Unless you’re under 12 years old or you have an obscene level of spare time on your hands, you probably haven’t spent the last two months following the dizzying Billboard ascent of the soundtrack to the Disney Channel original movie High School Musical. Here’s what you’ve missed: the album entered the Billboard charts at #143; it made ridiculous gains over the next couple of weeks, finally climbing into the top ten and ending up at #1 three weeks ago. It got dislodged for two weeks, but this week it’s at the top again. It’s platinum now; it’s also the reason I’d been wondering who the hell Troy and Gabriella were whenever I checked the iTunes top ten downloads over the last few months. In a time when most pop albums make splashy Billboard debuts and then plummet the next week, it’s a true rarity: something that started slow, gained momentum, and then became this crazy runaway juggernaut. It’s the biggest, fastest cult success the pop charts have seen in years, and it’s the soundtrack to a made-for-cable movie from the director of Newsies and the writer of Drop Zone. If IMDB is to be believed, the soundtrack took five days to make. None of its stars had previously landed anything bigger than a recurring role on Summerland, and all of a sudden it’s a cultural phenomenon. This is baffling.
There’s a funny scene early in the movie when Troy Bolton, the movie’s soulful basketball-star protagonist, tells his best friend, a kid with an insane jheri-curl afro who sort of looks like the older son from Me and You and Everyone We Know, that he’s thinking about trying out for the titular high school musical and the friend responds thusly: “The music in those shows isn’t hip-hop or rock or anything essential to culture. It’s, like, show music.” By the time the credits roll, of course, said best friend is spastically grinning his way through ecstatically huge dance routines, and it’s weirdly appropriate that this show music would outsell any of the culturally essential genres he named. I’m almost tempted to draw parallels with indie-rock, where show music, in the form of Sufjan Stevens and the Decemberists, has been running things for the past year.
But then, most of the songs in the movie aren’t full-on show music; they’re sexless inspirational synthpop power-ballads sung by kids with inhuman, alien voices. Only the movie’s big finale and second-most downloaded song, “We’re All in This Together,” qualifies as a dazzlingly sunny stops-out up-with-people gang-shout showstopper; not coincidentally, it’s also the best song in the film. On the iTunes charts, it loses out to “Breaking Free,” a chirpy slow-jam. Another slow song, “Start of Something New,” is number three. In the film, Troy and bookwormy transfer student Gabriella are forced to sing “Start of Something New” when they’re reluctantly pushed onstage at a ski-resort karaoke party; miraculously, both turn out know the song’s tune, and both are totally professional singers. The rest of the songs swing between Casio-preset uptempo teenpop and goopy middle-school slow-dance fare; one song, the one everyone sings at the first musical audition, gets read both ways. In fact, we get to hear that particular gem about eight times, as the movie does its own version of American Idol‘s hopeless-tryout clips.
Mostly, though, the movie’s songs are weirdly satisfying, sparklingly clean and generic but sunny and hooky and good-natured. The movie is like that, too, intentionally hitting every single cliche it can find on the way to its inevitable happy ending. There’s some nicely hackneyed stuff in there; none of the movie’s basketball players are even remotely believable, and for some reason they use they word “playmaker” more times in two hours than Marv Albert has in years. The drama teacher is a hateful character, an egotistical blowhard who prizes the success of the school play above all else, surprisingly realistic if you’ve ever suffered through a high-school drama class. In the film’s least believable touch, however, the snooty girl who runs the school is also a full-on drama-nerd; if I was in high school right now, I would’ve heard her big putdown (“Evaporate, tall person!”) so many times I would’ve started banging my head against lockers. There’s a weird pseudo-Latin song near the end where she and her brother seem to be checking each other out. The adorable kids postpone a championship basketball game (championship of what: never specified) by making the scoreboard and lights go all crazy, which causes the officials to evacuate the gym like someone had called in a bomb threat. The movie takes place, oddly enough, in Albuquerque, where apparently schools have rooftop gardens with breathtaking mountain views. Strangest of all, the high school musical of the title never actually happens; the movie ends with the audition process.
It should be noted that none of this stuff hurts the movie in the slightest; if anything, they place it in a long and noble tradition of absolutely ridiculous teen movies. So does the movie’s look; everything about Troy, haircut and wardrobe especially, seems cloned directly from the pages of mid-70s Tiger Beat, and all the other characters have the eternal glow of kid-movie archetypes. High School Musical has none of the wickedly funny undercurrents of, say, Clueless or Sixteen Candles, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than Grease. As far as the soundtrack goes, I’ll take it over James Blunt any day.