At its best, Disney is an incubator of new talent — a prep school for pop stars until they near adulthood and inevitably fly the coop. Radio Disney, with its flagship Los Angeles station and worldwide reach through the web, is an important cog in that machine. The network gives budding superstars a platform to share their music and connect with fans before finding a wider audience. And so it was rewarded with its own awards show, the Radio Disney Music Awards, now in its fifth year.
A fan-voted (283 million were cast, according to the network) exercise, the RDMAs fall somewhere between the Kids’ Choice Awards and the once dominant MTV Video Music Awards. Only more wholesome and with less sludge. At least, that’s what I thought as I took my seat at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday night (April 29). It turns out the RDMAs are an entirely different proposition, both in tone and line-up.
This is a place where a Pomeranian with a social following is award eligible, an event where the Chainsmokers are cryptically referred to as TCS and the home of the Smile Cam. It’s also an arena to celebrate teen activism and acknowledge celebrity do-gooders. From the inflatable Mickey heads bouncing around the stage to glowing wristbands strapped to our wrists, this is about disseminating good vibes.
And what could be more smile-inducing than a tribute to Britney Spears? The pop diva was honored with Radio Disney’s first-ever Icon Award after sitting through an uneven medley of her greatest hits. Country darling Kelsea Ballerini kicked it off by strumming “Oops!…I Did It Again” on her guitar, while Hailee Steinfeld and Sofia Carson resorted to karaoke versions of “Circus” and “…Baby One More Time.” Jamie Lynn Spears made a surprise cameo for a snippet of “Till The World Ends,” before inviting her big sister on stage to collect her special “Ardy.”
“What a pleasant surprise, my goodness,” Spears gasped as fans excitedly chanted her name. “This is such an honor. I want to thank Radio Disney so much for giving me their first ever Icon Award… your support throughout my career has meant so much to me, all of my fans, as always, you are the freakin’ best.” She then thanked her children. “My two loves of my life, my sons Jaden and Preston, you’re the reason my heart beats. I love you so much.”
If you thought that was heartwarming, how about a song from “Moana,” the Mouse’s blockbuster about an independent, sea-faring maiden? The RDMAs brought together Disney heartthrob Jordan Fisher, voice actress Auli’i Cravalho, and Canadian pop star Alessia Cara for soaring rendition of “How Far I’ll Go” — performed against a projection of a sun-dappled ocean, while dancers circled around them with flags. If there was a peak Disney moment, this was it.
It wasn’t all cartoons and ballads, however. Steinfeld, a repeat performer, rocked a silver leotard and sweatpants while performing new single “Most Girls,” which segued into club collaboration “Starving.” And then there was Julia Michaels, who had to perform “Issues” twice due to technical issues. Given the emo-lyrics, it was a less organic fit but they managed to jazz it up with cute projections and an unnerving gaggle of interpretative dancers.
Noah Cyrus also tested the boundaries with a solo version of “Make Me (Cry),” which I’m assuming was remixed by Marshmello. That’s the only explanation I have for the sea of children wearing his trademark bucket over their heads. As far as the Disney divas go, the night belonged to Sabrina Carpenter. She delivered pop radio hit “Thumbs” with an easy sophistication that hints at a painless transition to more mature material.
Just when I thought I had the performers pegged as young women with perky pop songs, Radio Disney threw a couple of curve balls. Nineties stalwarts Train dished up their infuriatingly catchy “Play That Song,” 13-year-old “America’s Got Talent” winner Grace Vanderwaal served mini-Sia vibes with an acoustic rendition of “I Don’t Know My Name” and, most bizarrely, LA alt-pop outfit Fitz & The Tantrums closed the show up with “Hand Clap.”
While the RDMAs line-up is a little baffling, the event comes into its own when it celebrates good causes. Like the RDMA Hero Award, which was awarded to Nick Jonas for promoting awareness of type 1 diabetes. Equally impressive is the Heroes For Change Award — an honor bestowed upon teenagers Jocelyn Woods and Natalie Hampton for making a difference in their communities. Consider the feel-good quota fulfilled.