Actress Dove Cameron & Disney Channel’s VP of music and soundtracks Steven Vincent on why the music rings true to fans.
There are few corners of the entertainment world that Hamilton hasn’t influenced -- even Disney Channel’s Descendants 2.
One of the new television film’s centerpieces, “It’s Goin’ Down,” features a rap battle (think “Cabinet Battle #1” or “The Room Where It Happens” from the Broadway juggernaut) between the villains and the pirates that even breaks into a duel.
“We glommed onto our Hamilton moment,” Disney Channel’s VP of music and soundtracks Steven Vincent says with a laugh. “My job is to find the balance of cool and fun.”
Job well done. The soundtrack for Disney Channel’s sequel to 2015’s Descendants soared into the top 10 of the Billboard 200, debuting at No. 6 with 46,000 units (35,000 in traditional album sales). The tally is higher than the original Descendants set, which topped the Billboard 200 back in 2015 with 42,000 units earned (30,000 in traditional ablum sales), though the new title enters the chart lower because of the heavy release week. It also topped the iTunes albums chart on July 24, while the six buoyant new songs from the film, including “It’s Goin’ Down,” filled the top 10 of the Soundtrack Songs chart for Apple less than 24 hours after the movie’s premiere.
Descendants 2 premiered on Disney Channel on July 21, as well as ABC, Disney XD, Freeform, Lifetime and Lifetime Movies, for a Live +3 viewership of 21 million people.
Like its predecessor, Descendants 2, focuses on the teenage children of Disney’s most famous villains, such as Mal, Maleficent’s daughter, and introduces several new villains-in-training, including Uma, the daughter of The Little Mermaid’s Ursula; Harry, the son of Captain Hook; and Gil, son of Beauty & The Beast’s Gaston.
For the sequel, Vincent says the first step was “developing a [musical] palette that builds on what we had and what kids loved about the first one.” At the same time, given how quickly pop music patterns shift, the mandate also included looking at current styles, a la Hamilton, and forecasting where pop music would be a year down the road.
Each song had to carry the story forward and the writers were given detailed directions. “It all starts with the scene and what energy fits that idea,” Vincent says. “We create a target that we know they can specifically hit. It’s not like, ‘We need a great hit song for Uma’; it’s, ‘She’s in her shop, she’s been left on the island to rot, and she’s telling the world how it’s going to be.'”
In addition to the six new songs, the soundtrack includes renditions of “Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid and three songs from the animated short-form series, Descendants: Wicked World.
For three of the original songs, including “It’s Goin’ Down,” Vincent turned to the production and songwriting team Rock Mafia, with whom he has worked with as far back as the first Cheetah Girls movie in 2003 and Camp Rock. “The ‘It’s Goin’ Down’ song was never in the script,” says Rock Mafia’s Antonina Armato. “The scene was supposed to be all dialogue, but [director] Kenny Ortega and Steven Vincent had this ambitious idea to create a big musical moment that had influences from Hamilton, hip-hop and West Side Story, using counter melodies and chants. Luckily, we came through for them.”
Dove Cameron, who returned as Mal, considers the music vital to interpreting her role. “Every song helps me get into the character of Mal,” she tells Billboard. “The music plays a huge part in creating the character -- I would say equally as much as wardrobe, hair and makeup does. I tend to act better with music behind me anyways, so doing a musical is the ultimate dream.”
Though the movie only debuted little more than a week ago, Disney began rolling out the music on April 30’s Radio Disney Music Awards, when the cast performed Descendants 2’s opening number, “Ways to Be Wicked,” which Cameron’s fans aren’t shy about singing back to her. “The fans definitely sing ‘Ways to be Wicked’ most out of all of the songs, just because it came out first and it's easy to memorize,” she says. “Kids get very passionate about it and it's the opening of the whole movie. It's very infectious.”
Music takes on different meanings for each listener, but as Cameron has experienced, its best use is simply helping someone forget their problems of the day. One encounter has already embedded itself in her mind. “After the premiere, we had these two lovely Make-a-Wish girls there, and they knew every single word to every single song,” she says. “We sang every song with them and they knew every part of it. It was really beautiful.”
Unlike the Descendants soundtrack, which included a song by Shawn Mendes, there was no need to bring in any ringers for Descendants 2. “We thought bringing in an outside artist might help the reach of the project last time,” Vincent says. “It was a great opportunity to work with him. This time, we had enough arrows in the quiver without adding outside artists.” Vincent especially praises the addition of China Anne McClain as Uma, who allowed further expansion into “urban pop music, and we knew she’d be able to kill it.”
For Disney, the Descendants 2 soundtrack story is only beginning. “The movie is going to re-air many more times, and it hasn’t even begun airing internationally yet,” says Ken Bunt, president of Disney Music Group. “We’ll see streaming numbers start to ramp up in August and September due to windowing around the world. We feel like this is a title that we’ll be focused on for the next year and beyond.”
--Cathy Applefeld Olson contributed to this story