Aly & AJ

Potential Breakthrough Song: How TikTok Helped Fuel Aly & AJ's Viral Return

The last time sister duo Aly & AJ released a full-length, Insomniatic, it was 2007, and the only social media platforms the then-Disney stars had to navigate were Myspace and the early days of YouTube. But 14 years later, at the end of 2020, that album’s lead single, “Potential Breakup Song,” unexpectedly went viral on TikTok, and ushered in a new era for the duo.

The original TikTok clip, in which a college student filmed her mother and friends poorly lip-syncing along, has gained over 11 million likes since October. Meanwhile, the song has been tagged to 1.7 million other uploads. The traction prompted the now-all-grown-up pop-rock pair to rerecord and release an explicit version (they changed “stuff” to “shit,” among other swaps) of the hit that has earned 10.7 million U.S. streams, according to MRC Data.

Even though the original “Potential Breakup Song” scored Aly & AJ their highest-charting hit on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 17 in 2007, they say that rerecording an expletive-filled version all these years later feels more gratifying. That’s not only because they did so independently — Aly & AJ signed a distribution deal with AWAL in 2017 — but also because this time around, they own the master recording. Another bonus? The viral moment created the perfect setup for the pair to begin promoting its long-awaited fourth album.

“As the TikTok thing was happening, the girls called me and said, ‘Hey, can we sit down and strategize? We think there might be an opportunity to release music sooner than we had initially thought,’” recalls their manager, Primary Wave’s Jared Rosenberg, who came on board in February 2020. “We were fortunate enough to have everything done so that as the trend kept living, we were able to be proactively reactive.”

As a result, the new album’s lead single, the aching and stripped-down “Slow Dancing,” arrived a month ahead of schedule in December. It previewed Aly & AJ’s A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, due May 7 and distributed by AWAL, which they say is about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — not just for the pandemic, but as adult artists in charge of their own careers.

Shelby Goldstein
Aly & AJ photographed on Feb. 19, 2021 at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s in Los Angeles.

The upcoming album’s lengthy title is a lyric plucked from the album’s twinkling and thumping “Don’t Need Nothing.” Aly says that song “gave us the greenlight that we had started the process of writing for an album.” They knew the lyric would become the project’s title last June, just a couple months after they started working at Hollywood’s famed Sunset Sound, which they chose largely for its chambers that, according to Aly, “make your voice sound angelic.” AJ adds that much of the album was made in one sitting within one week, with her and Aly sitting behind the glass directing and encouraging the musicians along the way.

“When we were younger, it was a lot easier to be derailed in terms of our taste or our opinion,” says Aly. “Now we’re a bit more set in our ways, but that actually suits us and is helpful when it comes to decisions about mixing [a song] or choosing an image. When you make your first record, you’re like a puppy dog. But we needed that experience and those records to get to where we are now.”

Born in Torrance, Calif., sisters Alyson, 31, and Amanda “AJ” Michalka, 29, signed a recording contract with Hollywood Records in 2004 and released their debut album, Into the Rush, the following year as the Disney-owned label was also breaking acts like the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana. Aly & AJ released two more albums through 2007 while simultaneously starring in Disney Channel originals — Aly was a series regular on Phil of the Future, and she and AJ later co-starred in the film Cow Belles. They promoted their third album, Insomniatic, by opening for Miley Cyrus in 2007-08 on her Hannah Montana arena tour.

After Aly & AJ left Hollywood Records over a decade ago, when they were only just entering their twenties, they struggled to find their place as a duo and were eager to start over. In 2013, they released the jangly indie-pop single “Hothouse” as 78violet, a rebranding meant to distance themselves from their Disney past. But four years later, they returned as Aly & AJ with the EP Ten Years, which spotlighted their synth-pop strengths, followed by the Sanctuary EP in 2019.

The word “Sanctuary” has become the official title of Aly & AJ’s exclusive fan club, and AJ says it’s a word that “will be around in our catalog for years.” She describes their band’s fans as “warriors” who have waited years for a proper album. Rosenberg says, “The relationship that that they developed with their fans is not too dissimilar from friendships we all have like growing up where you could spend 10 years away, but then when you see them it's as if you never left.”

Ten Years and Sanctuary also served as learning experiences for Aly and AJ on navigating independent promotion in a digital age, from Twitter banners to Instagram swipe-ups. “You have to follow up on a lot of different platforms and keep those all consistent and cohesive and creative and authentic to the band,” says AJ. “It’s a challenge.”

Even so, Aly says it’s a responsibility they are embracing, with AJ agreeing that having control is “empowering” and a feeling that informed the new album. “There’s a confidence to our music and our direction,” adds AJ. “We’re very clear about what we want to put out, and [if we did it] any sooner, we wouldn’t feel the same way.”

Adds Rosenberg: “I think with anyone in life as we grow, we either become a more authentic version of ourselves or we become a version of ourselves that we think the world wants to see. It's really evident to me that [Aly and AJ] just keep becoming a more authentic version of themselves — and that's exciting for them, especially considering the amount of time they've had in this business and the industries they grew up in.”

Such creative certainty allowed them to place more uptempo tracks, like the airy and horn-heavy “Break Yourself,” alongside more unexpected tunes like the ominous and twangy “Personal Cathedrals” (AJ says she and Aly “felt very strongly” that this album not lean entirely into synth-pop and offer more sonic variety). It’s also why they decided to release the five-and-a-half-minute-long “Pretty Places” as the album’s third single earlier in March.

“How great that we don’t have to be in the confines of pop rules,” says AJ.

“I’m also like, ‘Who made the rules?’ ” adds Aly. “We can do whatever we want.”

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A version of this article will appear in the March 13, 2021 issue of Billboard.