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The tween consumer market has always had its own taste. For the past twenty years or more, Disney Channel stars have dominated it. In the early 2000s, younger millennials chose to blast Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, followed by Gen Z’s preference for Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Now, children and adults alike have a new Disney music icon to listen to: Olivia Rodrigo, who played Paige in Bizaardvark and now plays Nini in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

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With her first single, “Driver’s License,” debuting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, it is clear that eighteen-year-old Rodrigo does not just appeal to Disney’s tween and childhood audience.

In a 2012 journal article, childhood-studies scholar Tyler Bickford analyzed the influence of tween music culture, particularly singers who rise to fame through association with the Disney Channel. “Partly through sheer force of [tweens’] demographic market power and partly through [the Disney Channel’s] creative emphasis on pop music, now the mainstream music industry appears to have no choice but to accept these children’s media artists as members in good standing,” he wrote.

Still, the transition from Disney child star to adult has often not been smooth sailing. Budding sexuality is often at the center of controversy. When she was a teenager, Cyrus found herself in trouble more than a handful of times for not fitting into a cookie-cutter image of childhood. This included having a pole in her routine during a performance of “Party in the USA” at 2009’s Teen Choice Awards.

“The impossible position in which Cyrus found herself, trying to reconcile sexuality, child audiences and public performance, is apparent in two contradictory responses from industry insiders to her scandals,” Bickford wrote about the criticism that Cyrus received at the time. Cyrus’s performance could still be appealing to a new part of her fan base. Some people were OK with her controversial performance, as her breakthrough song garnered her an adult audience, but some of her younger fans may have felt let down by her no longer being a squeaky-clean role model.

What made Cyrus controversial to parents and other adults also made her appealing to young fans. Tweens should not necessarily be shielded from sexually provocative content. In a way, according to Bickford, listening to these children’s entertainment stars’ potentially controversial music indicates the existence of a tween counterculture. As Bickford wrote, “observing the exploding presence of children in public consumer spaces, the analytical language of identity commonly used to explain feminist, queer or youth culture movements might be applied felicitously to children” or tweens and their pop culture interests.

As adults enjoy the music of Rodrigo and other Disney channel stars, they benefit from what Bickford calls a childhood counterpublic—“a category to which children might affiliate that transcends and cuts across the bounds of family.”

Whoever the next Miley Cyrus or Olivia Rodrigo will be is to be seen, but tweens’ pop culture influence can’t be tamed.

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Popular Music, Vol. 31, No. 3 (October 2012), pp. 417-436 (20 pages)
Cambridge University Press