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For the holidays, my kids begged me for the “High School Musical” DVD. In my ignorance about what fifth graders who don’t live in my house watch on television, I dismissed it. I didn’t know what it was (and I am pretty sure they didn’t either). But something was brewing. In late November, a live version of the film, performed for thousands at our local sports arena, completely hijacked the attention of my daughter’s classmates, and those who had seen it became briefly popular.
A few weeks later, the holidays were upon us, and in the enormous brown boxes that arrived from my husband’s family in Buffalo came the revered DVD. A crowd of good-looking kids jumped up and down on the cover. “You haven’t seen it yet?” Uncle Steve asked over the telephone. My daughter looked at me, her hand over the mouthpiece, as though her uncle might see her rolling her eyes. “No,” she moaned, disgusted. “You gotta be kidding,” he said. I stood there, feeling foolish.
We hadn’t seen it, but then we did. Not once, not twice, but three times in the course of two days. If you aren’t the parent of a child between the ages of, say, 5 and 15, you may not know what “High School Musical” is. Here’s a two-second summary: It’s a dramedy about two high school kids — Gabriella Montez, who is new to the school, and Troy Bolton, one of the most popular students and star of the basketball team — who want to sing in the school’s winter musical, but are too embarrassed to admit it. Especially Troy, who has everything at stake: the big game, the big reputation and his relationship with his father, who just happens to be the basketball team’s coach.
The plot is so predictable, the characters so one-dimensional and the songs so … so … Disney, it’s laughable. I should have been making cynical jokes about it. Instead I was up until 2 a.m. after the second day of nonstop viewing because I couldn’t get the songs out of my head. I dreamed of Troy holding the microphone while the camera circled him, his blond, feathery hair reminiscent of my first true crush: David Cassidy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why I keep watching it, surreptitiously, with my children. I stand at the sink — luckily we have the kind of open floor plan that allows me to wash dishes and watch television at the same time — and hum along to the songs. There’s Keith Partridge, the 17-year-old lead singer of the Partridge Family — no, wait, no, right, it’s Troy Bolton, but does it matter? It’s 1973 and I’m 10 years old again and writing to the Partridge Family Fan Club. “Dear Keith,” I pen in my very best cursive, lounging on the shag rug of the upstairs bedroom I share with my younger sister, who can’t possibly understand the depth of my feelings. “I love you.”
“The Partridge Family Album” was the first record I ever owned. I went half with my older sister — she was 12 and I was 10 — and we walked three blocks to Town & Country Records, where she paid with quarters. When we got home, I gave her my half: 200 pennies. And I immediately put on the show’s hit song, “I Think I Love You,” and fantasized that Keith, in his weird fluffy white performance shirt and vest, was singing to me. Fast-forward 30 years. Like hundreds of thousands of other tween fans, my daughter and son — immediately after their first viewing of “High School Musical” — log onto iTunes and use their holiday gift cards to buy five songs off the soundtrack. Then both of them sit, slack-jawed, eyes glazed, and watch the DVD again, so stoned on the music they don’t respond to my calls of, “Look! I just baked brownies! Who wants a brownie? They’re chewy! They’re chewy, for god’s sake!”
A few days after the DVD’s arrival, my daughter refused to get dressed in the morning — they were watching “HSM” again — and her punishment was expulsion from the family room, the room with the television. (Her brother was lying on the carpet engrossed in the scene where Troy and Gabriella meet secretly in the science club hangout — none of Troy’s narrow-minded basketball buddies would ever think to look for him there!) My daughter actually became hysterical. She ran to her room and let out the kind of bloodcurdling scream that will, in time, bring the police to your door. She sobbed, hard. All because I told her she had to get dressed before watching any more of the video. Our lives can’t stop because the cast is singing “Get Your Head in the Game.” We have to run errands. I needed milk, eggs, snacks for school lunchboxes. By the time she pulled herself together and dressed, however, the damage had been done. She’d missed the important science club scene as well as a crucial scene of betrayal. (I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say, everyone learns a valuable lesson about friendship.) She stomped over to the tube, sullen, brow-furrowed. “I’d been waiting a week to see this,” she said, spitting out the words with venom. (No matter that she had already seen it three times.) “And now you’ve ruined it.”
