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How the Pandemic Revitalized the Disney Star

Olivia Rodrigo and ‘Drivers License’ are a case study in what the new, extremely online model of teen idol looks like

With an unbridled, almost giddy energy, 17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo fast-tracked her way to scoring the biggest song in the world. How long did her rise to superstardom take? Less than a week.

Rodrigo, who acts in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+, dropped her debut single “Drivers License” (no possessive apostrophe) on January 8th. It immediately became the first hit song of 2021. It charted to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and broke the record for most Spotify streams of a song in a single week: 65,873,080. 

The song is a powerhouse introduction to Rodrigo, whose long wavy middle part and Depop style fashions her as the epitome of modern SoCal teendom. Rodrigo’s infectious personality and resonant voice made “Drivers License” an impressive debut. But the song’s stratospheric viral success is also the result of one trusty, old-fashioned Hollywood publicity antic: a classic love triangle.

The innocent teen drama (with zero sociopolitical implications) made former Gen Z Disney fanatics feel like bright-eyed kids again — scrolling through Rodrigo’s Instagram comments for gossip the same way we rifled through Tiger Beat a decade ago.

I’ll break it down:

  • The song is allegedly about Rodrigo’s rumored courter and current HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett, 20, falling for former Disney Channel star Sabrina Carpenter, 21 (possibly the “blonde” in the song).
  • With “Drivers License” an instant hit, Bassett released a single titled “Lie Lie Lie” a week later. He’s said the acoustic-guitar-heavy track is about an anonymous “friend,” but he’s wisely capitalizing off the attention — and SEO firepower — of his link to Rodrigo. (Bassett also promoted “Drivers License” on his Instagram story.)
  • Completing the trifecta of gossip tracks, Carpenter broke her silence on Friday with “Skin,” a radio-ready pop track referencing herself as a “blonde” and urging another woman not to “drive” herself insane. (If this feels like splitting hairs, that’s the point. Profitable celebrity drama is rarely happenstance.) 

Breaking the Disney Machine

This Disney Channel drama is classic Angelina, Jen and Brad. (Or, for you millennials, very Lindsay, Hilary and Aaron.) It’s a well-trod publicity trope: Rodrigo (like Carpenter before her) is the latest export in the stalwart Disney Channel machine that creates (and exploits) child stars. The formula is simple: give a bubbly tween a popular TV show and a pop song, and see what happens. 

Starting with Hilary Duff two decades ago, the network has churned out an endless string of child stars. The girls get only a few years to become a hardworking, family-friendly, profitable commodity before they’re sent out to forge their own success (or struggle without the rigid structure). The network hit its stride in the late aughts when Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and Zendaya proved Disney Channel stars could earn crossover stardom and become respected artists.

Like Rodrigo, many of these former Disney queens are also in the midst of banner eras. During the pandemic’s first year, when comforting nostalgia content soared, both current and former Disney Channel stars found success where few other performers did. From Cyrus’ musical resurgence and Zendaya’s Emmy win to the return of Aly & AJ, Disney stars seemed primed for this moment. They grew up in Disney’s Golden Era-esque studio system that demanded industrious and unrelenting performer training, while maintaining their status as role models to children. (Some of the most effective coronavirus PSAs occurred on Cyrus’ and Duff’s Instagram Stories in March.)

A few of this year’s most controversial celebrities were Disney stars who rejected their rigid training. Bella Thorne pivoted, controversially, to clothed OnlyFans performer; Jake Paul leveled up his insufferable affinity for starting shit — culminating in an FBI raid.

With Rodrigo, though, we sit at a crossroads. Her instant success is a continuation of a decades-long Disney Channel tradition, but it’s also a case study in what the new, extremely online model of teen idol looks like. As we approach year two of the pandemic, we’re also entertaining the third era of Disney stars — and Rodrigo is firmly in the driver’s seat.  

The Song Driving Gen Z Crazy

For all Rodrigo represents at Disney Channel, she hasn’t worked there in nearly two years. When her show Bizaardvark ended in 2019, Rodrigo jumped to leading the High School Musical series on streaming service Disney+, Disney Channel’s cool older sister who can’t swear or have sex but doesn’t depend on a laugh track for humor. 

