- We launched the Stay Insider Sessions to connect with artists while the world practices social distancing.
- Last up, Aly & AJ discussed their evolution from starring roles on Disney Channel to the deeply personal, unabashedly political music they’re making now.
- “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor,” the second single from the duo’s forthcoming album, is an ’80s club banger that has a message of empowerment and rebellion.
- “We wanted to write something that felt very anthemic and would be able to lift people up, make them feel like they could be warriors, in whatever way that is – whether that’s standing up for their religious beliefs, their sexuality, their rights,” Aly explained.
- “Aly and I started so young and we were signed to a label at a really young age,” AJ said. “I think for many years, we felt – I don’t want to say silenced, but we definitely felt shy about being really clear about what we believed in, and how to stand up for it.”
- The sisters also revealed that their beloved song, “Potential Breakup Song,” wasn’t inspired by any specific boy in particular, despite longstanding rumours of its connection to Joe Jonas.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Insider launched the Stay Insider Sessions to connect with musicians while they, like many of us, are grappling with isolation and unprecedented downtime. Last up: Aly & AJ.
Earlier this month, Aly & AJ began recording their first official album in 13 years.
This is, quite literally, music to the ears of their fans, many of whom grew up alongside these sisters. Alyson and Amanda Joy Michalka were launched into the spotlight as teenage Disney Channel darlings, with Aly starring on the popular series “Phil of the Future” and both starring in the movie “Cow Belles.”
The duo’s debut album, 2005’s “Into the Rush,” spawned the nostalgia-heavy hit song “Rush,” and they released a Christmas album the following year.
But 2007’s “Insomniatic” heralded a new kind of success – largely thanks to the buzzy, rock-infused single “Potential Breakup Song,” an iconic manifesto for underappreciated girlfriends everywhere.
For years, many fans thought the cheeky lyrics (“It took too long for you to call back / And normally, I would just forget that / Except for the fact it was my birthday / My stupid birthday”) were directed towards fellow Disney alum Joe Jonas, whom AJ had dated as a teenager. She even said she once mailed him a piece of birthday cake, apparently to make him feel guilty for something.
But the sisters finally set the record straight on Twitter in April: It was “Flattery,” not “Potential,” that Jonas inspired.
“None of it is ever a secret, we’re always willing to share,” AJ told me during a recent Zoom call. “It’s just that sometimes, speaking on songs that existed so long ago and were a part of your childhood – whether it was a heartbreak or a great relationship or whatever it might be – you kind of feel embarrassed to go backwards and address it, because it was such a different chapter in your life. You don’t feel as connected to it anymore, now that you’re an adult.”
Despite the deliciously specific rage of “Potential Breakup Song,” AJ revealed that it wasn’t actually inspired by any specific boy.
“It wasn’t connected to any particular person. We were just like, ‘Let’s write a break up song,'” she said, laughing. “At the time, we weren’t thinking it was going to be a breakup anthem, but it kind of became that, which is really cool.”
“But I might as well be honest about which song was written about him,” she shrugged, referring to Jonas. “Its funny. Aly and I have gotten beyond the point of being embarrassed about our past.”
Aly & AJ aren’t afraid to get personal or political with their new music
After the success of “Insomniatic,” which debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and spawned another hit single “Like Whoa,” Aly & AJ did something few Disney-bred stars dare: They disappeared.
Not completely, of course. Aly starred in “Easy A” alongside Emma Stone and in the crime drama “iZombie,” while AJ still stars in the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs.” They even portrayed sisters on-screen in the 2015 indie film “Weepah Way for Now.”
But in the pop music landscape, Aly & AJ were absent for an entire decade. Finally, they reemerged in 2017 with “Take Me,” armed with an independent label and a brand new, intoxicating, ’80s-infused sound.
