“We decided to not write for radio, not write for a label, not write for anyone but ourselves.”
‘Potential Breakup Song’ was huge. It was loud and bombastic. A moment-defining piece of pop music that vaulted American singers Aly & AJ into the public eye. Listed by Time Magazine as the 9th best song of 2007, the sisters were seemingly living the teenage dream as Disney starlets with a recording contract and millions of sales. Then, on the cusp of a long, successful music career, they chose to walk away from it all.
Jaded from the intense pressure of creating radio-friendly hits at such a young age, Aly & AJ needed a reprieve. While not retreating entirely into obscurity, as both found success in acting, they admitted that they weren’t feeling musically creative anymore. In an interview with Billboard in 2017, they spoke of being “burnt out” and how, at the ages of 16 and 18, too much was being asked of them.
Other than a very brief foray back into music in 2013 under a new moniker 78violet, ten years went by before the sisters truly felt comfortable enough to start writing again. Having matured as both people and artists, Aly & AJ decided to give the music industry one last crack. This time, on their own terms. Instead of seeking out another record deal, the duo chose to self-fund their venture and release independently. The return was starkly different to their Disney days, but would the same kind of success follow?
With the music landscape changing so much in a decade, pop, rather ironically, is no longer that popular. In the 00s, the likes of Britney, Rihanna, Gwen Stefani and Leona Lewis dominated the charts with pop music. This framework no longer exists. Music is continually evolving as Jon Caramanica argues in his New York Times piece on the the issue. He believes that our conventional understanding of pop has now fallen into a sub-genre itself. A new “pop 2.0” has come to replace it, taking influences from a more global outlook.
As a result, the charts look a lot different now. Powerhouses like BTS, Cardi B, Post Malone and Drake occupy the vast majority of places. Even more orthodox pop acts like Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa are borrowing from this trend, both leaning towards a more urban resonance. The climate couldn’t be more different, so standing out and owning a sound has become more important than ever. Even if chart success is no longer the major goal.
It’s also true that the dissemination of music has radically altered since Aly & AJ were releasing in the mid-00s. With the advent of streaming and social media, the machine behind artists has grown exponentially. Reaching fans and creating hype is easier than ever before. It’s a double edged sword though, especially for acts like the newly-independent Aly & AJ. They simply can’t compete in the upper levels of the charts due to the decline in physical sales and focus on expensive promotion, but, on the other hand, access to music has never been more democratic and easy. It’s here that the sisters have been able to find their rather unique niche.
Their focus could not be on conventional numbers for their second career. With the charts having become a rather mangled facsimile of themselves, so meticulously curated by the industry, Aly & AJ had to rely on organic plays, the devotion of old fans and a fresh sound to really secure themselves a viable position within this maelstrom of pop. Occupying a strange dichotomy, they benefited from their early, mainstream success and also a distance from the industry which afforded a certain objectivity. The duo managed to eke out a space to feel confident in the music they were releasing.
And so, in 2017, came an EP aptly titled Ten Years. An 80s synth-pop inspired masterclass, the record was not so much a comeback, or even a reintroduction, but a reinvention. Far removed from the pop-punk power ballads that brought fame initially, each track has a raw, sentimental quality. The songs are full of a dreamy nostalgia, evoking memories of road-trips and lazy summers. They grew up and experienced life, and the record reflects this.
Their new sound shimmers in its simplicity and speaks to a fan base that has matured alongside the singers. Eager to satiate this newly awakened following, they dropped another single, ‘Good Love’, a glittering electro-pop love-is-love track released for Pride Month, and a deluxe version of the Ten Years EP at the end of 2018. The sisters have even gone on tour, playing to sold-out venues across America. The response, both from fans and critics, has been overwhelmingly positive. The audience is clearly there too, with the EP garnering over ten million streams during the last year alone. They had done it. Essentially.
Perhaps their music isn’t appearing on the Billboard Hot 100 or blaring on TV, but I don’t think Aly & AJ mind too much. While they admit that they haven’t quite “earned their seat at the table” yet, they’re so content to be writing and recording new music that they have complete control over. It’s a rare feat to come back after ten years and not only reinvent yourself, but find success in doing so. The road has been long and rather circuitous to this point, but the rewards have been worth it – for the fans and seemingly for the sisters too.
“We’re here to stay, there’s no going back at this point”
Aly & AJ begin their ‘Sanctuary Tour’ in May.