Looking Back at Camp Rock, the Meme-Prone Disney Channel Movie That Put Demi Lovato on the Map

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Screenshot: Disney
Flashback Film FriendsFlashback Film Friends is a series in which a Jezebel staffer watches a movie she or he has seen a million times, with a staffer who has never seen it once. Then they discuss—just like friends.

Nature is healing, because people are memeing Camp Rock again. A particularly cringe-worthy clip from the Disney Channel franchise starring Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas has made its way into everything from the Oprah interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, to a clip from the Oscar-nominated film Minari.

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To make sense of this meme and its indescribable brilliance, Jezebel slated its resident youngin’ (Joan Summers) and its youngin’ at heart (Ashley Reese) to watch the first Camp Rock movie from start to finish. Come for Joe Jonas’s scene kid hair, stay for the deep dive of Demi Lovato’s rise to fame and the complications that surrounded it. But also, you know, hair.


Joan: OK, I think we should make it clear off the top, that when we were assigned to write about the once-again circulating Camp Rock meme, I assumed our editor knew Demi Lovato was the star of this movie. Apparently, she didn’t? Do people not know that Demi Lovato is partly famous because of a movie in which rich kids bully a poor kid who then bullies rich kids at a Boiler Room training camp in 2008? (I don’t even think Demi remembers; she almost forgot the lyrics to the headline song on Nick Grimshaw’s radio show.)

Ashley: I’m curious as to what people’s first… encounter with Demi is, in general, I guess! Mine was when she was in a Disney Channel short series called As The Bell Rings. This was back when she still had an adorable little gap between her front teeth and was already being marketed as Disney’s answer to Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Camp Rock came sometime after that, followed by the Disney series Sonny With a Chance, which coincided with her music career getting serious. But Camp Rock is what really put her on the map!

Joan: It was definitely Camp Rock for me. You gotta understand, I was raised Evangelical. When I couldn’t sneak gay porn onto the computer in the garage, I would have to watch either Disney Channel or like… reruns of the 700 Club and 7th Heaven. So in 2008… I was what, 13? In 8th grade? I was definitely still at that age where things like this mattered to people around me. It was a big fucking movie! EVERYONE knew the words to “This is real! This is me! I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be!”

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Ashley: So, I’m a few years old than you, and Camp Rock was pretty much my last Disney Channel Original Movie. It came out the summer before I went to college, and my knowledge of the Disney Channel universe became pretty scant from there on out. And rewatching this in full had me wondering if I actually ever watched this from start to finish before or if I watched it in bits and pieces because there are some elements of this movie that have left me floored. FLOORED. What a wild movie from start to finish!

As you said, we’ve got Demi Lovato, a Typical Teen™ and aspiring singer-songwriter who really wants to go to Camp Rock, an exclusive summer camp for other young budding musicians and artists. Her mom tells her she can’t go, because between her working on her catering and dad expanding his store, they just can’t make ends meet!

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But can I just say… I found it really hilarious that this movie was trying to convince us that Demi was some little broke girl.

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Joan: It was VERY illuminating to see how Miss Disney dealt with an obvious recession, by making the family in the five-bedroom, two-story suburban house with a semi-detached garage and white picket fence the “poor” characters. Also, an aside: Isn’t “catering” the most mid-late 2000s mom television job of all time? It’s caterer, jewelry designer, or dog hotel owner.

Ashley: Incredibly late 2000s mom career!

Joan: Anyway, she goes to this camp for teens on the basis that her mom will cook the camp food, which is SHOCKINGLY fancy for a summer camp with only log cabins for buildings. Just how much does it cost? And almost immediately upon her arrival at camp, she is confronted with the class hierarchy: The Grammy award-winning pop star’s daughter is the head bitch, and all her little minions are the heiresses to recording label empires or TV stations. Immediately, without thinking, Demi Lovato blurts out that her mom is the head of MTV China? (Not MTV exactly, but the Disney-universe MTV equivalent.)

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Ashley: More on Tess, the HBIC of Camp Rock later, but I just want to say now that she is probably one of pop culture’s most underrated queen bees. That girl was evil and absolutely terrifying. She would have absolutely made me cry in 6th grade.

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And we should also note that in the background of all of this is… the Jonas Brothers. Except, in the Camp Rock universe, they’re called Connect Three.