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What is it about Disney music and movies that is so addictive? From my unscientific study of an 8- and a 10-year-old viewer, it’s not just the idiotic plot or attractive stars that gets them, but the songs too. When we sit around listening to music, my children beg for Radio Disney. (And I think: Why on earth did we have to get Direct TV with its wide variety of satellite radio stations?) Who are these singing children? Aly & A.J.? Jesse McCartney? This can’t just be about music, it’s mind control! The soundtrack to “High School Musical” has gone triple-platinum — more than 3 million have been sold worldwide, making it the top-selling CD in 2006. “It’s really the first tween Disney product that has reached around the world. And it’s still growing,” Damon Whiteside, V.P. of marketing for Walt Disney Records, told Reuters in December. Music Theatre International, which sells the licensed stage adaptation to “HSM,” predicts that by year’s end more than 2,000 schools will have produced their own stage version of the show, with more than 60,000 students participating. Nine of the soundtrack songs made it to the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006. “Breaking Free,” which tortures me nightly (“There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach, if we try … yeah we’re breaking free. Ooooooooh.”), reached No. 4.
It’s all a little scary. Too much Disney pop, too many songs from teenagers I’ve never heard of with names that sound suspiciously manufactured — Corbin Bleu? Hannah Montana? — and my kids become dazed; they lie around looking at the ceiling, singing lyrics to vacuous songs they literally just heard. (But should they forget any of the cloying lyrics, both the “High School Musical” two-disc, special edition soundtrack and the “High School Musical Remix” include karaoke versions.)
When they were denied further viewings of the DVD (defeated, I have since relented), my kids resorted to round-the-clock soundtrack playing. It was music-as-narcotic, and their addiction made me suspect something subliminal in all of it, a “White Album” kind of thing. (Although I’m pretty certain you can’t play a CD backward.) My suspicions remain unconfirmed, as I couldn’t find a musicologist or psychologist willing to go to bat for my theory. The experts I asked believe instead that the music’s success, as well as the movie’s, were a result of marketing and promotion at its most obscene. Watch anything on the Disney Channel — and it’s the rare American child who doesn’t — and it’s a nonstop commercial for its other shows, for Radio Disney and for the teen singing stars it produces. But Disney is also pandering to a market that has been — believe it or not — underserved. Not by me, of course; I shove cultural experiences down my children’s throats in the hopes of enriching them. But by the music, film and television industries.
Musicologist Elizabeth Upton, a professor at UCLA (and mother of two tweens) whose many areas of scholarship include children’s music, says in the last decade there has been a dearth of pop music for the 5-14 age group. The reason Disney’s songs are so attractive to tweens is that they are, well, pretty. “This kind of melodic pop music just hasn’t been fashionable for a long while. A lot of what’s been popular has been scratchy, alternative stuff,” says Upton. “If you’re a kid and you’re going to listen to pop, Disney isn’t a bad place to be. Imagine that for your entire life, pop music has been ugly, edgy or beat-heavy, from grunge to hip-hop. This kind of music is a revelation.”
Scott Davis, a marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and a longtime consultant to the music industry, agrees. “To a certain extent there is a tween-size vacuum today and this is filling it,” he says. “Tweens, especially girls ages 10 to 15, feel good listening and watching things like ‘High School Musical.’ At this age they are still optimistic. They believe you can hold hands and sing songs and everything will be all right.”
The songs they are singing may all sound vaguely the same, but it’s difficult as a parent to take issue with them. Despite their homogeneity, the lyrics are squeaky clean. The movie “High School Musical” may be filled with sexual longing, but there’s no touching allowed. Would I really prefer that my 10-year-old daughter listen to “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake or Akon’s “Smack That” — two songs that seem to be on the radio 24/7 — instead of “We’re All in This Together”?
But perhaps most of all, kids dig the music and the made-for-TV movies because there — unlike here — the world really is a magical place. Not magical in the way of castles and fairies, but magical in the way that anyone — at least anyone between the ages of 6 and 14 — can be whatever they want. Reach beyond your comfort zone, kids, take a risk, and win it all: the basketball championship, the pivotal science competition, the good-looking guy, the lead in the school musical. All in 90 minutes. High school is a magical place to a child who has never been there, and has never had to navigate its social and emotional complexities, which aren’t shown in Disney’s movies.