Disney+, which launched in November 2019, forced success by updating famed franchises for preexisting ravenous audiences, including The Mandalorian and Marvel’s time-bending WandaVision. Disney+ eagerly opened its digital door to already loyal audiences, but it took over a year to find a breakout human star (Baby Yoda doesn’t count).

Then Olivia Rodrigo dropped “Drivers License” and forced a bunch of jaded millennials to care about a melancholy teenager. On “Drivers License,” a song I can already hear on repeat in an Urban Outfitters showroom, Rodrigo places heartsick Taylor Swift–style lyricism over a Lorde-esque beat. It’s catnip for pop culture obsessives. 

On TikTok, where virality begets more virality in a never-ending loop, girls, gays and theys scrutinize the song’s lyrical gossip — which further boosted streams and notoriety. Rodrigo is experiencing a TikTok introduction similar to Lil Nas X’s in 2019. On the app, there are fanfiction POV videos of various people as characters in “Drivers License” and even an unneeded Jimmy Fallon remix with the “Sea Shanty” trend.

Listening to “Drivers License” is to be so in your emotions you’re once again a lovelorn angry teenager with nothing but time, unbridled energy and a car to aimlessly steer around town. It’s the perfect headspace to occupy in our seemingly endless pandemic-induced alone time. 

Olivia Rodrigo with her co-star (and maybe one-time beau) Joshua Bassett recreating the iconic Gabriella-and-Troy meet-cute scene in the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Screenshot via Rodrigo’s Instagram

The Rocker

If Rodrigo is pop’s promising ingenue, then Miley Cyrus is solidifying herself as anything but a fluke. Cyrus reigned as the Queen of Disney in 2006 with the show Hannah Montana about a teen masquerading as a pop star. By this point, Disney Channel learned to bake music into their programming, which previously proved successful in launching the casts of The Cheetah Girls and High School Musical

Hannah Montana proved an instant hit, launching Cyrus to unparalleled musical success for a Disney star. As Hannah Montana (her first of many personas), she garnered three Billboard 200 No. 1 albums. As Miley Cyrus, she’d acquire three additional top-five albums before departing Disney. When Hannah Montana finally wrapped in 2011, Cyrus was 18 and on the precipice of a decade-long roulette game with cultural appropriation, a third No. 1 album and a high-profile on-and-off relationship with actor Liam Hemsworth.

Her pivot to provocation after a squeaky clean debut — dancing on a pole at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards, hitting a bong in 2010 and twerking on Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs — proved, of course, controversial. “I think I knew who I was meant to be, but I’m sure there’s something in there … Some trauma of feeling so criticized, I think, for what I felt was pretty average teenage, early exploration,” she told Rolling Stone last month.

After veering wildly from bubblegum pop to appropriative rap to psychedelic rock, she reverted to her good-girl country roots in 2017. She’d just gotten back with her Hemsworth (after coming out as pansexual) and needed to atone for her history of trying on and throwing away black culture.

However, she so heavily course-corrected that her pivot to Malibu Barbie negated just about everything she once stood for. Amanda Petrusich for the New Yorker noted at the time, “For young women, this is a narrow path forward: become less selfish and wayward only by embracing antiquated notions of femininity and propriety. Is there not some functional middle ground to occupy?” Yes, there is — but to get there, it’d take Cyrus another three years, a short-lived marriage and a shag mullet haircut.

Miley Cyrus announced her latest (and most personal) album Plastic Hearts with an honest, reflective essay on Instagram. Screenshot via @mileycyrus/Instagram

During the pandemic, Cyrus finally found her middle ground as a proud and skillful pansexual rocker (with an impressively astute Instagram Live show at the start of the pandemic). After a long prelude of covering classic rock songs, Cyrus dropped her seventh album, Plastic Hearts, in November — an ode to ’80s glam rock that spotlights her raspy voice via collaborations with classic rockers Billy Idol, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks. 

Plastic Hearts is Cyrus’ highest-charting album since 2013 — and her most critically acclaimed. More importantly, it’s her most honest record to date, a feat that can be hard to achieve for a star set on a rigid career course before they were old enough to drive. 

Ironically, Cyrus’ post-Disney arch mirrors the show that made her famous. “At its core, Hannah Montana was a show about the weight of pop star aspirations and how much one must give of themselves in order to maintain a profile on the charts,” Vulture music critic Craig Jenkins wrote in December. It’s simply exciting to see Cyrus find a lane where she doesn’t have to resort to inflated and co-opted personas to shine. Her southern-rocker sensibilities are strong enough.

