrics that fed the narrative and had them accused of being slut-shaming anti-feminists.

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An ideological mediator would emerge from Disney’s Hollywood Records, which propagated a commercially appealing truce in the form of transmedia superstar Hilary Duff. The corporate entity observed how the legacy of riot grrrl rock resonated with a large portion of the consumer population and—as with other social or cultural movements—got to work on monetizing its sentiments. Duff’s Metamorphosis (2003), released at the apex of her Disney Channel teen idol era, predictably took a softer stance on teenagehood than Lavigne’s more confrontational record, with songs largely reflective of Duff’s own adolescent self-determination. With the help of Duff’s TV and movie star power, which made her an already trustworthy media brand to the target demographic, Metamorphosis debuted at No. 2 before hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200. She combined the sweet yet frustrated youthful naïveté of ...Baby One More Time–era Britney with the guitar rock stylings of Morissette, a clear musical inspiration. With Duff’s strain of pop rock, both pop and rock held equal musical weight.

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The sonic footprint of Metamorphosis was largely constructed by the Matrix, the same production team behind Lavigne hits “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi.” Other behind-the-scenes architects of Radio Disney rock were superstar songwriters John Shanks (Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway”) and Kara DioGuardi (Lindsay Lohan’s “Over,” Miley Cyrus’ “He Could Be the One”), who collaborated to co-write the majority of Ashlee Simpson’s pop rock opus Autobiography (2004) and the iconic Duff single “Come Clean” (otherwise known as the Laguna Beach theme song).

Hilary Duff’s corporatized model proved particularly salient, as the next generation of multimedia teen superstars—like Selena Gomez (& the Scene) and Miranda Cosgrove (you didn’t think Nickelodeon would miss out on the action, did you?)—would similarly major in pop rock with a minor in dance pop during their early careers. Authenticity-obsessed purists might scoff at hearing that Ashley Tisdale, the girl who played the pink-obsessed fashionista Sharpay in High School Musical, was ever considered to be “rock” of any sort. But she and her contemporaries signaled to young girls that we too could have, in the words of a wise pop rock philosopher, “the best of both worlds.”

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Perhaps no industry demonstrates the idea of “too much of a good thing” better than music. By the 2010s, Radio Disney rock was getting worn out—as were Disney’s own overworked, newly grown-up stars. The music cycle was ready to turn yet again, this time getting even synthier and more electric. The next wave of Disney Channel multihyphenates, including China Anne McClain, Bridgit Mendler, Bella Thorne, and Zendaya, swept in to firmly designate dance pop as the 2010s’ teen genre of choice, releasing music that was sonically similar to their adult pop star counterparts’. In general, Disney became more lax about its music factory during this era: Radio Disney Jams and Disney’s cover song album series Disneymania both ended in 2010, and the amount of studio albums released by Disney Channel stars began to decrease. The line designating pop music for teens, by teens, began to erode, alongside Radio Disney’s waning curatorial influence in the wake of the streaming boom.

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Meanwhile, even the young female artists that weren’t bred by Disney—the ones who cribbed from Alanis Morissette’s playbook first and foremost—began to shift away from the radio station’s defining sound. Hip-hop became dominant across the musical landscape; teens and young women reclaimed their sexuality in much more overt terms, drawing inspiration from that genre. Teen stars became less sanitized: Olivia Rodrigo, for example, gleefully says “fuck” on songs like the megahit “Drivers License.” The comfortable, safe riot grrrl lite peddled by Disney no longer fit into the molds accepted in the streaming-heavy mainstream. And by April 2021, Radio Disney had gone off the air entirely.

By the end of your teens, it seems like there is a deficit of certainty in the world, a feeling amplified by the way our culture lionizes a girl’s post-legal, pre-mortgage ages as the “best years of your life.” You’re told this is your prime when you’ve never felt like more of a chaotic, undefined mess, and this has never been more true than for Gen Z. From the advent of the social media influencer economy to the LinkedIn-ification of the cutthroat job market, every move we make is cataloged as an addition to our personal brands, which adults encourage us to keep squeaky-clean and shaped up for external consumption.

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When you hit teenagehood, you’re expected to suddenly lay down your emotional tumult at the threshold of maturity, shrinking your intense feelings about everything down to a more respectable size. Our teenage years are spent frantically looking for our identities, and riot grrrl lite—Radio Disney rock—allowed all of our potential future selves to coexist simultaneously and messily rather than be chopped into archetypes. The genre complicated the hypersexual cool girl image that dominated the cultural landscape of the time, as our idols indulged in the unique complexity and angst of girlhood—“who says I can’t wear my Converse with my dress,” indeed. And as I barrel headfirst into “official” adulthood, slowly but surely coalescing my potential futures into one reality, I’m glad to have it back.

Check out Slate’s playlist of 10 essential Radio Disney rock tracks below:

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