Throughout the 2000s, Disney Channel catapulted many of its child actors to pop superstardom, including Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez, who overshadow the immensely talented sister duo Aly & AJ.
Aly & AJ are best known for “Potential Breakup Song” and for their roles in the 2006 Disney Channel original movie “Cow Belles.” The sisters were signed to Hollywood Records, Disney’s record label. Because the label was young and underdeveloped, Aly & AJ received minimal promotion and didn’t receive the attention needed to develop notable celebrity identities. As a result, they missed out on the opportunity to become superstars like Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers or Gomez.
Aly & AJ released their debut album “Into The Rush” in 2005 at just 16 and 14 years old, respectively. Unlike many Disney acts, Aly & AJ received lead co-writing credits on all tracks, which was remarkable for their age and rare for artists under Hollywood Records. The album is a pop-rock-influenced teen-pop record, dealing with themes of first love and coming of age.
After their Christmas album, the duo released “Insomniatic,” their third record, an electro-rock project with much more personality and spunk than the duo’s debut. “Insomniatic” features the classic “Potential Breakup Song” and the underrated ballad “÷,” and both still sound fresh over a decade after their release.
At their commercial peak, Aly & AJ asked Hollywood Records to be released from their contract. Years later, in an interview with Rolling Stone, the sisters said that the contract hindered their ability to evolve as artists, citing an instance where they told their label about the producers and collaborators they had in mind for “Insomniatic.” Various label executives mocked them, saying that their dream producers only worked with real artists.
After a ten-year hiatus, Aly & AJ returned as independent artists in 2017 with their comeback single, “Take Me,” an ’80s-synth-pop-inspired banger. They masterfully experimented with ’80s production and songwriting techniques before many of their contemporaries — like Dua Lipa and The Weeknd — realized the growing resurgence of the genre.
The rest of the tracks on their 2018 comeback EP “Ten Years” are nothing short of pop perfection. A project highlight, “Promises” perfectly encapsulates the feeling of unexpectedly discovering that a lover has been unfaithful. It adopts a confessional approach, allowing the listener to empathize with the pair.
The song’s heart-wrenching lyrics are surrounded by smooth synths and masterful vocal layering. The album’s mixing, production, mastering, vocal production, songwriting and even the music video for the EP’s single, “Take Me,” are all impressive for an independent duo that is self supported.
If “Ten Years” wasn’t enough for Aly & AJ to garner the respect and attention of pop fans, then surely their near-perfect follow-up EP “Sanctuary” should do the trick. The EP’s title and overall theme are built upon the concept of the human desire for a place of refuge, safety and freedom of self-expression.
After spending nearly three years in the synthpop lane, Aly & AJ reinvented their sound yet again. One of the lead singles titled “Slow Dancing” for their upcoming studio album “A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun” is a ’60s-inspired, dreamlike love song about the loneliness of the COVID-19 pandemic. The song feels like a classic after just the first listen with its old-school feel and laid-back production.
The real significance of the duo’s deviation from synth-pop goes beyond the songs themselves. What separates Aly & AJ from their contemporaries is their everlasting desire to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. After three years of consistent releases and almost yearly touring, the sisters could have easily continued making synth-pop for their entire career but now favor growth, which highlights the duo’s versatility as true pop chameleons. It takes real talent to create music that transcends beyond the barriers of a genre, allowing for listeners with all types of musical palettes to feel connected to the work.
Another single released off the album, “Pretty Places,” is what I consider to be Aly & AJ’s best track to date. It showcases the duo at their peak lyrically, wistfully yearning for the simpler times in a relationship, longing to explore the world’s beautiful landscapes with a lover. “All the pretty places / Pull us away from where the pain is / These open skies / Leaving the past behind.”
Aly & AJ’s magic manifests itself in the clear authenticity of their art that cannot be bought or formulaically crafted by record label executives. As independent artists, Aly & AJ follow their passion rather than the money. Their release from Hollywood Records resulted in their artistic reinventions that happened by choice rather than a calculated marketing scheme.
Female pop artists must advocate for creative control before they sign away their rights to multiple albums. The marketing techniques and out-of-touch mindsets of record label executives are problematic because of corporate pressure to stifle the creative talent of women in pop. The industry’s prioritization of profit over quality of art is what hinders so many talented artists from reaching their full potential. Creative control should not be a privilege that must be earned. Aly & AJ have fought for their right to creative liberty, and it should not go underappreciated.