A few weeks ago, Justin Timberlake fans were buzzing with speculation about new music — his first release since 2013’s two-part The 20/20 Experience. When the song arrived, it ended up being part of a movie called … Trolls? Yes, the sweet, summer-funking “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is the theme for a DreamWorks animated children’s movie featuring James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Gwen Stefani, and Timberlake. This week, the song debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 charts, making it only the 26th song to manage that feat in Billboard history.
It makes sense that Timberlake, a new dad who’s spent the past few years acting in high-profile movies like The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis, would voice an animated character. But the step to animated kids’ movies is now a certified move for any pop star, given the genre’s history of turning out Top 40 pop hits that work in tandem with multimillion-dollar Hollywood promotional campaigns.
Timberlake isn’t the first top-tier artist to go this route in recent years. Between 2012’s Unapologetic and this year’s Anti, Rihanna tided fans over with an eight-song concept record for the 2015 animated film Home, in which she had a starring voice role. Shakira has a song in this year’s Zootopia, Meghan Trainor sang a track for The Peanuts Movie, Britney Spears was the voice of Smurfs 2, and even Beyoncé and Sia had a song together on the soundtrack for the 2013 film Epic.
The pairing of animated films with pop hits is as old as Disney’s unfortunately racist 1946 film Song of the South and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” But it wasn’t until the ‘90s that Disney films began featuring signature songs and soundtracks by major stars, including Phil Collins, Elton John, Vanessa Williams, and Christina Aguilera. Warner Bros.’s Space Jam gave R. Kelly a massive hit in 1996 with “I Believe I Can Fly,” and DreamWorks paired Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey up for 1998’s The Prince of Egypt. Elsewhere, powerhouse voices like Céline Dion and Stevie Wonder added cinematic flair to the soundtracks of Beauty and the Beast and Mulan.
But in the 2000s, animated film music shifted beyond traditional show tunes toward mainstream pop music. In 2001, DreamWorks released Shrek, a film helmed by directors and actors who had worked primarily in live-action films like There’s Something About Mary and Austin Powers. The movie, itself a spoof of the kind of traditional fairy tales Disney is built on, had a compilation soundtrack full of upbeat contemporary pop music and oldies rather than original ballads. Songs by artists like Leslie Carter, Joan Jett, and Smash Mouth covering Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” stood in stark contrast to their more melodramatic, originally composed forebears. Ultimately, Shrek’s soundtrack would go on to become the first entirely animated film soundtrack to sell over 2 million copies, a record beaten only by 2014’s Frozen.
Shrek proved that songs within a children’s movie could have a much wider reach if you made the music sound like what’s already popular on the radio. Disney’s 1990s soundtracks sounded pretty within the films, but compared to the energized pop music of Shrek, songs like “Colors of the Wind” might as well be covered in dust and cobwebs. A kid who’s heard “All Star” 10 million times is likely to reach for Smash Mouth over Phil Collins’s Tarzan soundtrack. Even Disney, who launched their own Top 40 Radio Disney station in 1996, seemed to understand that children want pop music that isn’t just show tunes, broadcasting artists like Will Smith and Hanson alongside Disney soundtrack music. Suddenly, movies featured some of the hottest artists of their day, from The Pussycat Dolls, Mary J. Blige, and Missy Elliott (2004’s Shark Tale) to Rascal Flatts and John Mayer (2006’s Cars). With movies like Brave, The Croods, and The Lego Movie, studios enlisted Mumford & Sons, Owl City, and Tegan and Sara as alternatives to big-name pop stars like Beyoncé or Christina Aguilera.
Frozen’s “Let It Go,” which hit 4 million album sales last year, is an exception. It stands apart from its peers in that it’s a throwback to the classic Disney show tune for an equally throwback princess film. But there’s a reason why the film also commissioned a star like Demi Lovato to record a pop version, which was pushed to radio in lieu of the soundtrack version by Idina Menzel, who voiced Princess Elsa in the film. The studio anticipated that there would be more name recognition there, especially for younger crowds, that Menzel wouldn’t garner (though, ultimately, it didn’t matter). It’s a move that subtly mirrors the downfall of animated voice actors in the genre since the 1990s, as celebrities like Tina Fey, Will Smith, and Ellen DeGeneres take over parts formerly reserved for voice actors. Today, if they were making animated movies like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, vocalists like Ariel’s Jodi Benson or Belle’s Paige O’Hara would undoubtedly be replaced with stars like Halsey or Zendaya, young stars with bigger names. Outside of Frozen, animated film soundtracks have been falling behind in sales for the past few years; preteens prefer Top 40 pop music over Broadway-style balladry, so it makes sense for studios to hire musicians who are already occupying space on the pop charts.
The worlds of pop and animated film have merged to a point where it can be difficult to tell them apart. Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” was 2013’s song of the summer — and how many people listening knew it was from the goddamn Despicable Me sequel? Whereas songs like “Colors of the Wind” and “Circle of Life” were once built specifically for on-screen story lines, today’s children’s movies don’t demand the same of pop artists. And while the music isn’t something an adult would reach for on their own, kids’ movies book artists like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Rascal Flatts to make music that they know will reach audiences who maybe won’t even see the film. Perhaps movies will take a cue from Frozen and inject more Broadway into their veins like the old days. For now, when we want new music from our favorite artists we’ll have to keep our eye on Disney and DreamWorks.