From Disney To Mainstream

How do you break away from the Disney Corporation as a child star?


Words by Fiona Call
December 1st, 2015

The last two years has undoubtedly been the year of musical comebacks and image overhauls. The most prominent of these? Former Disney and Nickelodeon child stars. For those of us born in the late-Nineties and Noughties, many will look back fondly on popular tween shows and films such as Hannah Montana, and more recent hits such as Sonny With A Chance, Victorious and Got To Dance. From these innocence and fun-filled shows emerged meteoric stars, with Miley Cyrus undoubtedly being the most famous and adored (and hated) after her show’s long tenure.


However, these all-singing and dancing celebrities have had a fine line to tread, making the transition from singers delivering positive and clean messages to the younger ages, to fully-grown celebrities entertaining a much wider audience. Whilst certain singers have seemed to achieve commercial success seamlessly, a huge example being Ariana Grande, others have not found their feet so quickly. The problem with these stars begins in their foundations. They are likely to have built up a fan base of a specific age demographic over time, and so changing their established image is always going to provoke outcry and negative reactions.

Nick Jonas, originally from the Jonas Brothers band, found himself amongst criticism when a few years ago, he changed his image, sound and lyric content seemingly out of the blue. This is due to the fact his band were a key component to the Disney tween celebrity pack, having featured in Camp Rock and their own show for a time. Their fan base comprised of mainly young girls who had been led to believe that the wholesome image each Jonas Brother portrayed was true to themselves. So of course it was a shock when he decided to develop his adult image, and his transition hasn’t been easy. Nevertheless, his recent releases have experienced a large amount of success, including album and chart triumph with released singles.


On the other hand, the transition of squeaky-clean country star Miley Cyrus has been famously bumpy. She released a few albums whilst continuing her role in Hannah Montana, and so for a while stuck to her original success formula. However, as her fan base grew as well as the singer herself, she began to diverge little by little from her original niche, which occasionally provoked criticism and a few flops commercially. Then in 2013, she shocked the world, and traumatised her youngest of fans and their parents, unveiling a brand new image; a crop of short hair, a lot less clothing and a much more fluid approach to sexuality. For a time her fan base was divided, some wanting her “original” music, others applauding her bravery and her new found image, leading to her first few releases such as We Can’t Stop (this ironically won her a Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award) as the newly liberated Miley to huge success.

So do any rules exist in order for these stars to shed their original, manufactured image and break out into the mainstream music industry? Many have achieved worldwide fame by doing so, whilst others have taken much longer to establish themselves. Demi Lovato for example has continued to release albums having found fame on Sonny With A Chance, and also appearing in Disney-produced films before attempting to leave the association behind. Although she undeniably has a strong voice, commercial success has been varied as she attempted to please her younger fans while also trying to the mainstream audience. Despite having released five albums, it is only with her latest two that Lovato has seen true mainstream success on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps a direct result of her Disney image.


It’s apparent that beginning a music career at a young age can create issues, especially when the singer starts to grow up at a pace that is slightly too adult for the age demographic of their fan base. Although Justin Bieber found fame on YouTube instead of through television, his transition to an adult has been rocky due to the fact his first release targeted a specific age of young girls. His “Beliebers” are a loyal group of fans who have also been sources of criticism for the star as he made various mistakes in the public eye, such as turning up unacceptably late for concerts and being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs in 2014. This year, however, his new album indicates a new direction with Diplo and Skrillex influences on his music, helping him to continue to please his current fans who are growing up with him and to bring in a new group of listeners.

It’s clear that musicians from the Disney and Nickelodeon factory are a worthwhile proportion of the current music industry, and that they possess a substantial amount of talent. What isn’t clear, to their starter fan bases at least, is that the image portrayed is rarely a true reflection of the star and it might be best not to get too attached just yet. The younger stars of today have to take into account their fans and their level of impressionability, in order to find their success formula. They shouldn’t be afraid to change their image or direction, however they must remember who has supported them from the very beginning.


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