While Aly listed “I Know” (from their 2018 EP “Ten Years”) and “Sanctuary” (from their 2019 EP of the same name) as some of the duo’s most personal songs, “because they are about specific people,” both sisters agreed their forthcoming album (expected later this year) will include their most intimate material yet.
“There are so many personal songs on this new album. Songs that we’re not scared to share, but we still hope they’re received with open arms, and that their message is perceived in the right way,” Aly told me.
Fans have gotten two tastes of the album so far: “Attack of Panic” and “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor,” both of which pulse like flashing lights.
“They don’t necessarily have anything to do with the full album, but there was also something really exciting about that, experimenting a little bit,” Aly explained. “This is kind of what going to a club would sound like in an Aly & AJ world.”
Indeed, lead single “Attack of Panic” is a dense, near-claustrophobic club banger that draws from trippy movies like 1985’s “Return to Oz” and 1986’s “Labyrinth,” as well as both sisters’ real-life experiences with panic attacks.
“Aly and I started so young and we were signed to a label at a really young age,” AJ explained. “I think for many years, we felt – I don’t want to say silenced, but we definitely felt shy about being really clear about what we believed in, and how to stand up for it.”
“I feel like now that Aly and I are older – we’ve been shaped over the years by our beliefs in women’s rights, equality, equal pay – standing up for our beliefs just feels natural,” she continued. “And I’m really proud of it.”
“I hope that lyrically, especially when it comes to ‘Joan of Arc’ or ‘Attack of Panic,’ whether it’s about touching on mental health or standing up for disenfranchised women, women who have not been able to speak out, I really feel that these topics need to be sung about. I think you can do it in a really eloquent, even poppy manner.”
Indeed, the duo’s most recent single, “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor,” is both deeply catchy and unavoidably political.
The song draws its name from the famed historical figure, a devout French war hero who was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1431.
“I thought it might be kind of cool to write an anthem about this figure in history, who has been so widely praised for standing up for something that she truly believed in,” Aly explained. “I think there’s something really powerful in taking her story and relating it to what’s happening right now in our society.”
“I think it’s super relevant in this moment that we’re going through, especially with these protests, and the fact that people need to have a voice,” she continued. “And so we wanted to write something that felt very anthemic and would be able to lift people up, make them feel like they could be warriors, in whatever way that is – whether that’s standing up for their religious beliefs, their sexuality, their rights.”
“We wanted to invoke that, mixed with a cheekiness: ‘We don’t stop until mascara’s on the dance floor.’ We don’t mean that literally, but we’re sort of saying, ‘We will be here every day, every night, fighting for what we believe in.'”
— Aly & AJ (@alyandaj) May 30, 2020
In the years since their musical comeback, Aly & AJ have built a robust fanbase in the LGBTQ community.
And true to the famously riotous roots of Pride, Aly said that listening to “Joan of Arc” makes her think of groups of friends out at night, “coming out of the shadows,” being a little rebellious, supporting each other, and embracing their “best, most authentic selves.”
Additionally, Aly & AJ have expressed their fervent support of the police brutality protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
— Aly & AJ (@alyandaj) June 2, 2020
Both sisters say they have grown into their activism over time – though they tend to use phrases like “moral responsibility” to describe their actions.
On Wednesday, for example, Aly & AJ will host a marathon YouTube livestream that will raise money for 13 different charities, including GLAAD,The Trevor Project, and Colour of Change. They plan to fill 12 straight hours with fan service: a performance with their band; karaoke with AJ’s “The Goldbergs” costar Hayley Orrantia; a “Phil of the Future” cast reunion via Zoom.
“I think a lot of people are sceptical of celebrities or musicians or actors, who begin to use their voices and stand for causes that are political. And they always kind of say, ‘We don’t need to hear from you, shut up, you’re just a singer, go back to what you do well,'” Aly explained with a wry smile.
“But I think that what our duty is, as musicians, is to speak about those things. That is our art, that is our art form, and we’re citizens in society, just like anyone else.”