In one of my most vivid childhood memories, I’m riding in the back of my mom’s white Toyota through our neighborhood, clutching a pink Discman. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven, which places the scene around 2002 or 2003. What I remember most vividly is the CD placed inside the Discman, and the tune of a single song on that CD that I replayed inside it, over and over, a tune I still find myself humming at least once a month lo these twenty years later. And one lyric: between the lines… between the lines…
Until about a month ago, I thought that in all probability I had imagined this song, this CD, and perhaps the whole memory. I couldn’t find any trace of the album online, despite increasingly frantic Googling over the years: “Disney girls pop album”? “Disney princess belle between the lines song”? “Disney princess pop music album early 2000s”?
A few years ago, I enlisted a grad school friend in my search by describing the album’s cover, which was stamped indelibly into my mind: Three girls, ostensible Disney princesses (Belle, Cinderella, Ariel) identifiable by their color schemes and costuming cues but in otherwise unrecognizable chibi-adjacent forms, pose with various instruments against a pink background. You can taste the bubblegum just thinking about it. I finally managed to stumble onto the album a month ago by Googling precisely the right string of words on a whim: “Disney princess album pop ‘between the lines.’”
The assumed basis for the album, that these sexy teens were perhaps alternate universe versions of our beloved Disney princesses who formed a pop-rock band, followed logically.
Belle—sorry, Gabrielle—wore a crop top and short shorts. Ari held a guitar. Ella had bangs. Or maybe the lore was that they had traveled through time somehow. Or maybe some middle-aged executive just thought the girls were due for an update: skimpier, sparklier, more easily sold to the preteen girls of the early 2000s, who drowned themselves in Lip Smackers because their moms wouldn’t let them wear real makeup yet but were still young enough to want the tie-in toys. Pop culturally speaking, we were hardly on the other side of late-nineties heroin chic mixed with Spice Girls-style empowerment. Talk about mixed messages.
Vocals were delivered admirably by Julie Griffen (Ari), Patty Mattson (Ella), and Nadia Fay (Gabrielle), each singing with enough sweetness to meet notoriously stringent brand standards, but enough edge to surprise and captivate a sheltered child. The songs were written by successful Disney music execs who have since written for other projects like Hannah Montana, The Princess Diaries, and Descendants. No legitimate shade to anyone who worked on this album two decades ago. It served its intended purpose before fading into obscurity: making a little girl fall in love and remember it forever.
Let us now revisit the foundational text itself: Radio Disney Pop Dreamers (2002).
1) “Be a Star” — Off to a strong start. We get a good sense of what we’re in for: simple lyrics about hanging out with your friends and becoming a rock superstar because you believe in yourself so much that it’s impossible not to accomplish your dreams. Standard early 2000s fare; very proto-Hannah Montana. The title is certain in its imperative: Be a star. Okay, sure. The power is in you, girl. Yes queen.
2) “Beauty and the Beast” — A somewhat straightforward and boring take on a classic. Unlike the rest of the album, the autotune here is so obvious as to be actively hilarious.
3) “We Got the Beat” — The origins of my childhood interest in 80s rock band The Go-Go’s were threefold: this cover; the episode of Rugrats where they play “Vacation”; and the 13 Going on 30 soundtrack, which my mother purchased for me at Limited Too (and which, looking back, was an insanely good movie soundtrack by any standard). For that reason, I feel a fondness here. The enthusiastic spirit of the original is well-captured, and the musical elaborations aren’t too egregious.
4) “If You Can Dream (Ella’s Theme)” — In many ways, this song feels like the tentpole of the album; the Disney brand is strong here. A song under the same title but with a different tune and lyrics was released two years later on an album called Disney Princesses: The Ultimate Song Collection, a similar project that included more princesses and didn’t pretend they were hip teenyboppers. We stan the blueprint. Regardless, the chorus here is immensely catchy. Dreams are just wishes and wishes come true! So true, Ella. What’s that about a prince? Haha, girl, you’re so funny.
5) “Better Together (Ari’s Theme)” — Ari, despite being an expy for my favorite Disney princess (I went through a severe mermaid phase), was my least favorite member of the Pop Dreamers. That disdain owes at least in part to this reggae-tinged mess, which did her no favors. It’s vaguely appropriative in a multi-pronged Gwen Stefani kind of way, its attempts to match the tone of the original character don’t function nearly as well as Ella and Gabrielle’s album-original solo themes, and it makes me feel a little like I’ve accidentally ingested an upper at a party where I don’t know anyone.
