Everything about “Mad At Disney” is catchy, not least of all the title. Before you even hear the song, its name has you wondering why, of many potential reasons, this pop singer is angry at Mickey Mouse’s parent company. Did they just read up on the Mulan controversy? Do they believe it’s not yet safe to reopen theme parks at this point in the pandemic? Are they concerned about creeping monopolization within the entertainment industry? Were they denied a career-launching role on a Disney Channel sitcom?
As it turns out, Salem Ilese’s ire at Disney has more to do with the false ideals about romance the company’s movies have been purveying for decades. As she explained in a Rolling Stone feature last week, Ilese, 21, has been studying the art of songwriting since age 10, when her parents enrolled her in a class taught by industry veteran Bonnie Hayes in San Francisco. She studied songwriting for two years at Berklee before becoming a vigorous participant in the LA songwriting scene, booking every collaborative session she could and singing covers on YouTube in the meantime. (She was posting those performances under the name Salem — do you think someone told her to adjust her stage name so as not to be confused with the witch house act?)
Upon showing up to one of those songwriting appointments last summer, cowriter Jason Hahs told her he was “mad at Disney” after watching the live-action remake of The Lion King. This jumpstarted Ilese’s imagination. She got to thinking about formative years spent donning princess dresses and singing along with Disney soundtracks, all while mainlining unrealistic narratives — literal fairy tales — about falling in love and living happily ever after. “Growing up you expect a prince and a white horse to come and rescue you from the tower,” Ilese told RS. “In reality, you get boys in high school who are scared of commitment and stand you up for a date.” Soon Ilese, Hahs, and their fellow unknown Bendik Møller had spun those sentiments into a hell of a pop song.
“Mad At Disney” gets good milage out of tweaking memorable iconography with lines like “My fairy grandma warned me/ Cinderella’s story/ Only ended in a bad divorce” and “Had me wishing on a shooting star/ But now I’m twenty-something/ I still know nothing/ About who I am or what I’m not.” Such allusions are punctuated with loosely profane exasperated outbursts such as “Finding a true love’s kiss is bullshit” and “What the hell is love? What the hell is love supposed to feel like?” If the words feel a bit on-the-nose, what lifts the song to greatness is music that mirrors that sarcastic embrace of the old tropes. Ilese flutters across a thumping, synth-powered, increasingly dreamy arrangement with a loosely jazzy melody resembling some vocal-fried triangulation of Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, and Halsey. In and out in just over two minutes, it manages to sound like every other new pop song on the radio while also standing out from the pack.
Given all the musical and conceptual hooks and the lack of barriers to entry, it’s easy to imagine a track like that going viral naturally. But almost nothing goes viral naturally nowadays. Like seemingly every buzzy new hit from an artist too new to be bolstered by a stan army, “Mad At Disney” first took off at TikTok, where soundtracking a video from a prominent an influencer can lead to a song appearing in thousands of other people’s clips within days. In recent years this has turned TikTok into a valuable promotional tool. Industry people are not even attempting to hide the machinations that go into engineering a hit on the platform, openly paying influencers up to $20,000 to feature a certain track.
Such was the case with “Mad At Disney,” which currently sits atop Spotify’s Viral 50 chart both in the US and worldwide and is now one of the 100 most popular songs on the streaming service. Zach Friedman and Tony Talamo, who signed Ilese to their Homemade Projects label after discovering “Mad At Disney” on Spotify this summer, also manage what RS called “a stable of influencers” on TikTok. Ilese’s own TikTok videos featuring the song were already accumulating tens of thousands of views when Friedman and Talamo’s network of popular accounts began pushing the song last month, leading to its appearance in nearly 900,000 videos. In turn, she shot from 6,000 monthly listeners on Spotify to her current state of rapid escalation.
It’s somewhat comical that this song about being fed up with fake storybook romance has gone viral through manufactured means, but Ilese’s rise is par for the course in today’s quickly evolving music industry. And if her limited catalog online is any indication, she’s at least a deserving recipient of all this TikTok hype. “It Gets Better,” released this past spring, puts a sharper minor-key edge on that “Mad At Disney” sound, punctuating its chorus with shots of choral EDM bombast. Last summer’s 757 EP is similarly accomplished, a fun if slightly anonymous set that could easily be plumbed for more TikTok fodder if her muse stalls out. The ability to make something go viral by flexing a network of influencers almost feels like magic, but as with Disney’s own illusions, it’s really just good business.
For the first time in almost two months, the #1 album in America is not Taylor Swift’s Folklore: Big Sean ends Swift’s six-week run atop the Billboard 200 with a #1 debut for Detroit 2. Per Billboard, the album posted about 103,000 equivalent album units in its first week, including 30,000 in sales. It’s his third chart-topper following 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise and 2017’s I Decided. After posthumous Pop Smoke and Juice WRLD releases comes a #4 debut for 6ix9ine’s TattleTales. The set enters with 53,000 units and 32,000 in sales, a figure boosted by various merch bundles. The rest of the top 10: Taylor Swift, Hamilton, Lil Baby, Rod Wave, DaBaby, and Post Malone.
Over on the Hot 100, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” has climbed back to #1 after being displaced by BTS’ “Dynamite” for two weeks. The latter song falls to #2, followed by Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #3 and DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” at #4. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is in at #5 — per Billboard, this is its 27th week in the top 5, tying a record set by the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You.” 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” reaches a new #6 peak, followed by Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar,” Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin” remix, and Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat).” Closing out the top 10, DJ Khaled and Drake’s “Popstar” climbs back to #10 on the strength of its new video starring Justin Bieber.
Mr. Eazi & Major Lazer – “Oh My Gawd” (Feat. Nicki Minaj & K4MO)
There’s such a range of quality with these Major Lazer posse cuts, but this one is so contagiously fun, and that’s even before you factor in one of the most appealing Nicki Minaj appearances in recent memory. Even in a pandemic year, holding it back until September was just cruel.
Marshmello & Demi Lovato – “OK Not To Be OK”
This sounds like a hit. Everything about it is extremely competent. The message is positive.
Usher – “Bad Habits”
He’s been on a slight decline for a while, but Usher stays making highly enjoyable radio fodder. Hopefully radio still cares!
Jack Gilinsky & Iann Dior – “Lose Somebody”
Iann Dior is a Trippie Redd-style SoundCloud-rap yowler who is quickly becoming ubiquitous. After guesting on 24kGoldn’s crossover rock radio hit “Mood,” now here he is on a bleary pop-R&B track from one half of the duo Jack & Jack.
David Guetta & Sia – “Let’s Love”
As someone who is too old to use TikTok recreationally, I feel qualified to assert that these two are too old to be premiering their song on TikTok.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Lily Allen married Stranger Things’ David Harbour in Vegas. [Instagram]
- Justin Bieber is teasing something happening later this week. [Twitter]
- Bieber also got a tattoo of a rose on his neck. [Instagram]
- Halsey will make her acting debut alongside Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney in the new series The Player’s Table. [THR]
- Speaking of pop stars turned actors, Harry Styles is following up his Dunkirk role by replacing Shia LaBeouf in Olivia Wilde’s new movie Don’t Worry, Darling. [Deadline]
- And speaking of Harry Styles, Anne-Marie covered his “Watermelon Sugar” for Live Lounge. [YouTube]
- A BLACKPINK documentary called Light Up The Sky comes to Netflix on 10/14. [Deadline]
- Possibly the most disturbing sentence I’ve ever published in this column: Dixie D’Amelio released a remix of “Be Happy” with blackbear and Lil Mosey. [YouTube]