Beyond the Status Quo


The Disney Channel original movie High School Musical opens with a number called “Start of Something New.” In the film, which premiered January 20, the two leads—hoops hunk Troy (played by Summerland regular Zac Efron) and math whiz Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens)—sing the song during a New Year’s Eve karaoke bash at the ski lodge where their two families are vacationing. The tune’s about how meeting that special someone expands the edges of your universe. “Looking in your eyes, I feel in my heart the start of something new,” they sing over soft-serve guitars thumbtacked to a sprightly bubblefunk beat.

Not surprisingly, “Start of Something New” ‘s theme turns out to be High School Musical‘s as well: Once they return to Albuquerque’s East High, Troy and Gabriella encourage each other to transcend their respective reputations by auditioning for the drama club’s winter musical. The pressure to conform to social norms is strong, but as musicals since West Side Story have suggested, choreography’s lure is often stronger.

To the Disney execs behind High School Musical, “Start of Something New” means more still. Last month the movie’s soundtrack set several Billboard records, including the largest ever one-week jump for a single on the Hot 100: “Breaking Free,” another Troy/Gabriella duet about the world’s ability “to see us in a way that’s different than who we are,” shot up 82 slots to No. 4, nestling in behind Beyoncé, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige. Eight other cuts from the album landed inside the Hot 100, too, which gives the cast a leg up over the Beatles, as Billboard writer Fred Bronson noted in his February 2 column: Where the Fab Four “took four weeks to rack up their first four chart entries,” Efron and Hudgens took only two. The CD’s done especially brisk business online, where it’s repeatedly topped Amazon’s and iTunes’ sales tallies, lending credence to the industry’s view that young consumers are leading the charge toward Internet music sales. Disney Channel entertainment prez Gary Marsh described the soundtrack to Reuters last month as “the perfect iPod storm,” and Walt Disney Records marketing VP Damon Whiteside tells the Voice that the album’s success “has shifted everybody’s thinking. Now we’re approaching new projects asking, ‘What’s the digital component?’ ”

Though I’m waiting to trade in my Halliburton stock for shares of Disney, it’s not hard to envision this new marketing scheme producing future results in line with High School Musical‘s. Good for them: After years in which Disney’s valuable teen properties had to leave the fold in order to find big-time success (à la former Mouseketeers Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears), the kiddie-pop giant is now making significant creative strides that might keep its homegrown talent at home.

High School Musical is this trend’s latest apotheosis. Typically earnest yet slyly self-aware, the film toys with the ‘tween-cult conventions it nonetheless engages. In a similar way, the music, written and produced by a bevy of ‘tween-pop regulars with Kelly Clarkson and Jesse McCartney on their resumés, maintains a real-time relationship with the mainstream fodder Disney usually finds itself replicating six months to a year after the fact. Livelier and more radio savvy than usual Mouse House material, these tunes sound less like bowdlerized versions of Top 40 fare than they do Top 40 fare period. “When There Was Me and You,” “Breaking Free,” “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”—each awaits its bump up from Radio Disney to Z100.

A few tracks do carry the whiff of pasteurization, but it’s not a process without payoff. “Get’cha Head in the Game,” a piece of basketball court musique concréte, stomps like a milk-and-cookies “Hollaback Girl.” And “Stick to the Status Quo”—the show’s big production number, in which Troy and Gabriella’s classmates demonstrate the importance of fitting in—makes for a neat tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to the Rent freakfest “La Vie Boheme,” its obvious model.

Whether or not High School Musical ends up wielding the influence of a Rent or Grease—in either a commercial or artistic sense—remains to be seen. For now, these kids’ universe continues its expansion.

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