10 Years Post-Disney, Aly & AJ Are Reinventing Themselves — & Their Style
It's 2007 all over again.
In 2007, Aly and AJ Michalka — commonly known as Aly and AJ — released Insomniatic, the studio album that brought the world “Potential Break-up Song,” one of 2007’s most popular anthems. That year saw the sisters become Disney darlings, open for Hannah Montana on the Best of Both Worlds world tour, score their own teenage rom-com, Cow Belles, and walk the red carpet in balloon dresses, chunky belts, and printed Pucci.
It’s not 2007, though. It’s 2017, and the names Aly and AJ, at least as one, packaged deal, have been a twinkle in most millennials’ nostalgia-minded eyes. That all changed on Friday, when they dropped their first single in a decade, “Take Me.” Along came the inevitable headlines: “Aly & AJ Drop A Dreamy New Single Like It’s 2007,” and “Aly & AJ’s New Song ‘Take Me’ Is So Worth The 10-Year Wait.”
But don’t call it a comeback.
“I think I’d call it more of a revival of [us] finding music again,” AJ tells Refinery29. “We really focused on our acting careers, and even though music has always been our number one love, we just went through a long period of time where we hit a wall, just in regards to writing and our passion for music. And we found that [passion] again.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles (minus seven early years spent in Seattle), Aly and AJ were first signed at ages 15 and 13, respectively. “It sounds weird to say we were so young when we started, but we really, actually, truly were,” Aly notes. “Now that we have a little more wisdom and have just been in the business longer, we look back at things” — things like touring and flying around the world — “and go, ‘Wow, that really wasn’t normal.’”
They’re now 28 and 26; Aly is married, AJ is a series regular on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs. Though not even 30, the duo has become a symbol of early-2000s nostalgia, something they admit is “trending” and certainly helps catapult them back into the mainstream.
“People have been coming up to us a lot after seeing that we have new music coming out and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you were my childhood,’” AJ says. “And it just makes me laugh, because, you know, we’re young ourselves. To be a part of someone’s past is so interesting and weird. We haven’t been around that long, but it has been long enough for people to grow up with us in a way that made a really big impact.”
“It’s funny, because we’re super-sentimental types, [and] we have a bit of a strange obsession with our childhood, where we wanted to stay kids as long as possible.” Aly confesses, “I recently bought a bunch of the original Polly Pockets that we used to play with as kids, and I ended up spending like $500 on them. I wasn’t even going to play with them, but I just wanted to know that I had them because I was like, ‘Why the F did I give those away?”
“And then all the sudden you’re making up scenarios like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to have Polly Pockets because what if they’re not made anymore and we have daughters, they need to have them too,” AJ adds (they often finish each other’s sentences and thoughts).
“Exactly, we’re like justifying it,” Aly agrees.
Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews of “Take Me” — and the growing anticipation for their forthcoming EP — there’s still such a focus on the Aly and AJ of then. And understandably so. “I think the one thing I was a little surprised by was that there was no negative [response],” AJ says. “You’re always going to get people who are like, ‘I don’t get this,’ ‘I miss the old Aly & AJ,’ or, ‘This doesn’t sound like them!’ I was a little surprised that so many people were this accepting of [our] music 10 years later. It’s really resonated with people.”
But beyond music, growing up Disney creates and projects a certain image — a certain type of style, hair, and makeup — that’s simultaneously digestible and aspirational, though not necessarily authentic to its wearer. And that’s what so many of their OG fans remember.
“We definitely pushed the envelope: a lot of makeup, a lot of hair, a lot of accessories, ” AJ says. ”It was kind of the moment when Hillary Duff had blown up — she had a certain vibe, a certain look, and it wasn’t like we were trying to copy it, that was just the Disney way — the more makeup, the better. It wasn’t about subtly or less is more; it was that you saw the natural progression of people who are doing really well in the same company and think, ‘Oh, I guess that’s what you have to do.’
