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How Aly & AJ avoided the child star curse and invented a new sound
Aly and AJ Michalka (born Alyson and Amanda Michalka), a.k.a. the Y2K teen idols Aly & AJ, have journeyed from L.A. for their first New York fashion week. Aly, in particular, is a style maniac, although both arrived for this photo shoot in stunning outfits; AJ wore black patent leather pants that squeak when she walks. Despite busy days in press junkets and playing shows (they recently performed for Ferragamo at a party launching the brand’s new scent), the sisters seemed chipper, posing like professionals.
The occasion for their trip? After ten years spent focusing on acting projects—Aly stars on Veronica Mars-creator Rob Thomas’s iZombie, AJ on hit family sitcom The Goldbergs—the sisters Michalka have released an EP, appropriately titled Ten Years. The four-song EP, led by single “Take Me,” is a floaty wisp of confectionary dream-pop. The siblings call their music “nostalgic,” but it also smacks of the now, with an ’80s synth style re-popularized by producers like Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid.
“To me it feels a little bit like a soundtrack to life, and I think that’s the most interesting part about the production,” says AJ. “I tend to lean towards songs that almost feel like they’re the score to a film, and I feel like this record really does that.”
In adulthood, the Michalkas have much more control over their work (the production of Ten Years was self-funded). Though they have always written their own songs, these are the tracks with which outside hands have interfered the least. “I think the most important thing is that we’ve really grown from being these 16- and 14-year-old songwriters that were writing about experiences that we [hadn’t had yet], like having a boyfriend or losing someone important in your life,” says Aly. “We were just writing those assuming what you would feel like if that happened to you.”
Despite the lack of actual experience, Aly & AJ’s early tracks resonated with an enormous fan base. Their most popular single ever, “Potential Breakup Song,” still slaps. I spoke to numerous childhood fans who continue to play it on repeat; as my friend Ivan Guzman, a writer, told me, “Aly and AJ turned me gay when I was like, eight.” AJ cackles in response. Apparently, they’ve heard that a lot. “I’m honored,” says Aly.
Aly and AJ’s music has factored a great deal in their fans’ lives; both say that devotees have told them they inspired them to break up with significant others, to come out to their families. One couple met in an Aly & AJ fan forum. They are now married. “We actually heard that a girl—literally, true story—played the song over the phone for her boyfriend, and broke up with him that way,” recounts Aly.
“I’m sure there are little Aly and AJ fan babies out there, that were made in our concerts,” laughs AJ. “No, I’m kidding!”
The week we met was marked by a continual revisiting of the past: Aly and AJ appeared on MTV’s relaunched TRL, their old stomping grounds. Both say it was strange to go back—although some of the old crew members were present, which the siblings loved. “It was weird to be back and for it to change,” says Aly. “I was wanting it to be the exact same, because I’m a person of nostalgia and high sentimental value. So I wanted everything to be the same. I was like, ‘Where’s the photo booth?’”
Unlike the era of Damien Fahey and Vanessa Minello (now Lachey), the new TRL format incorporates few music videos. “We were talking to one of the co-hosts about that, and we were like, ‘Do you try to ask the producers about doing music videos again?’” says Aly. “She’s like, ‘Honey, I’ve tried. We’ll see if we get there.’”
For another dose of the early ’00s, Aly invited her former Phil of the Future co-star Raviv Ullman to the Ferragamo party. In the show, he was billed by Disney as “Ricky Ullman,” which Aly blames on corporate interference. “Disney made him really change his name, I think,” she says. “I remember being 14 and being really personally offended. I’m not Jewish, but I remember thinking, ‘This is really weird, and I’m sorry, this is wrong.’ And he just kind of went with it, and it was fine, but I was just like, ‘No, this is Raviv.’”
The day after the show, there were a flurry of headlines from gossip sites (although the two live on opposite coasts, they’ve regularly kept in touch since the show). Despite fan inquiries, a Phil of the Future reunion is not in the cards.
Despite successful acting careers, the press cycle around Ten Years has focused heavily on Aly and AJ’s early iteration. I ask if it is frustrating to keep discussing their teenage selves, to be asked to play old songs. “We have to do that for the fans, obviously, and I’m going to be the same way when I go to a concert and I go and I see The National,” says AJ. “I want them to play some of their music from the very beginning. So I think at the end of the day, we’re pretty great with it. I think looking back at bad fashion moments, I actually enjoy, because it’s so bad and ridiculous—”
“That I can’t help but make fun of us,” Aly pipes in.
Throughout our conversation, the sisters continually finish each other’s sentences. They are extremely close, and even lived together until Aly’s 2015 marriage to director Stephen Ringer. Both credit their relationship, along with a lack of stage parents, to an avoidance of various child star curses (they have worked steadily, without paparazzi photos involving stumbling out of clubs). “I think that makes a big difference, when you have someone,” says AJ. “I’m sure it’s 10 times easier to handle the criticism and the paparazzi, and all of that stuff with somebody by your side that you can share some of that with.”
The penultimate song of the EP, “Promises,” is a wistful breakup track that elucidates the paranoia of infidelity. Aly and AJ explained that the song has a secondary meaning: in the past they’ve promised new music to fans, only to delay its release. But there’s a line that stands out: “All this is is another big break, is another big break.” There’s a pause before they sing “of promises,” making the line about well, broken promises.
The line before the pause implies something else. When you have worked in Hollywood for as long as the Michalkas, life becomes a parade of constant rejection, roles lost, deals violated. But they keep going. The EP could be yet another in a series of possible big breaks. “The jadedness that comes with it is sad, and I try not to take that on too heavily,” says AJ. “You just don’t really let it tarnish who you are.”
TEN YEARS (ALY & AJ MUSIC LLC) IS AVAILABLE NOW.