JOYOUS, EMPOWERING SONGS BY MYRA, KRYSTAL PETERSON, AND MORE CRYSTALLIZED THE SPIRIT OF THE TIME. THE FILM’S MAJOR PLAYERS EXPLAIN ITS LEGACY
by Yasmine Shemesh
A couple years ago, after a cozy movie night at home, the former teen pop singer Myra’s daughter grabbed her mother’s hands. They had just finished watching The Princess Diaries, which ends with Myra’s glittering 2001 single, “Miracles Happen (When You Believe),” playing in a ballroom as protagonist Amelia Mignonette Thermopolis Renaldi spins around in joy after formally accepting her role as princess of Genovia.
“Mom,” Myra’s daughter said, the singer recalled to MTV News. “Are you really going to go on the rest of your life not doing what you love?” The song’s themes of hope and perseverance had moved her to tell Myra, who had stepped away from performing years earlier to raise her child and go to college, to pursue her singing career again.
That’s the power of the film and, more specifically, its unforgettable soundtrack. Adapted from Meg Cabot’s novel of the same name, The Princess Diaries follows 15-year old Mia (portrayed to perfection by Anne Hathaway in her first film) as she discovers from her estranged grandmother, the regal Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), that she’s the sole heir to the throne of a tiny, fictional European country. Also starring Mandy Moore, who plays mean-girl Lana, the film surveys individuality, self-esteem, responsibility, and the importance of believing in yourself at all costs.
Released on August 3, 2001, it was one of the most beloved films of the year, launching Hathaway’s career and invigorating Andrews’s after semi-retirement. It was also Andrews’s first Disney showing since Mary Poppins in 1964. With the involvement of musical royalty like Andrews and producer Whitney Houston — and also Moore, then a major pop star — sonic fairy dust was sprinkled on the project from the start. But The Princess Diaries’s exceptional soundtrack stood out as something special, a time capsule featuring Backstreet Boys, Aaron Carter, Hanson, Nobody’s Angel, and B*Witched that tapped into a specific cultural moment when teen pop ruled. The compilation became a solid summer staple in heavy Discman rotation and reached No. 5 on Billboard’s U.S. Top Soundtracks chart.
“I have a gold record in my guest room,” producer Debra Martin Chase says, smiling through the telephone.
The impact is felt immediately with “Supergirl!,” a funky, piano-driven banger by Krystal Peterson (née Harris) that opens the film with soulful vigor. “I’m supergirl and I’m here to save the world,” Peterson sings. “But I wanna know, who’s gonna save me?” It’s an indelible introduction to down-to-earth, good-hearted, environmentally conscious Mia, who is so painfully shy when the audience first meets her that she throws up at the prospect of public speaking.
“I just remember thinking, Well, that’s perfect,” Peterson tells MTV News. “You start to see her energy right off the bat in that movie, and I really appreciate the thoughtfulness. That’s a great representation of the song, and it just works so well with the movie.”
Placement credit goes to music supervisor Dawn Solér, who has it written in her television contract that she gets to be music supervisor for any future Princess Diaries installments (“There’s rumor of a Princess Diaries 3,” she teases). “At that point, when we meet [Mia], she wasn’t really a supergirl,” Solér says. “But [the song is] foreshadowing that she would be.”
Peterson remembers writing “Supergirl!” in her late teens, pulling the lyrics out of the journal she carried around to capture her feelings. It was one of the first songs she wrote that way. “It was a vulnerable song for me to write,” she says. “That song was thinking about the things that I was dreaming about freeing myself from at that age, even in the emotional realm. You might think too much about what other people need from you all the time. You might be trying to forge your own path and create a space of freedom for yourself.”
Mia recoils in horror at the news of her royal status by telling her grandmother that her expectation in life is to be invisible, and those feelings stem from what most are unsure of during that formative time in youth: themselves. Mia is challenged to embrace her identity, face her responsibilities, and build a sense of confidence. And though she does change physically, Mia’s emotional transformation is the true heart of the story.
“The Princess Diaries, to me, was all about empowerment,” Chase says. “The movie, at its essence, is about this seemingly ordinary young girl faced with extraordinary circumstances, who finds the courage and strength within herself to rise to the occasion and conquer all. And so, the music is really important in terms of just enhancing that message of believing in yourself.”
Chase had recently come off executive producing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Houston when she received The Princess Diaries manuscript. “At the time, the general wisdom in Hollywood was that you could make a movie for boys and girls would go, but you couldn’t make a successful movie for girls,” she notes. But in 1998, Disney had struck gold with The Parent Trap remake starring Lindsay Lohan. The studio looked to do something beyond branded films like Mr. Magoo, and without much else in the development pipeline, they fast-tracked The Princess Diaries and completed it within the course of a year. Chase’s partnership with Disney made her the first Black woman to have a production deal at a major studio.
