It sells like teen spirit
WHEN all is said and done, a musical is above all about the music.
That fairly obvious fact has been somewhat overlooked in the media’s many attempts to explain why “High School Musical,” a soundtrack to a Disney Channel TV movie full of unknown actors singing unstylish and unfamiliar songs, has been crowned the nation’s biggest-selling album for the first six months of the year.
The CD, on Walt Disney Records, sold 2.6 million copies in that period, a whopping 700,000 more than the runner-up, Rascal Flatts’ “Me and My Gang,” according to midyear figures released this month by Nielsen SoundScan.
Much of the analysis has cited such factors as the promotional power of the Disney machine. For a while after its Jan. 20 premiere, the Disney Channel seemed to rerun the hit movie more often than episodes of “Lizzie McGuire.” There’s also the synergy with Radio Disney, a perfect platform for airing (and airing and airing) the songs, nine of which made Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.
Sales were also boosted by the now-standard practice of releasing a deluxe edition (complete with karaoke disc) and by the movie’s appearance on DVD. Also widely noted are the appeal of the young actors and such sharp marketing moves as helping high schools stage their own productions of the show.
None of that has hurt, but it wouldn’t mean much if there weren’t something on the CD that connected strongly with the young teens and preteens who form the “High School Musical” audience.
That demographic has been fed some dreadful music in recent years, and it’s tempting to see its embrace of this unpretentious throwback as a repudiation of all that prefab, overproduced pop.
Written by such pros as Matthew Gerrard (Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” Hilary Duff’s “Why Not”), the music is from a world without hard rock or hard-core rap, samplers or synthesizers. Nor does it dabble with the theatrical, “Rent"-generated grittiness of contemporary Broadway musicals
It’s the sound of the artificial world created by the movie, a sort of “West Side Story” variation in which a basketball game replaces a gang rumble. Like most Disney high schools, this one, set in a brilliantly sunny Albuquerque, is sealed off from life’s harsher elements. Even the villains turn out to be not so bad.
It’s a gravity-free environment in every sense of the word, one where dancers seem to fly toward the rafters and the only conflict comes from a little father-son tension and a whiff of racial intolerance.
Of course, all musicals are artificial to some degree; in this world the stars are allowed to glow with a natural charisma. Innocence seems like a real possibility here, and youthful emotions can soar to the sky.
That doesn’t demand overly complex music, and the makers of “HSM” certainly weren’t looking to challenge their young listeners unduly. But they’ve managed to do their job without talking down to their audience. The music is broadly nostalgic without being era-specific like “Grease,” and the buoyancy of the up-tempo songs is easy and unforced.
“What I’ve Been Looking For,” uses a bouncy piano and finger-popping beat to convey the giddiness of young love. Lyrically, it’s a succession of cliches that transcends cliche (“Thought I was alone with no one to hold, but you were always right beside me”), and it radiates the ‘60s sunshine-pop vibe of a Turtles hit by Boyce & Hart.
The climactic “Together,” on the other hand, is pure Kool and the Gang, a syncopated celebration whose upward modulations and big-hook chorus build to a jubilant release.
“Get’cha Head in the Game” is the most now-sounding number (it even has a rap break), and although its main job is to mobilize a gym full of kids in an intricate display of choreography, it’s also a radio natural (besides the cast recording, there’s a version by the teen R&B; group B5).
Let love rule
THERE are also some catchy but less distinctive production number novelties for the secondary characters, but the heart of the album is the ballads that track the central love story between Troy (Zac Efron, from the WB’s “Summerland”), the basketball star who discovers his inner song-and-dance-man when he tries out for, yes, the high school musical, and Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), the shy, beautiful math genius with a voice of gold.
The album doesn’t waste time introducing them with “Start of Something New,” opening with musing piano chords and, quickly, Troy’s yearning, eyes-on-the-horizon vocal. Gabriella is right on his heels, and soon they’re twined in the chaste vocal embrace that symbolizes their relationship. “Breaking Free” is another ballad that relies on the leads’ chemistry, and Hudgens (who’s now working on her own debut album) has her diva moment in the solo showstopper “When There Was Me and You.”
These music makers aren’t Bjorn and Benny, and “High School Musical” is no “Mamma Mia,” but the songs have the foundation of solid craft, and playing never becomes overly slick. Above all, the professionalism is regularly punctured by the adolescent awkwardness of the singing, which emphasizes the characters’ vulnerability and sincerity.
The pundits declared teen pop dead a couple of years ago, as Britney and Christina and the boy bands faded away, but it turns out it was only changing its shape. The success of “High School Musical” is encouraging not just for its target audience but also for fans of any genre, because it reaffirms pop music’s ability to create its own momentum and find its audience.