Disney doesn’t care what I think about this—unloading four million copies of the original High School Musical‘s aggressive teen-pop soundtrack (easily making it the top-selling album of 2006) earned them the right to critical indifference. That’s typical when your audience is almost entirely tweens who found the made-for-TV flick turned cultural phenomenon, with its light high school transgressions, cathartic. Building drama around cliques and basketball games rather than drugs and violence is the kind of trick that justifies Baudrillard’s witty critique of Disney: “Here is now the hallucination of the real in its ideal and simplified version.”
So while Disney may not care what I think, I—along with the many other adults (not to mention parents) who bought HSM—care what Disney thinks, and what Disney makes kids think. This sequel largely makes them think about fame. Which is understandable, given the franchise’s ascending stars: Zac Efron acted in Hairspray last month and now grins from the cover of Rolling Stone, while Ashley Tisdale’s dance-pop album crashed the charts in February. Now she satirizes a kind of tabloid decadence: “Fetch me my Jimmy Choo flip-flops,” she demands on “Fabulous.”
So the ubiquity of Disney’s budding stars has a lot to do with the meaning of HSM II, but more universal themes remain. The original drew a number of Grease comparisons, but this one’s far closer to The Fantastiks—a story about young adult love deepened and tempered by life. Nothing here is as wistful as that musical’s “Try to Remember,” but the HSM II breakup duet “Gotta Go My Own Way” has all the angst of children wincing their way into the world: “I just don’t belong here,” Vanessa Anne Hudgens sings, pained. As Disney’s stars get older and famous, the songs necessarily reflect that. It’s still a “hallucination of the real,” but this reality feels more pained and adult than ever. Catchy dance tracks can’t obscure the archetypal moral of High School Musical: Growing up is hard.