Saturday, April 21, 2007
Man, that music isn't hip-hop, or rock, or anything essential to culture.
You tell him, Kid With Big Hair

So High School Musical was on Disney Channel here for what must be about the millionth time since its debut, and since the soundtrack to that movie was the biggest selling album released in '06 and I had nothing else to do, I figured I'd watch the damn thing and work out what it means to be listening to and writing about music in a time when the only people paying for music are 12 year olds. [1]

So, let us begin... Notes from a High School Musical.

* I tell you one thing about Disney: based on almost zero thought on the subject, I'm going to say that the folks at Disney have made more of an effort to give a cultural response to a changing American society than other writers/producers/directors/etc. At a time when the biggest population growth is in the South and Southwest of the country, High School Musical is set in Albuquerque. Call it smart marketing or whatever, but at least they're making an effort to keep their collective finger on the national pulse. In fact, I really have to imagine that the New Mexico setting was chosen purely for demographic reasons; it could have been set in Orange County for all the regional distinctiveness the movie has.

Nevertheless, Albuquerque it is. Not the New York or Los Angeles or New England locations that TV and movie-makers seem convinced are the only places in America (they add Wisconsin or Michigan to the list if they want somewhere "ordinary").

It's like Anthony Easton wrote in an article on Country music at Stylus a couple years back:

Going back to the geography--of Cleveland, Phoenix, Sioux Falls—They are all the same kind of city, in the middle of America, with the suburbs exuding out, conservative in the sense of conserving traditions and customs--by name checking them Kenny and Keith indicate audience participation in he most obvious way—they tell the citizens of over looked America that their concerns are being addressed.
High School Musical is about, and for, the kids of this audience. It's a red state movie that's been depoliticized of the issues that make states red or blue — the kids just don't care, y'know? — and so the result is a portrait of an America that is actually more accurate than the standard red-blue divide. They're red state kids that do the same things blue state kids do. They go to church (lead girl-character Gabriella says she had only previously sung in church choir), play sports, sing in musicals and have impossibly expensive cell phones. Just like in the real America. Considering Disney also does Hannah Montana, some show about Billy Ray Cyrus' daughter becoming a country singer, it seems that this company has realized that telling stories about people who don't live where the entertainment industry is based could actually have its advantages.

But, yes, this is Disney, and despite High School Musical's non-standard outside-NY/LA location and explicitly church-going lead character, the movie still takes place in an amazingly well-funded school district, in which the upper middle class students take vacations at ski lodges, can afford to carry expensive WiFi equipment around with them to serve plot points and go to a far-more racially integrated school than your average upper middle class institution. Things are different, but there also really quite the same as they've always been.

* My first HSM exposure was when we reviewed the big duet between the lead characters, "Breaking Free" for the Singles Jukebox last year. At the time, I said:

This Singles Jukebox gig isn’t all A-list parties and complimentary Cristal. Zac and Vanessa are two fresh-faced kids in some straight-to-TV Disney Channel movie about – get this – a brainy girl and a sporty guy who, even though they have nothing in common, audition for a high school musical. That’s why the movie has the appropriate name High School Musical. As for the song: it’s complete pap, of course. Its saving grace, though, is that it’s pap with verisimilitude; it sounds exactly like the big numbers that the popular drama kids would sing back when I did theatre in high school, loaded with uplifting sentiments and ripe for choreography. Bonus points for nostalgia, then, because musically… well, I’ve still got videos of productions I was in, and the quality is about the same. Which is the appeal, of course.
Well, I hadn't seen the movie then, but the plot isn't anymore complicated than I described there. Apart from "Breaking Free," the movie doesn't have that verisimilitude I talked about there. It's just pap. Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens, the two lead actors, are rather lacking in chemistry, so their relationship isn't particularly interesting. None of the other characters are very interesting, either, save for Ryan, the male-half of the evil theater-pro antagonists, and I only found him interesting because he was exactly the kind of bastard you meet in youth theater productions. The female villian was entirely unrealistic, which didn't particularly matter, but given that her name was Sharpay - Sharpay! - I would have hoped they'd find something more interesting to do with her. I guess if you're twelve years old, the pursuing your dreams and ignoring peer pressure theme would be pretty neat. Still, as kid's entertainment goes, it's slick but uninspiring. I mean, a big chunk of that audience probably also saw Mean Girls, right? And Mean Girls is obviously light years better.

* So HSM, not a good movie. And it's not a good musical, either. There actually aren't that many songs in it, and the songs are for the most part forgettable. A good musical should have you humming those tunes hours after you've finished watching it (q.v. Elaine's father and "Master of the House" in Seinfeld). I can't remember a single melody from this movie. And these aren't good pop songs, either, for the same reason. There was one moment, at the beginning of big basketball choreography number "Get'cha Head in the Game" where they construct a beat out of foot stomps and sneaker squeaks that is a pretty neat effort in musique concrete, but that was quickly subsumed into a bland dance track. Really, the songs on this soundtrack could have come from any Disney movie from the past ten or fifteen years. They just had floppy haired teenagers singing them instead of genies voiced by wisecracking warthogs or Robin Williams.

* A note about the plot: this is some weird, hormone-free high school, seriously. Look, the main guy wants to go spend time with this cute chick, and all his guy friends have to say is, "Naw, man, don't you think you should be spending more time in the locker room with us?" Until the happy ending where everyone hooks up with everyone else, practically arbitrarily, everyone in the entire school acts like it's the most thoroughly bizarre thing in the world for a teenager to want to spend some time with an attractive member of the opposite sex. Weird stuff.

* But conversely, I think there's a bit of metaphor going on with this movie. Basketball jock develops an interest in musical theater, is confused by his feelings, is worried about his father's response, fears that his friends will reject and ridicule him if they find out? Damn, this movie should have had "(nullus)" stuck up on the screen at the end of the credits.

*So, what can we conclude about the biggest selling album released in 2006? Well, I'm making the not too out there guess this was big because it was a movie tie in. These songs wouldn't have gone multi-platinum on their own. So that means that not only are 12 year olds the only people buying records, they'll also only buy records that soundtrack their favorite movies. Here's a recommendation: Cam'ron, hand the production of Killa Season 2 over to Disney. Maybe that's the only way to get hip hop sales back up.

[1] And indie kids, if the Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, Shins, et al., sales figures are to be believed. But there are a lot more 12 year olds than indie kids. And they might have more money, too, considering, if I have my stereotypes right, indie kids are poor-ass ramen-eating college students, while Disney Channel viewers are pampered suburbanite middle-schoolers.

Posted by Jonathan at 4:03 AM | | Comments | links

The FunkyFunky 7 Are:
A group of kids with WAY too much time on their hands.