Meanwhile, music supervisor Solér had previously assembled the iconic soundtrack for the coming-of-age drama Now and Then, though her first of many films with director Garry Marshall came with some interesting conversations. “Garry was skeptical because he had worked with a couple of music supervisors prior,” Solér says over Zoom, speaking from her home in Thousand Oaks, California. “I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s put some music here.’ And he’d be like, ‘Dawn! When the actors are doing their job, no music!’ So, I watched all his previous movies, and the thing that I realized about him, when there was music, it was very, very intentional.”
The soundtrack was crucial to Marshall. The Princess Diaries was shown almost weekly to Girl Scouts and youth groups, which was an important step to see how the music resonated. “We would sit at the back of the theater and watch the audience and the movement of them and the feel,” Solér remembers. She pulled inspiration from a few things: “Thinking about Mia in San Francisco, being sort of a geek,” as well as what kind of music was popular with teens at the time.
Even though the original soundtrack is packed with great pop music, its power is in the sharp curation of the songs and subtlety of the placement, which collectively work to highlight Mia’s emotional touchstones, as well as the ebbs and flows of her journey. Take Hanson’s “Wake Up.” It’s the morning after Mia learns she’s a princess, and the camera flashes to her getting ready for school in the morning, slightly disheveled, cocking her eyebrows in her bedroom mirror. With the breezy guitar riff playing quietly in the background, the audience peeks in on a private moment. “We always approached the songs as if [the movie] was a musical, so that it would be the narrative in a person’s head, which would make sense in the storyline,” Solér explains. “To me, I think that’s what makes the best song use.”
Lyrics to “The Journey” by Mpulz, “You’ll get your wings at the right time, even birds must learn how to fly,” follow Mia as she sprints, stomach turning, out of debate class. “Little Bitty Pretty One,” Aaron Carter’s sweet cover of Bobby Day’s ‘50s classic, plays as Mia frantically yanks on her pantyhose in the backseat of a limousine on her way to etiquette lessons. Nobody’s Angel, Tammy Phoenix, and Lil J’s rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing” blasts as grandmother and granddaughter cruise over the Golden Gate Bridge during an outing that bonds them. “Crush” by 3G’s provides a dreamy backing for a slow dance between Mia and her longtime crush, popular Josh Bryant (Erik Von Detten).
Meanwhile, Robert Schwartzman, frontman for Rooney, handles the role of Michael Moscovitz, the brother of Mia’s best friend, Lilly (Heather Matarazzo); former Rooney members Taylor Locke and Ned Brower also briefly appear as Michael’s band Flypaper. They perform “Blueside,” which would open Rooney’s 2003 self-titled studio debut. Another standout is “What Makes You Different (Makes You Beautiful)“ by Backstreet Boys, which scores the aftermath of the beach party. There’s a lot going on in that scene, including Moore’s iconic performance of “Stupid Cupid” and Mia’s eventual humiliation in front of eager paparazzi. As BSB’s ballad plays, a foil to the pep of “Stupid Cupid” earlier, its message serves as external reassurance that Mia doesn’t need to try to be someone she’s not to be cool or popular. Her power is within.
Moore recorded “Stupid Cupid,” the film’s second ‘50s pop cover, especially for The Princess Diaries at Marshall’s suggestion. “When I talk about the things I learned from Garry Marshall, it was how to build the movie out: how to take moments in the script, flesh it out, elevate it, make it fun, and find ways to make it really pop,” Chase says. “This beach party was not originally scripted to have this musical number. But he saw an opportunity.”
Solér says there weren’t really any label requirements from Disney to include artists from their in-house roster. That allowed Peterson, who cut her teeth as a young session singer in Indianapolis and had recently signed to Backstreet Boys’s K-BAHN label, to land a key spot on the soundtrack. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles and starting to record her debut, Me & My Piano, “Supergirl!” was placed in the film. Peterson says being associated with BSB definitely helped open the doors to Disney. The boy band offered Peterson an opening slot on their international Black & Blue tour — “Quite kind of them, really” — to help promote her record. “As the song became more popular, I would get up onstage and notice people were singing along with me,” Peterson says. “And that was the biggest impact to me, to be able to really experience that togetherness with people.”
One artist directly connected to Disney was Myra, the first teen signed to Walt Disney Records, before Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez. “I’m Hispanic,” Solér adds. “Trying to find opportunities for Hispanic women has been something that has always been important to me, because I think it’s a very, very underserved market.”
After making a name for herself singing Mariachi around Sonoma County, Myra signed to Disney and released her first single, “Magic Carpet Ride,” on the La Vida Mickey compilation. Shortly after, “Dancing in the Street” was featured in Recess: School’s Out. “It was so cool to see how it all came about,” she says. “And a lot of work. I had a great team. I actually still have a few friends up at Disney Records, and it’s so nice to be in touch after all these years. There are good things about the industry.”
