If you don’t have anyone in your life born after 1990, the Disney Channel TV movie High School Musical will probably mean nothing to you. Even if you do, the rapid rise of High School Musical from a garden-variety DCOM (that’s the preferred slang for “Disney Channel Original Movie”) to a bona fide cultural phenomenon probably left you baffled as well.
To catch you up, it all started in the post-holiday lull of late January, when the musical premiered to tepid reviews on the Disney Channel. Its soundtrack entered the Billboard charts low, at No. 143. But by early February, it made its way into the top 10, ended up at No. 1 three weeks ago, and has since gone platinum—which is unheard of at a time when most albums have huge debuts and then taper off the charts. The cast is largely composed of unknowns who are now enjoying the kind of teen ubiquity that is usually reserved for American Idol hopefuls or Lindsay Lohan. Countless LiveJournals are decorated with icons proclaiming eternal devotion to Zac Efron, who plays Troy, the basketball star with an angelic voice who, along with Gabriella, a geek who can hit the high notes, tries to find love and a lead role in Twinkle Town, East High’s spring musical.
Leaving aside the inaptness of a movie about a musical that, maddeningly, never actually gets to the titular event (it’s all about the audition process), High School Musical’s songs aren’t much more groundbreaking than the plot. That’s perfectly acceptable—every generation deserves its own feel-good musical, from The Sound of Music to Beach Blanket Bingo to Grease—but it’s unjust to compare the saccharine synth-heavy pop ballads of High School Musical to actual show tunes. The songs play like thoroughly sanitized takes on the classics, with shades of Romeo and Juliet (without death) or Grease (minus references to sex). And, unlike any actual high-school musical production, no one is taking Prozac, has too much to drink, sleeps with their boyfriend, or is secretly gay.
East High is a high school unlike any that exists in real life. It’s a public school that not only has funding to stage a geekily lavish musical, but whose science club has a roof garden. It’s populated by clean-cut teens who address each other’s parents as Mr. and Mrs., and the bitchiest insult Sharpay, the school’s G-rated version of Paris Hilton, can sling at someone is “Evaporate!” It’s so inoffensive as to be almost comic. When the students bare their deepest, darkest secrets in the number “Stick to the Status Quo,” they turn out to be: loving to bake (a jock), playing the cello (a slacker), and break dancing (a science club member). The teens at East High are so devoid of sexual tension that it’s never considered weird that Sharpay and Ryan, who are brother and sister, are auditioning for lead roles in a love story or that Troy and Gabriella’s big finale kiss is just a chaste peck on the cheek.
All of this good behavior creates a nice fantasy for parents, who are probably the ones paying for the millions of soundtracks that have been sold. But the cuddliness of East High provides a pretty potent fantasy for its teen audience as well. If all teen media can be classified as different takes on aspiration, whether it’s the fantasy of being blond and rich in MTV’s reality show Laguna Beach or the destruction of the popular ruling class in Mean Girls, then High School Musical is an aspirational fantasy of a kinder, blander version of high school where the brainiac can trump the school diva and get the jock, and everyone gets together for a big dance number in the end. No matter how jaded teens are supposed to be these days, the idea of transcending high school’s caste system is always alluring.
Even so, plenty of teen shows fixate on social hierarchy without enjoying the popularity of High School Musical. Teens, or more accurately, tweens, their 8- to 12-year-old counterparts, aren’t watching High School Musical over and over simply because they’re so taken by the story; they love irony, too. Guilty pleasures have always been a staple of teen culture. I doubt that any American adolescent has ever thought that Tiger Beat magazine or The Baby-Sitters Club series were unequivocally cool. And yet, like High School Musical, they are all successful partly because teens revel in cheesiness.
High School Musical has also benefited from Disney’s cunning use of marketing. The channel started promoting the movie on New Year’s Eve, leading up to the debut on Jan. 20. Fans were directed to the channel’s Web site, where they could download the lyrics to the soundtrack in order to participate in a karaoke broadcast the very next day. It worked—1.2 million visitors flooded the site. Then Disney aired a “making of” special with the Jan. 22 screening. Radio Disney played the soundtrack on heavy rotation, and it became the top-selling album on iTunes and Amazon. To encourage repeat viewings, subsequent telecasts offered free downloads and dance-alongs, ready-made for slumber parties. High School Musical was also the first full-length video feature available on iTunes.
This isn’t the only time the Disney Channel has made its mark first on teens and, later, on the culture at large. The channel is responsible for the careers of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake, all of whom were Mousketeers prior to being US Weekly staples. I wouldn’t be surprised if High School Musical clones are on their way. Is that so bad? The show might not push any creative boundaries, but its vanilla version of high-school life is ultimately appealing—a cocoon against growing up and becoming a real teen who has to face the SATs, learning to drive, and college counselors. It might be bland fun, but that’s better than no fun.