Salem Ilese shares many characteristics of a Disney princess: a beautiful singing voice, bright eyes and a big smile, not to mention the fact that she has two charismatic sidekicks: a bearded dragon and a white fluffy dog. What the 21-year-old songwriter doesn’t have in common with Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty, however, is her thoughts on fairytale romance. Salem’s viral song, “Mad at Disney,” which she co-wrote with boyfriend Bendik Møller and Jason Hahs, takes a playful jab at the company for “tricking” them into thinking that the love stories in Disney movies are attainable. The song, which took off on TikTok, is now one of the top 50 most-streamed songs globally on Spotify. Although she might not believe in romantic fairytales, she says she is starting to believe in career fairytales.
“It’s been super surreal,” says Salem, who recently signed to the Homemade Projects label. “I feel like it happened within the span of two weeks. Everything kind of exploded almost overnight on TikTok. We went from having 1,800 people use our video to I think over a million now, which is absolutely insane. … I’m so grateful, and I never in a million years thought that this would happen.”
Before Salem’s song captured cynical romantics around the world, she was a student at Berklee College of Music. Before that, she was a student of Bonnie Hayes, who leads the songwriting programs at Berklee and will be the chair of Berklee Online’s upcoming Master of Arts in Songwriting program. She has also written hit songs for Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Bette Midler, David Crosby, and more. Hayes first met Salem at Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco. Even though Salem was only nine years old at the time, Hayes says she knew that she was a talented songwriter. She was concerned, however, that she’d be left out for being significantly younger than the other students.
“That girl came into my program, it was a middle school program, and I was really worried,” says Hayes. “I said to her mom, ‘She’s so dinky. I’m afraid that girls are going to be mean to her and exclude her.’ And what happened is, she clearly listened to a lot of country and was just writing these incredible choruses. Really, I didn’t have to tell her anything. All I did was get out of her way.”
When Bonnie started at Berklee as the chair of the Songwriting Department, Salem knew that she wanted to study with her in Boston.
“She’s arguably the best songwriting teacher in existence,” says Salem. “Absolutely incredible. I’m so thankful for Bonnie.”
Salem attended Berklee for two years before she left for LA to pursue the songwriting opportunities that were already knocking. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Salem recalls Hahs walking into a songwriting session expressing that he was “mad at Disney” after seeing the remake of the Lion King. This got Salem thinking about her interest in Disney as a kid and how love never looks like how it does in the movies.
“I mean, first of all, it’s not mad,” says Hayes about her student’s hit. “What’s great about it is she’s saying she’s mad at Disney and it’s immediately apparent what she’s talking about. That they made her expect something that she didn’t get, and can’t get. But she doesn’t sound mad, she sounds adorable. And so there’s this combination of this pretty astute observation about Disney with this very acceptable female, vocal style, and really catchy melody.”
Though on the surface, “Mad a Disney” can be interpreted as a take on modern dating, TikTok users are digging deeper into the song’s layers to criticize Disney for its lack of diversity, heteronormativity, and corporate greed. To date, the song has been featured in 1.7 million TikTok videos which also include more frivolous content like makeup tutorials, dance routines, and more. Salem says that she, Hahs, and Møller were also thinking about Disney’s shortcomings when they were writing the song.
“I am so happy to watch everyone take different messages from ‘Mad at Disney’ and kind of make it their own,” says Salem. “It honestly warms my heart so much because everything that people are saying is totally true. The song really stemmed from just a somewhat intellectual conversation about how Disney scarred us, and how it lacks in so many areas. I feel bad that I’m starting a revolution against Disney but it’s also really great to see people speaking out for what they believe in.”
As a songwriting tool, Hayes says that writing a brand into your song can help it gain traction. Salem did this again in her upcoming song “Coke and Mentos.”
“Never does it go wrong to say a proper name in the title and first line of a song,” says Hayes. “Ever. It always works. I mean, this got attention because it has Disney in the title. That’s the fact. And Disney can get as mad as they want, but if they’re smart, they’ll be good sports about it.”
Although Salem is mad at Disney, she says Disney is not mad at her.
“Hollywood Records, which is owned by Disney, one of the A&Rs that I know there called me when it was first released, way before it had blown up, just to say that he likes the song, and congratulations,” says Salem, “Which was very sweet, and I was very nervous because the whole time I thought he was going to say, ‘You have to take it down.’ But they have not been hostile towards it at all.”
Salem said that she hadn’t thought about the effectiveness of writing brands into songs until she recently spoke with representatives from TikTok Japan. They explained that even with a language barrier, Disney is so popular in Japan that the song catches people’s attention just with that one word. Salem says that she just gravitates towards unique song concepts in her writing.
“I honestly had not thought about using that so much as a tool,” says Salem. “I usually start with a concept, and that ends up being the title. My music taste errs more left, so I tend to gravitate towards quirkier things and sounds. Especially lyrically, I really enjoy using words and unique phrases that you might not hear in most songs. So whenever I come across something like that, I get really excited.”
In addition to the smart lyrics, “Mad at Disney” employs some sophisticated melodic and harmonic techniques, including embedded Disney musical cues, like “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
“There’s something about the descending chord progression that it uses,” says Hayes. “It’s super clever for those of us who are nerdy enough to look into that stuff. It sounds vaguely familiar. It sounds a little bit Disneyesque. It has a bunch of levels that you can engage with it on.”
Bonnie’s songwriting instruction will be available to even more students, and at a graduate level, with Berklee Online’s Songwriting Master’s program coming in 2021. With a growing list of Berklee songwriting students gaining popularity, Hayes says the formal training that Berklee offers is important when vying for songwriting success.
“If you want to make money from songwriting, you have to be able to do it on demand, which means you’ve got to learn how to curate and to save your ideas, to organize your ideas, to develop them, to do revisions, and do a remix,” she says. “All of that stuff takes technique and there’s nobody else that teaches technique like we do.”