The New Hollywood Prestige

Still, no former Disney Channel star had a bigger 2020 than Zendaya, formerly of Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover. She’s the star of Euphoria, a whole vibe of an HBO show about teenage trauma and addiction. Every fashion magazine seems to want her enviable brows and long legs on their covers; every e-girl wants to be part of the Euphoria makeup and bisexual lighting aesthetic. “Euphoria teen” is the new term for adolescent hipsters.

Perhaps most impressively, Zendaya, 24, is the first former Disney star to become a prestigious actress. In September, she won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress, becoming the youngest winner to date and delivering a joyous speech from home. She’s also receiving Oscar buzz for the forthcoming drama Malcolm & Marie. While her predecessors like Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato mostly focused on their singing careers, Zendaya veered left. (Not that she can’t act and sing. Justice for the 2013 bop “Replay.”) 

In a year where everything Gen Z says and does was overanalyzed, Zendaya — who is technically a cuspy millennial — has come to represent Zoomers’ most praised traits: stalwart devotion to identity, agency and awareness. 

It’s a lot of pressure for a star still figuring out who she is, even though she’s already in the second decade of her career. Zendaya recently admitted that a pandemic-induced work hiatus caused an identity crisis. Euphoria stopped production on its much-anticipated second season last spring. “It was the first time since I was 13 that I didn’t go back to something. There was no structure,” Zendaya told GQ. The Disney machine can make you famous, but it won’t be there to sustain your career or uplift you when you’re struggling.

When her final Disney Channel show K.C. Undercover ended in 2018, Zendaya posted a tribute on Instagram from the day she shot her infamous “You’re Watching Disney Channel” advert. Screenshot via @zendaya/Instagram

The Nostalgia Influencers

Few know this better than nostalgia influencers, the latest genre of content creators to pop up in the pandemic. Many lesser-known Disney Channel child stars (or the actors playing parents on these shows) go viral simply for recreating their famous quotes and dance moves on TikTok. This wasn’t an option a decade ago, but now on TikTok, A.N.T. Farm’s China Anne McClain rolls through the For You page alongside 2009-era High School Musical ensemble actors KayCee Stroh and Bart Johnson. Think of it as a digital Comic-Con or SopranosCon, where Disney Channel obsessives get to interact directly with ensemble stars. 

Perhaps the best (and most heartwarming) example is Frankie Jonas, the youngest brother to Kevin, Nick and Joe. “Bonus Jonas,” who could barely snag an appearance in the Jonas Brothers’ 2019 Amazon documentary Chasing Happiness, is finally getting his due as TikTok’s “white boy of the month.” The joke is he’s the only famous Jonas. (Justice for Kevin, though.) 

@iamfrankiejonas

#stitch with @disneyterell #epicfail #iwasondisneybutinevergottodothething disneyiwillsellymysoulifyouletmecomebackandmakeoneofthosetransitionvid

♬ original sound – Frankie jonas

Occasionally, TikTok virality can boost a former Disney star’s ongoing career revivals. Aly & AJ, who’ve made skillful indie synth-pop for a half-decade, reentered the daily news churn at the start of the New Year for recording an explicit version of their 2007 classic “Potential Breakup Song” after the original went viral on TikTok last fall. 

Even Ashley Tisdale turned a momentary nostalgia-influencer pivot into a role as a judge on Fox’s The Masked Dancer alongside Paula Abdul, Ken Jeong and Brian Austin Green. If there’s an avenue of entertainment out there, there’s likely a former Disney Channel star diligently working in that space.

Disney Isn’t Forever

When will the Disney Channel bubble finally burst? Thanks to TikTok, the moment doesn’t feel too far off. Here, teens start out as influencers and then pivot into traditional Hollywood record deals and studio contracts. Charli D’Amelio, the app’s biggest star, just scored a Hulu reality show for her family. A TikTok influencer could easily become the next Zendaya or Miley Cyrus.

Young audiences don’t care who’s gatekeeping their entertainment. The generation after Gen Z watches TikTok as its main form of entertainment. The TV set to Disney Channel in the background is the second screen.

Which is why Rodrigo’s presence on TikTok is a sign of things to come. If she wants her career to stay in the fast lane, then she’ll have to meet her audience where they are — in the suburbs, online and in their feelings.

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