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Joe Jonas plays teen pop star Shane Gray, who is apparently the band’s bad boy and is put on time out by his record label and is sent to Camp Rock to teach a hip-hop dance class? I don’t know, the dude is a jerk with scene boy hair that I was definitely into back in 2008. At some point, he hears Mitchie singing but doesn’t know it’s her and he falls in love with her voice. He ends up on a side quest trying to find its source. Romantic!

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Joan: Rewatching Camp Rock, I was reaffirmed in my now-controversial stance that Joe is the hottest Jonas brother by a million miles. His wife, Sophie Turner, a.k.a. Sansa, is also my age, so I guess this makes sense. His hair! God, in this nu-scene revival the girlies are staging on TikTok, can we revive the late-aughts mullet side bang that’s also spiky in the back, topped off with just a wee-lil bump to the ends on a curling iron? This was also my hair circa 2008-2009.

Ashley: This shouldn’t be a controversial opinion. Kevin was always too Christian (though he’s, oddly, the funniest of the JoBros in this movie?), Nick was too much like a puppy… Joe was the ultimate hottie of the band. A little bit of bad boy energy in a future Mr. Sansa package. No wonder he got around so much. SWOON!

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Joan: So at Camp, we have these forces: Tess, who enforces her wealth and access in the music industry with cruel abandon, and Shane Gray. who is also famous but hates his fame and is tortured for it. Insert Demi, or MITCHIE, as the movie tells us, who is the poor Cinderella character because her mother’s catering business is cornering the summer camp market. Almost immediately, she begins lying about who her mom is—MTV China president!—publicly being disgusted by her mom (who she calls her personal chef to Tess and company), and all-around acting horrible. Immediately! That’s the thing. The evil that lurks beneath Camp Rock wastes no time sinking its corrupting influence into Mitchie, who immediately abandons class warfare in favor of stealing her high school friend’s AP Mandarin homework to lie about shopping in Hong Kong?

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And my god, MITCHIE! What a name: MITCHIE.

Ashley: Good point about how easily Camp Rock corrupts its denizens. Let me take a second to mention another character involved in all of this: Caitlyn (played by Alyson Stoner, better known as that girl who did all that dancing in those Missy Elliot music videos). Caitlyn is very down to earth and befriends Mitchie early on, but the two grow apart as Mitchie becomes indoctrinated into Tess’s crew. Caitlyn would have probably been cool with Mitchie being the camp cook’s mom, but Mitchie had to learn about loyalty the hard way!

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Tess suspects that something isn’t quite right with Mitchie. Maybe she smells the poor on her or something, but she’s suspicious, and the fact that Tess is jealous of Mitchie’s songwriting and singing ability only adds fuel to the fire.

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Mitchie’s secret about being the cook’s daughter starts to unravel, and it’s shocking this didn’t happen sooner because she’s a shit liar.

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Eventually, Caitlyn finds out the big secret when she’s forced to do kitchen duty after getting into a food fight with Tess (even though Tess started it, but Mitchie didn’t back Caitlyn up, COWARD). Caitlyn felt… betrayed I guess? But then they eventually make up, just in time for the BIG FALL-OUT.

Joan: I really feel like we’ve breezed past the two most iconic scenes in Camp Rock. For the first, we have Caitlyn’s Boiler Room set at the highly inappropriate “slumber party jam.”

Ashley: Her Boiler Room set fucking sucked like… I love bleep blorp music but what the fuck was that?

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Joan: And then we have the “Campfire Jam,” during which Tess makes it clear that in the game of class warfare, she is the coolest. This is where we initially get the tension that MitchMitch is not down to be anybody’s pawn, but is also too desperate not to be?

Ashley: And once Mitchie stands up for herself, Tess bites back. Look, I’ve seen a lot of mean girls in my time, but Tess is fucking MEAN. She was awful to everyone around her, belittles her so-called friends, and then exposed Mitchie as a fraud IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE CAMP! INCLUDING SHANE GRAY! WHO WAS STARTING TO BOND WITH OL MITCHMITCH. Mortifying!

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She also accuses Mitchie of stealing her coveted charm bracelet, even though it was an obvious frame job, an attempt to get the poor girl disqualified from the big end-of-camp singing competition, and it works! Regina George was scary, but this girl is diabolical.

Joan: After the dramatic reveal, we arrive at the FINAL JAM, which is where one lucky camper gets to… record a song, or something? The thing about the final jam that boggled my mind is that we’ve just spent an hour and a half watching teenagers perform their own original music, complete with big-budget studio production and fully choreographed performances, and we’re supposed to accept that recording a song with Shane is somehow a noteworthy prize?