It can also be a magical place to a parent who left it 25 years ago and has forgotten how painful it sometimes was; I’m not alone in my surreptitious (or not-so-surreptitious) viewing of “HSM.” There’s something both appalling and appealing about the movie’s sugary fluff; it reminds us how we felt when we were tweens (or, back then, simply preteens). UCLA professor Davis says that in the 1970s, “The Partridge Family” television show appealed to the exact same audience as “High School Musical” does today. According to the archives of the Museum of Broadcast Communication, “The Partridge Family” was “a major hit with younger viewers” and even back then, spawned highly successful (if short-lived) commercial tie-ins like mystery and comic books, as well as heavily promoted musical albums. Yikes, I thought. Maybe my daughter isn’t being brainwashed, maybe she’s just … a 10-year-old kid.
So maybe the reason I — and many other mothers — stand at the sink pretending not to watch the movie is that we’re nostalgic; we miss our past selves. Maybe we’re jealous of all that youthful intensity, that hopefulness. It’s the same reason we go to high school reunions — do we really want to see those people again? Or do we want to feel, for a little while, like we’re 17? For jaded parents, on the cusp of middle age (or already over the cusp), “HSM” may trigger our gag reflex but it also triggers memories of pep rallies and easy crushes, when our social lives consisted of parties after football games spent trying to catch the eye of that cute guy from biology class. In the romantic haze of hindsight we look back from lives now complicated by marriage, children, mortgages, war — and all of a sudden high school looks pretty good.
A few weeks ago Andrew Lavin, a 47-year-old public relations professional — and father — in Port Washington, N.Y., was playing a gig with his band Rock Steady at a country club near his home. Rock Steady is a cover band made up of dads who play at suburban bars on weekends. Lavin said that night the band decided to throw the song “What I’ve Been Looking For” from the “HSM” soundtrack into their second set — for laughs. “Someone suggested we try it, since we were hearing it constantly in all of our houses,” he said. “And a lot of our wives and friends of wives and people in the neighborhood were in the audience. And there was this unbelievable level of recognition and excitement. We were shocked. It was incredible.”
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On Jan. 12, 2007, almost exactly a year since the world premiere of “High School Musical,” the next Disney made-for-TV movie, “Jump In!” aired. (No sense wasting time when there are children with buying power out there!) My kids and I tuned in, expecting an urban version of “High School Musical,” which is, essentially, what we got. Corbin Bleu, who played Troy Bolton’s best friend Chad Danforth in “HSM,” is now Izzy Daniels, the lead role in “Jump In!” It’s not a musical but there’s plenty of music, much of it hip-hop (or what passes for hip-hop on the Disney Channel). Bleu smiles his way through the entire movie, even though he plays a boy who has recently lost his mother and is under pressure from his dad to win the Golden Gloves boxing championship at his local gym. It’s the same fight Dad won when he was in high school. Thing is, what Izzy really wants is to participate — with three neighborhood girls — in a highly competitive jumprope competition.
Yes, in the world of Disney, hip-hoppin’ Double Dutchin’ girls — and boys — are cool. African-American culture is represented here by the words “y’all” added to the end of every sentence. “Jump In!” offers the most sanitized Brooklyn I have ever seen — maybe because it was filmed in Toronto. And everyone sounds like they grew up in California. (Except for the “y’alls.”) On the other hand, there are a lot of complicated dance moves and some serious calisthenics, as well as the expected — yet strangely climactic — ending in which Izzy wins the boxing championship, befriends (and transforms) the neighborhood bully, gets the pretty girl and wins the Double Dutch competition.
During breaks in the movie, kid viewers were encouraged to go online and vote for the things they would like to see in “High School Musical II.” (Man, they’re good, I thought. The world’s children are just one giant focus group.) When it was all over but the credits, I turned to my kids and asked, “What did you think?”
My daughter liked “HSM” better because she prefers musicals, but she still planned to download “Push It to the Limit,” the big hit from “Jump In!” My son compared the two movies on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being the best. He gave “HSM” a 9.5 and “Jump In!” a 9. “You know what, though?” he said, standing up and stretching (he’d been lying down on the floor a lot, watching movies that anesthetize him). “It seemed like they, uh … they kinda have the same plot.” I nodded. “You mean because it’s two high school kids with totally different interests and very different challenges who, in the end, come together as a team and reach all their goals? And in the process, help to change the minds of their sharpest critics, turning them into kinder, more respectful human beings?” He looked at me like I’d just recited the Gettysburg Address. “Yeah,” he said. “Kinda.”
Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist based in San Diego whose work has been published in national magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Glamour, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, CNNMoney.com, CBS MoneyWatch.com, Crain’s NY Business, Wired, Harper's, Slate.com and others. She writes the "Career Couch" column monthly in the New York Times Sunday Business section.More Eilene Zimmerman.