When she heard “Miracles Happen (When You Believe)” — written by Pam Sheyne and Eliot Kennedy, songwriters behind hits for S Club 7, Spice Girls, and Christina Aguilera — it resonated immediately. “I always wanted to do something to touch lives and touch hearts and make a difference, and that song was just up my alley completely,” Myra says.
The song was nominated for an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Award for Outstanding Song in a Motion Picture Soundtrack and was promoted as the theme song of The Princess Diaries. “Supergirl!” became an unofficial theme for the film, too, and its music video features Anne Hathaway serving burgers with Peterson in a diner dubbed the Super Girl Grill.
“It really didn’t even feel like work,” Peterson says of the diner scene. “It just felt like joy.” Backstreet Boys Kevin Richardson and Howie Dorough have sneaky cameos, too. “It’s one thing to have artists support you, it’s another thing to have them show up in your video. It was a really, really thoughtful thing for them to do for me.”
One of the biggest highlights that day was meeting Houston, who dropped by the set. “She put her arm around me and was just such an encourager. I was feeling insecure around that time, probably for one of the first times in my life, as a singer or an artist. She was like, ‘This is great, you sound great.’ And I was like, ‘OK! Whitney says I’m all right, so I’m fine!”
Pop music has always made a defining impact on youth culture, but at the turn of the new millennium, teen pop’s boom made it more prevalent than ever. “It was all about romance and love and feeling good about yourself,” describes Chase, who also produced The Cheetah Girls, the Disney Channel’s first musical, in 2003. “It was upbeat. It was positive. There was an innocence and a freshness to it.” Myra, too, associates teen pop with an all-around wholesomeness: “Everything down from the clothing to the style to the lyric to the music to how you presented yourself.”
Right on the cusp of Napster and ascendent MP3 downloads, the teenage listening experience was still largely curated by select radio stations (like Radio Disney, which catered to its young audience), labels, and magazines. Today’s sweeping accessibility thanks to streaming services actually obscures how teen pop is defined. “If you look at teens today, because they have unlimited access, I don’t think teen pop has a chance because teens are listening to everything,” Solér says. “My [16-year-old] daughter rarely listens to what you’d classify as teen pop. But she loves Backstreet Boys; she loves the throwback music because she has access. And kids are very curious and they want to discover.”
For Peterson, the pop-music world didn’t feel authentic to who she wanted to be as an artist. She eventually found herself toeing the line between what she hoped to create and what was happening in the business of her music. “I think a lot of the kids that were in the industry at that time were wrestling with that, actually,” she adds. It’s a sentiment echoed by Jessica Simpson in her memoir, Open Book, which candidly details the pressures and demands female pop stars often faced in the industry, and Hanson, who, as documented in their 2005 film Strong Enough To Break, also left a major label to make music independently on their own terms.
In the end, Peterson chose to walk away from Hollywood. She dealt with an “existential crisis” about singing — “Why all of a sudden do I love and hate something that has been such an amazing, magical gift?” — but took a long break and eventually started attending local live shows and giving voice lessons. Today, she lives in Cincinnati and performs with the Queen City Band, a jazz sextet, and as a solo artist. She has a new single, “Abundantly,” and, as she turns 40, she’s more excited than ever about the music she’s making. “Teaching helped me heal, also, because I realized again that music has power,” she says. “And I did learn how to save me, for what it’s worth,” Peterson adds, referencing the lyrics to “Supergirl!”
The Princess Diaries is among a handful of movies from the early aughts — like Legally Blonde, Josie and the Pussycats, Coyote Ugly, and Blue Crush — that challenged the cultural climate by bridging buoyancy with a depth that champions female empowerment. “It’s a perennial now,” Solér says. “Having a daughter and, for who I am, the most important thing is female empowerment. And it starts really young. It has to start really young because of the pressures of society and just the pressures that we have every day. So, I think that Princess Diaries is absolutely a piece that you can watch anytime and feel that.”
“The fact that 20 years later the film still resonates, it’s still beloved, it’s important to people, means a lot,” Chase says. “It holds up, and that’s a big deal.”
Like watching the movie, listening to the soundtrack never fails to make you feel good about yourself. Myra still gets messages from fans about how “Miracles Happen (When You Believe)” has helped them get through everything from chemotherapy to grieving the loss of a loved one. Those interactions have made her incredibly proud of the song and deepened her own connection to it. And that’s also why, for Myra, Peterson’s “Supergirl!” has always stayed with her.
“I can’t forget it, because those are moments and songs that really impacted my life as a young teen,” she says. “Any song that has to do with women empowerment, I love, I learn, and I never forget.”