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It’s also here that Tess’s racism campaign falls apart. Her two minions turn on her, tired of being mistreated and overlooked. One goes on to join a rap duo we were introduced to early in the movie, with every white teacher in camp alerting us to their presence by screaming “HOLLA!” every time they enter a room. The song is pretty good! It’s called “Hasta La Vista,” and its miles better than anything Tess has done:

Then we have a singer-songwriter moment for Peggy, during which there is a montage in sepia of all the times Tess ignored or undervalued her, in case the point wasn’t clear enough as is:

Skipping forward past Tess’s performance, the judges deliberate, and Caitlyn does the EXTREMELY trope-y move of ambushing the final jam stage with her beep boop music, after which MitchMitch sings the exact same song as Peggy, but now there is drums and a full track behind it. It’s….. OK?

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Oh god, and we forgot to talk about the central conflict in Camp Rock’s plot. Shane heard Mitchie sing in the kitchen but didn’t know it was her. He spends the whole movie searching for the voice, and finds it at the final jam.

Ashley: Mitchie finally finds her voice. Wow.

But wait, can we talk about Tess’s comeuppance real quick? It was sad, but mostly delicious. Her superstar mom is present for the final jam performance, but takes a phonecall in the middle of it. It’s a callback to another scene earlier in the movie in which Tess calls her mom but ends up getting rushed off the phone because mommy is busy. Anyway, Tess is devastated and fucks up her performance because of it! Mommy problems!!! All it took was her little brown friends abandoning her and mom picking up her Motorola Razr to prompt a complete turnaround, huh? I’m not buying it! I get it, the mean girl is always supposed to get her just desserts at the end of these things, but I don’t care, this girl is a menace! She’s evil! Don’t forgive her!

Joan: When her mom showed up I was crying laughing, it was just SO ABSURD. And for all her Grammy wins, nobody in the audience even acknowledges her, and she dressed worse than poor Mitchie’s mom? Comedy gold.

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Ashley: I have to say, upon rewatching this movie, the music went the fuck off? I know that High School Musical sort of stole the show in terms of Disney Channel music from this era, but I think it’s time we give Camp Rock its flowers. Yes, this movie is corny as hell, and the acting was… a struggle. But “Hasta La Vista” was a banger, as was Peggy’s lil Avril Lavigne moment, and Tess’s self-centered tracks were good too! More than anything, I really miss this era of Demi Lovato where she really was just doing Paramore cosplay. I like “Cool For The Summer” and everything, but this sound really suited her. I don’t know, maybe this is just the emo nostalgia talking.

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But there’s one thing about this movie that I just could NOT get over: Why the hell were all the black extras always poppin’ n’ lockin’? Like, every single time these dudes came out, they were doing the robot or some shit. Don’t get me started on that one Camp Rock instructor yelling “holla!”

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Joan: Now that we’re mostly done with the plot, I need to admit that there were moments this movie was almost unbearable to sit through. Not for the plot or anything, but for the crushing realization that it in many ways set Demi on a path of destruction, by her own admission, after catapulting her to fame. There’s a youthful exuberance and lightness present in her performance that understandably dimmed as her struggles worsened and bled over into the public. I don’t think I’ve ever really sat with the realization, that for all the talk this generation of stars generate, just about every popular movie my micro-generation consumed on television spawned a dozen extremely public addictions, arrests, and meltdowns. And this is not to condescend any of these former tween actors either! It’s mostly that I was struck by that quite hard when the credits rolled.

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Ashley: I think it’s sort of wild to consider the very different paths that the stars ended up taking. I mean, Joe Jonas is now married to Sophie Turner and they have a kid. I feel as if anytime I see Demi in the news or on television, it’s about her struggles with mental health, her heroin overdose back in 2018, her fucked up engagement with that awful guy, etc. I’ll admit, I didn’t really think about that as I was watching Camp Rock, I was too engrossed in the old DCOM charm of Demi of yore. But it’s true: She was probably 15 or 16 when this movie was being filmed. Two years later, she was in rehab for a slew of personal problems, and she revealed that she has been suffering from an eating disorder and had been cutting for half of her life.

This woman was really put through the wringer!

Joan: I also wanted to ask you: Did you ever pick up on the weird age divide between Demi and Joe in this movie? They play cat and mouse the whole movie, but she’s in high school and he is fully an adult man. If she was 16 when it got made, he would have been at most 19! Not to litigate the point too much, but I was shocked her parents cheered it on. Dude…. Like….