Of course, being pivoted in a certain direction comes with regrets, and though they admit that they had a say in what they were wearing (and thought it was cool!), there are certain trends they fully support making a return, and others fans shouldn’t expect them to bring back. Talking about these, they turn into giddy teenagers, and for a second it is just like being back in 2007.
“There was a look Aly and I did, oh my gosh I can’t remember what year this was it would have been early 2000s, it was to a Disney premiere, I can’t remember what film, Aly will remember — I know what you’re talking about, says Aly — but it was one of the worst looks we’ve ever done, we both did stuff in our hair. We did twisted, waxy, fake dreads and we wore these ponchos with really bizarre prints on them. One had a horse and the other one was I think tie dye looking, that was one of the worst. They were like fuzzy ponchos.”
Aly picks up right where AJ left off, “That was so bad! It was knit ponchos, no ponchos should exist ever unless you’re wearing the poncho for Splash Mountain at Disneyland, other than that no ponchos. I also did crimped hair, that should never be good.” They both laugh, remembering what they they loved about fashion — and how that’s evolved over time.
But it wasn’t all bad. ”We were big into glitter: glitter on your cheeks, glitter on your eyes.” Aly continues, “We loved Limited Too; Limited Too was our store. I don’t oppose it coming back. Silky pajamas in lime green and purple? I’m still cool with that.
In their heyday, Aly & AJ were two of Seventeen magazine’s “Most Stylish Stars,” a typical feat for popular teens stars; it was the closest most Disney-bred stars of that era — women like Brenda Song, Ashley Tisdale, and the members of The Cheetah Girls — would get to fashion cred. Today’s equivalent, think: Rowan Blanchard and Zendaya, have seemingly transcended the typical “Disney” trope, becoming style icons well beyond television screens.
“I think the fashion world is more accepting of the Disney brand than it ever was,” Aly says. “There was no way that a Disney girl would get the cover of W or i-D. I remember AJ and I really struggling with that. The platform those girls have now is so different from what we had.”
“It’s so funny, Disney is such a label that people have created. We were young and people labeled us, and didn’t take us seriously,” AJ adds. “I think the way it works now is how it should be: Rowan and Zendaya are making a difference online as activists, and [they can also explore] high-fashion looks,” she says, noting how social media has actively changed the perception of the Disney label, and how Instagram has given them a place to show off their new, glitter eyeshadow-less look.
One scroll through their feeds, and you’ll notice what they call “California chic:” For Aly, it’s Solid & Striped one-pieces, tie-front tops by Stone Cold Fox, Creatures of the Wind dresses, and pink Max Mara pants; for AJ, it’s Rodarte tees, and dresses by Lisa Marie Fernandez. If Aly’s feed seems more fashion-y, it’s because she’s arguably the one with the fashion obsession.
“I think my love for clothes and fashion has always been very key to me. [My husband] always encourages me to buy a piece that I know I’m going to love 15, 20 years from now. Maybe that something is a little more expensive, but you know you’ll have it forever, rather than buying items that are going to fall apart, aren’t well-made, or aren’t sourced properly.” She adds, “I’ve been looking at clothing in a different way. AJ and I are obsessed with designers like Harris Reed and Creatures of the Wind, people who are making really interesting fashion statements but also clothing that you can wear on a day-to-day basis.”
“My relationship with fashion has been really inspired by Aly,” AJ says. “As a kid, it wasn’t really a passion of mine. But you want to look how you sound, and that’s not easy. I feel like when Aly and I feel the most ourselves and we’re really comfortable — it’s that West Coast natural feel, not really overly-styled. We’ve kind-of embraced that we’re California girls: I’m okay going out with no makeup, I’m okay not having hair extensions, I’m okay wearing flats and a white tee and Levi’s jeans. Obviously there’s a persona when you’re onstage or when you’re in a shoot, but at the end of the day, it’s about what you feel comfortable in. I’ve always been a fan of approachability.”
Social media, T-shirts, and a Glossier glow? Aly reflects on how different this may sound from their Disney days, but also how excited they are that it does.
“I guess this really is the new era of Aly & AJ.”