A 'School Dance for Adults' embraces the aughts

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A 'School Dance for Adults' embraces the aughts
The actor and DJ Matt Bennett, who starred in the Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious, performs at his Party 101 event celebrating all things aughts at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, Sept. 22, 2023. From Disney Channel bops to Nickelodeon theme songs, tween pop from the 2000s is proving to be an unironic draw at aughts parties across the country. (Clara Mokri/The New York Times)

by Frank Rojas

NEW YORK, NY.- It’s a Friday night in 2006: The Bagel Bites are defrosting in the oven and a case of Capri Suns is chilling in the refrigerator. You turn on the TV in the living room, click your way to the Disney Channel, and prepare to sing both the Troy and Gabriella parts in “Breaking Free” from “High School Musical.”

Flash-forward and it’s 2023: The living room is now a bar, Capri Suns have turned into gin and tonics, and you are on the dance floor with dozens of other 20- and 30-somethings singing along to the “That’s So Raven” theme song.

“I love Disney Channel, it’s very nostalgic,” Leslie Epps, 25, said at a recent party fueled by 2000s tween culture at Webster Hall, a concert venue in Manhattan. “We want to enjoy our youth in a way, and this is the way to do it. It’s kind of like a school dance for adults.”

For many adults, the tween pop acts of the 2000s represent a less complicated time of childhood innocence — a time when Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, Aly & AJ, the Cheetah Girls and Selena Gomez ruled the round-the-clock Disney Channel programming, while iCarly and Big Time Rush dominated on Nickelodeon. Young people of the 2000s lived in a pre-streaming world where pop culture catered to the youth market in a way it had not quite done so before.

In more recent times, nostalgia for the era has taken the form of random DJ requests, tribute shows and themed parties at clubs.

“You would be surprised of how many times at weddings I get asked to play the Jonas Brothers, especially ‘Burnin’ Up,’” said Malcolm Alexander, a full-time DJ and the owner of Brink Entertainment, a live-music and events company based in Long Beach, California.

This wasn’t necessarily the case five or even 10 years ago, however, when Alexander was asked to play ’NSync and Paula Abdul tracks rather than Hannah Montana. He credits the popularity of streaming platforms such as Disney+ and Netflix in revitalizing interest in aughts tween pop. He now sneaks winking references to that culture into his mixes.

“I’ll be playing Europop nostalgia like Daft Punk stuff or even Cher’s ‘Believe’ and I’ll see girls dancing,” Alexander, 30, said. “I’m like, OK, if I mix Hilary Duff’s ‘What Dreams Are Made Of,’ I know that’s going to go off. And sure enough, it does.”

Duff, who starred in 65 episodes of the Disney Channel hit “Lizzie McGuire,” was also the muse for a benefit concert that Atlanta singer Nadia Vaeh planned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Duff’s album “Metamorphosis.” In August, Vaeh and several local musicians played the album in its entirety at local coffee shop to raise money for Y’all Rock Camp ATL, a nonprofit organization that offers music lessons to young musicians.

“My very first concert ever was Hilary Duff at 13 years old,” Vaeh, who is now 32, recalled. “With the 20-year anniversary of this album, I found myself going down the Disney rabbit hole and revisiting everything. It’s crazy how much of the songs are embedded in my brain.”

For her performance, Vaeh channeled the Disney Channel star with a blond wig, low-rise denim jeans, a pink-and-orange mesh top and orange chunky-heeled sandals.

“The music now is more of a fleeting moment versus, like, a lifestyle,” she said. “We were going through Cheetah Girls or Hilary as kids to just get through the day.”

Away from your childhood bedroom, lavish weddings and coffee shops, the 2000s tween music movement has also made its way into clubs and theaters across the country.

Actor and DJ Matt Bennett has been touring clubs and theaters on and off since 2019 with his popular Party 101 events. Before he played Cheetah Girls mixes from his laptop, he played Robbie Shapiro on four seasons of the Nickelodeon sitcom “Victorious,” which debuted in 2010.

Bennett, 31, said he was inspired to start throwing parties celebrating all things aughts back in 2019, when, during a night out in Los Angeles, a DJ played “Come Clean” by Duff and “the place just exploded.”

Shortly after that experience, he started to create mash-ups drawing on songs from “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” (2003) all the way to his “Victorious” days.

“Everybody is now getting independent streams of content on TikTok and Instagram,” Bennett said. The particular monoculture that began in the early 2000s “was the last time where everybody was kind of still watching TV and being fed the same stuff and this music was a part of that.”

According to Tyler Bickford, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in children’s literature and childhood studies, there was an “arms race” around the tail end of the last century during which children’s consumer and media companies became convinced that if they failed to lock in the 9 to 12 demographic, they would be dead in the water.

“This era was about the importance of children — both as performers and consumers — to mainstream popular culture,” he said.

According to Bickford, whose work examines the rise of the tween music industry from its childish roots and into legitimizing children’s participation in public culture, pop music allowed these companies to start building inroads with young consumers.

“This tween moment kind of normalized pop music for kids,” Bickford said.

Bennett’s Party 101 — its name is a reference to another Nickelodeon series, “Zoey 101” — is currently on tour throughout the country. At recent stops in New York, Atlanta and Boise, Idaho, he has brought his “Victorious” castmates Avan Jogia, Elizabeth Gillies and Daniella Monet to the stage.

The show has Bennett mixing and matching bits of auditory aughts nostalgia like songs from Disney Channel Original movies and Nickelodeon theme songs. The almost two-hour set of mash-ups is accompanied with onstage video screens featuring clips from beloved shows — and even Disney Channel commercials from the era.

After not being able to secure tickets to the sold-out show in Cleveland, where she lives, Whitney Nicole, 24, decided to make the trek out to New York for last month’s show at Webster Hall.

“Back then, you didn’t really have any real problems, and it’s kind of like a stress-free time in my life,” said Nicole, who was wearing a Big Time Rush T-shirt (she said she had seen the band, which originated as a fictional act on a Nickelodeon show of the same name, “40 times in concert”). “So I feel like whenever I hear that music, I forget that I’m an adult.”

“Me and my friends still drive around town blasting this music,’” said another attendee, Daniel Ventura, 26. “Our go-to crying song is ‘Butterfly Fly Away’ from the Hannah Montana movie.”

For Bennett, Party 101 is about more than just letting loose and forgetting your adult responsibilities.

“Culturally, there’s a lot of joy that goes into this, and a lot of joy that people seem to get from it, especially post-pandemic lockdown,” he said. “Anybody can replicate this; it doesn’t have to be on a gigantic scale.”

Of all the singalongs featured in and shrieks of excitement generated by this ultra-specific playlist, one ballad, “This Is Me” from the 2008 Disney Channel original movie “Camp Rock,” seemed to capture the emotion and energy of the Webster Hall performance.

Joining in the lyrics of self-empowerment (“Now I’ve found who I am there’s no way to hold it in, no more hiding who I want to be this is me”), some sang to their friends while others projected their voice to the main stage, all of them enjoying one night when the realities of adulthood felt just a little farther away.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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