High School Musical: Confounding the Media and Cultural Elite

Erin Matthews had planned the gathering for weeks.  Her home looked like a typical Super Bowl houseparty.  There were decorations and homemade signs extolling the virtues of the stars.  There was plenty of food and drink to go around and the revelers sat in front of the widescreen television swapping facts with one another.  Except this was late August and not a single attendee was interested in football.  The guests, ranging from 3 to 14 years old, joined Erin, an Annapolis, Maryland middle schooler, for the premiere of the Disney Channel’s High School Musical 2, the much-anticipated sequel to High School Musical.

High School Musical 2 (“HSM2” to its aficionadoes) shattered the record for basic cable television when 17.24 million viewers tuned in.  HSM2 had more viewers for the timeslot than ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, combined.  HSM2 was a tremendous success because “[k]ids turned [High School] Musical into a mega-hit while no one else was looking,” wrote Robert Bianco in USA Today.

Well, not exactly.  The immense success was no secret.  It is just that much of the media did not acknowledge let alone report on it.  However, the unparalleled success of HSM2 was unavoidable. The media had deal with it.

The original High School Musical was a phenomenon from the moment it debuted in January 2006.  It set a Disney Channel record with 7.73 million viewers its first night and 11 million the following two nights.  More than 160 million viewers worldwide watched HSM by the time the sequel premiered.  HSM won two Emmys.  The original soundtrack sold 7 million copies making it the top selling CD for 2006.  It set a Guinness record for having nine of its tracks make the best-selling singles chart.  The single “Breaking Free” had the fastest rise in the history of the Billboard Top 100 chart when it leaped from 86 to number 4 in one week.  Ten days after the movie first aired, five of the top 10 downloads on iTunes were from the show.  There were 500,000 downloads of the lyrics for the sing-along telecast.  The DVD also captured the top spot for the year, selling 400,000 on its first day of release, en route to a best selling 7.9 million copies.
The movie led to a sold-out 42-city concert tour and a follow-on five country Latin America swing; an ice show; 4.5 million best-selling teen novels; a karaoke game; and board games, wall posters, notebooks, journals, pencils, charms and other novelty items.  More than 2,000 high schools licensed to perform their own stage version of HSM.  People magazine published a special issue devoted to the sequel.  A third movie is planned for cinematic release in 2008.

Perhaps one reason why much of the media virtually ignored HSM was because the story line did not even touch on topics popular with most of the Hollywood set and society’s cultural elite.  There was no underage drinking, drug experimentation, or teen sex.  For that matter, there wasn’t even hand-holding.  Sullen, dark and brooding, favorites of the cultural elite, gave way to fun, frivolity and cheerfulness.  The film featured good, wholesome kids engaged in good, wholesome activities. The theme was that high schoolers should participate in new activities regardless of peer criticism.  Role model stuff.

This definitely was not the kind of material the “It Takes A Village” and “We must do it for the children” crowd revels in.  Think of (thankfully, the still unreleased) “Hound Dog” starring 12-year old Dakota Fanning who portrays a 12-year old girl who is raped. 
According to reviewer Roger Friedman there was no point to Fanning’s rape.  “It’s simply there for shock value,” he wrote.  Friedman reported Fanning and a 12-year old co-star “have numerous kissing scenes, some of which they’re half-dressed.” 

Those involved with Hound Dog were convinced it was Oscar-nomination material for Fanning.  According to various entertainment reports, studios shied away from distributing Hound Dog not because it was offensive, but because it was just plain awful.  However,’s Meghan O’Rourke wrote that the reluctance to watch Hound Dog was due to an “American audience…chock-a-block with repressed feelings about adolescent sexuality.”

Several critics, apparently not realizing that pre-adolescents and teens actually prefer wholesomeness over sexual assaults, panned the first HSM.  The Hollywood Reporter reported the film “has about as much personality as the stale air that tries to inflate it and pump up its volumes.”  Jeanne Spreier of Knight Ridder called it “Corny.  Corny as Iowa” with a “shallow plot.”  The Hartford Courant graded the choreography as “strictly ‘80s cheese.”  Apparently, the movie did not include enough hip thrusting and slow grinding.  Jacqueline Cutler of the (Newark) Star-Ledger warned that HSM fell into the “What Not to Watch” category because it was “pitiful,” “hackneyed,” and a “sham.”  Television critic Anita Gates of the New York Times found the picture to be “dippy” and “such treacle.”  Where on Earth can one find a showing of Hound Dog as a diversion from dippy and treacle?

In spite of HSM’s positive social values and immense commercial success, several of the cultural elitists were undeterred from tarring and feathering the second installment.  “There’s only so much cutsieness a sane adult can stand close-up” lamented the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan regarding HSM2.  “[T]here’s also so much to hate,” her review continued.  Heffernan warned, “the movie is mediocre, and should be skipped.”
“Movie night it is.  And we ain’t talkin’ ‘bout frickin’ High School Musical 2” offered Dallas Morning News.  Instead, the Morning News suggested, viewers should tune-in to “a classic: Meatballs.”  The Grand Rapids Press reviewer exhorted, “To my enduring relief, I have not received a review copy of ‘High School Musical 2.’”  Tenley Woodman of the Boston Herald trumpeted “HSM2 could easily be discarded as tacky and out of touch.”

In an age of in-your-face sexuality where Abercrombie and Fitch clothing catalogs border on soft-porn pedophilia by including photos of barely dressed pre-adolescents it is refreshing that clean, wholesome and harmless still exist.  More to the point, today’s youngsters cannot get enough of it.  Yet, some of the media and the cultural elitists appear to be confounded why this is so.

Zac and Gabriella, HSM’s puppy love co-stars, follow in the mold of other semi-platonic on-screen couples including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and Frankie Avalone and Annette Funicello.  The HSM movies are filled with G-rated singing and dancing.  While today’s youngsters opt for healthy friendships and arms-length romance, the cultural elitists can anxiously look forward to the release of Hound Dog direct to DVD.


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