6) “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” — Really beautiful singing on this one. Certainly the best of the album’s central movie-song covers. The guitar solo is frankly kind of dope.
7) “Walking on Sunshine” — This cover makes the original version, by Katrina and the Waves, seem like “Barracuda” by Heart—a major accomplishment, given that the original’s own bassist found playing the song irritating. This is one of the world’s most optimistic, lighthearted songs, so it makes sense that it’s been a Disney favorite, frequently adopted as DCOM fare: Disney-funded covers have cropped up over the years from bands like Jump5 (the Christian band who also recorded Lilo & Stitch’s “Aloha, E Komo Mai”) and Aly & AJ (whose recent music is genuinely really good).
This version, especially compared to the other Disney recordings, is just… weird. The energy is a little too manic for even the happiest song ever written. There’s some sort of unhinged kazoo sound repeated throughout. I don’t know how they divvied up the songs, but poor Ari really got the short end of the stick.
8) “Part of Your World” — See above for my perspective on Ari. I always skipped this song. Why listen to this (literally) off-beat version, with its misguided electric guitar riffs and ill-fitting disco-like fervor, when I could just watch the entirety of The Little Mermaid for the two-hundredth time? Check and mate, Radio Disney.
9) “Between the Lines (Gabrielle’s Theme)” — This song, the grittiest of the bunch (if grit in music can be defined by the simple presence of minor chords), sees Gabrielle muse on escapism through literature: she reads books, projects onto a sad girl character, uses tons of “don’t judge a book by its cover”-type metaphors, and muses on being “left out in the rain” before finding a happy ending.
This is the song I mentioned in this article’s opening, the one I replayed so many times that I wouldn’t be surprised, not knowing what ultimately became of my CD, if I had ruined the physical CD doing so. I spent many hours around age seven looking mournfully out my parents’ car windows while listening to this song, imagining that I was in fact a sexy but still bookish teenager experiencing relationship woes borne from what happens when “a girl falls in love with a boy”—what Gabrielle wailingly refers to as “a cosmic connection.” This is The Bell Jar: Young Readers’ Edition, a balm for future Tumblr users with nascent social-emotional problems.
It slapped. It still slaps.
10) “Do What We Wanna Do” — “Do What We Wanna Do” gestures vaguely at some sort of girl power, stick-it-to-the-man, Hot-Topic-individuality-complex sensibility while also being nonspecific enough to be unthreatening to parents and other authority figures. It’s blandly inspirational, encouraging listeners to chase their dreams, fly, take a chance, etc. It’s a less successful take on the themes of “Be a Star.” The opening riff is weirdly reminiscent of the Friends theme song.
11) “Some Day My Prince Will Come” — Any pretenses toward a watered-down Sleater Kinney-style girls-with-guitars aesthetic are thrown out here. What comes across in Snow White as a (now, admittedly, old-fashioned) treatise on longing for connection from a tragically isolated young woman here reads as a fresh girl-power anthem about, like, definitely needing a man.
12) “Give a Little Love” — Fascinating, given Ari’s position as the ill-placed black sheep of this album, that she managed to close it out. (I say that as if she’s a real person who paid off the record label or something. What can I say—the lore is vivid.) This song suffers from the same issue as most of Ari’s others: a vague, ill-advised gesture towards reggae; an incomprehensibly unhinged quality that doesn’t feel intentional; vocals that, while lovely, just don’t sound anything like the original princess in practice or spirit. At this point, I would always rewind back to “Between the Lines” rather than finishing the album.
As you can see, we kind of run out of steam towards the end here. The entire album barely runs over thirty minutes and consists mostly of essentially half-assed covers. It’s a blatant cash grab. It was sold to me and I bought it wholeheartedly, so completely that I imagine a big chunk of my perspective on what it means to be a girl, a woman, was forged subconsciously while listening to it. My decision at age 13 to start playing guitar, an instrument I still play, maybe owed partially to Ari’s blue electric guitar on the album cover. To this day, deep down, I still want to be a Pop Dreamer—if only I could figure out what that means.