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Apparently they kiss in the second one, when there aren’t legal ramifications for Disney. They apparently started dating around that time too, in 2010, when the sequel dropped.

Ashley: So, I just checked, and the movie was filmed from September to October 2007, so Demi just turned 15 and Joe celebrated his 18th birthday one month prior (they’re both August babies). I didn’t really think about the age gap, but that’s probably because I was so taken aback to see teenagers actually played by gangly teens instead of frighteningly hot 26-year-olds that the CW grew in its basement. I am, however, left remembering how Joe and the rest of the Brothers Jonai were all in on the purity ring bullshit at the time, weren’t they? Was Demi? I don’t know if that made any impact on the movie, but the age difference definitely explains why there was no kiss when there were PLENTY of opportunities for one. I almost felt robbed.

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By the way, about that sequel: That’s apparently where this Camp Rock meme is from. I’ve never seen it, but I was sitting on my couch, watching this entire movie, and as it creeped toward the end I was like, “...Wait...when is the weird Camp Rock procession coming?” I literally texted you as soon as I realized.

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Screenshot: Texts between friends.

Joan: The purity rings absolutely played a role in this movie. I mean, think of the way we imagine teen movies now—The Kissing Booth in particular—and it’s much more overt on the “we are two people seemingly destined to fuck” angle. Gossip Girl also came right after this, so the tides were changing in the broader culture, absolutely. The second one came out in 2010 and their kiss was the selling point of the movie! Let’s point to that.

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I’ve also managed to catch some of the worse teen movies Netflix has cornered the market on—again, I’m thinking of The Kissing Booth or all the Noah Centineo movies that aren’t To All The Boys… Because of it, I was also somewhat floored that this was a teen movie I can recognize as “my era,” even if they were all older, and nobody had cellphones! There was not a single piece of the plot that involved a text message gag, or social media, or an Instagram post gone wrong. What was this, 2008? So a year later I would make a Tumblr account, and by 2011, my friends probably would have had some sort of touch screen phone, and Instagrams, and maybe even a Facebook still? The world literally changed so fast, as did teen movies.

Ashley: I think 2008 was really that cusp year. I got a BLACKBERRY that Christmas, an upgrade from my flip phone. But I was definitely all over Livejournal and shit, incredibly online. The only technology that existed in the Camp Rock universe was that laptop that Caitlyn (or Uffie Jr) was using to make beats.

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But, yeah, Camp Rock is an example of teen movies for kids versus teen movies for teens and young adults. This was definitely crafted as a teen movie for kids. I can see myself being a seven-year-old watching this and believing the duet between Mitchie and Shane might as well be a kiss because it was so intimate in a chaste way. It was like a makeout session by song. Also, I do kind of regard 2008 until the mid-2010s as a bit of a flop era for the teen movie industry. Like, were there many iconic teen movies even coming out at that time other than Easy A? I feel like it really died out toward the end of the aughts and has only started to rev back up again in the last few years. I’m not saying that Camp Rock was one of the last teen movies of a bygone era but… maybe I’m kind of saying that.

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Joan: That’s an important distinction, absolutely! The absurdity is not because of terrible writing, like the new Netflix drivel, and I don’t even want to sound like I’m congratulating Disney in any way! (Who knows how long until they own Netflix also, am I right?) What I’m trying to say is that the absurd camp of the plot, and nonsensical nature of how the music production operates at Camp Rock, and even the easily memed nature of its existence, are due in part to the understanding that it was a movie starring teenagers and adults made for actual children. Like, actual children! That market is simplicity built into its premise and subsequent marketing. I mean, Camp Rock shirts were in EVERY Limited Too and Target for as far as the eye could see. Everyone wanted to be Demi Lovato, or grow up to marry a Jonas Brother. (Remember, the country’s feeble post-Bush teen brains couldn’t comprehend sex without the punishment of marriage, at least not out in the open anywhere.)

In that way, I almost see Camp Rock as a tragedy. It really was, like you said, the last of its kind, at least on the scale that it achieved, both individually, and through its stars.

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Illustration for article titled Looking Back at Camp Rock, the Meme-Prone Disney Channel Movie That Put Demi Lovato on the Map
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Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

DISCUSSION

ashleyreese
Ashley Reese

When your boyfriend walks in on you watching Camp Rock and gets really into it for a minute.