Last year’s release of The Lion King and Aladdin reboots brought on a wave of disappointment and criticism — a collective realization that Disney’s strategy of releasing live-action versions of classic animated movies was a creatively bankrupt cash-grab.
In Los Angeles, this sentiment spurred Salem Ilese, Bendik Møller, and Jason Hahs to write “Mad at Disney,” which has now turned into one of 2020’s fast-moving viral hits. Hahs convened a writing session in August 2019, not long after he watched The Lion King remake; he was less than thrilled. “I said, ‘how are you today,’ and he said, ‘I’m really mad at Disney,'” Ilese recalls. “There was an avalanche from there, and I started talking about how Disney gave me an incredibly false view on relationships.”
The resulting single, a skipping, four-on-the-floor pop missile, came out in July, and roughly a month later, it was adopted en masse by users on TikTok. “Mad at Disney” was earning around 20,000 streams a day on Spotify August 19th; now that number is over a million, making it one of the Top 100 tracks on the platform.
“It’s the craziest data I’ve ever seen on a song,” says Zach Friedman, who co-manages Surfaces and signed Ilese to Homemade Projects, a label he runs with Tony Talamo.
In 2020, labels often look like ambulance chasers — TikTok users anoint a song of the week or day or hour, and every executive in the industry tries to sign it immediately. But for Ilese, this trajectory was never the plan. She has been working intently to hone her songwriting for a decade; she signed a modest record deal (pre-virality with help from lawyer David Jacobs) and intended to make her way both as a singer and as a pop writer-for-hire, with an eye towards sustainability and longevity rather than overnight eruption.
Ilese says her parents have tapes of her singing as early as four years old; they enrolled her in her first songwriting classes at age ten. In middle school, she was already putting her budding skills to use: “A few of my friends would ask me to write songs to give to boys that they liked,” Ilese recalls. “It was like Valentine’s Day grams, songwriting style.”
She was the youngest student in a songwriting class taught by Bonnie Hayes — who has penned tracks for Bonnie Raitt and Cher, among others — in San Francisco. “I was really shy, but she recognized that, took me under her wing, taught me everything about songwriting at the time,” Ilese says. Hayes later left to lead Berklee College of Music’s songwriting program, and Ilese remembers thinking, “now I know where I’m going to go to college.”
She spent two years at Berklee, majoring in songwriting while minoring in production and performance, before following her close friends and collaborators to L.A. Ilese threw herself into the scene of aspiring pop writers, saying yes to anything and everything — one or two sessions a day every day, including weekends. “It’s important to write as much as I can,” she says. “Songwriting is a muscle.”
Ilese’s lyrics turned heads at Homemade Projects — part of the reason she signed with the label is that Friedman and Talamo quoted lines from her unreleased songs back to her during their first Zoom meeting. (Ilese’s manager says she “despises generality” when writing.) For Ilese, a good lyric stems from nailing the overarching concept behind the song. “If the concept is amazing,” she says, “the song pretty much writes itself after.”
Hahs was responsible for serving up the theme to “Mad at Disney,” and Ilese instantly warmed to it. “I’m a big Disney fan — when I was four, I would walk around dressed like a princess on any random day of the week,” she says.
But “growing up you expect a prince and a white horse to come and rescue you from the tower,” she continues. “In reality, you get boys in high school who are scared of commitment and stand you up for a date.” In the single’s second verse, Ilese jokes about Cinderella eventually getting a divorce and a prince who is unfaithful to his Sleeping Beauty.
Ilese’s music was already gaining a measure of notice in the second half of 2019 and 2020 — she appeared on Spotify’s New Music Friday, an experience she likens to winning a Grammy, and the Spotify ranking Fresh Finds, which is closely watched by labels since it prioritizes independent artists.
But Ilese still only had roughly 6,000 monthly listeners on the platform when Friedman and Talamo randomly ran into “Mad at Disney.” Talamo liked the song so much he “started having a little mini panic attack pacing around the house.” “It was clever, and the innuendos were so original,” he says. The label sent an offer to Ilese two days later, and she signed a deal on August 19th, which also happened to be her 21st birthday.
The success of “Mad at Disney” on TikTok was a combination of happenstance and Friedman and Talamo’s experience working with the platform. “I was in the car on the way to my friends’ [house] for my birthday, and I posted a TikTok that took me just five minutes to film,” Ilese explains. When that post earned around 40,000 views, her team encouraged her to keep posting. A few clips later, she uploaded a video of her singing “Mad At Disney,” and when she woke up the next day, it had hundreds of thousands of views.
Friedman and Talamo have a management company that works with a stable of influencers on TikTok, and they suspected that the Disney theme might translate well on the platform. “TikTok has a young audience, so we felt if we did something creative [with ‘Mad at Disney’] and put it in front of them, it could take off,” Talamo says. Their network was able to help spread the song far and wide; it has now been used in nearly 900,000 videos.
Streams of “Mad at Disney” shot up in tandem with TikTok usage; last week, the track was added to Today’s Top Hits, Spotify’s most-followed playlist. Now Ilese is working on a “Mad at Disney” video.
But she is still making time for a daily writing session, sticking to her original plan. She’s also fielding calls from more established singer-songwriters who want to work, including Alec Benjamin and Alexander 23.
“The last three weeks have been insane,” Ilese says. “This has been the worst year ever, but the best three weeks of my life.”