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The Start of Something New

In Retrospect

I can’t quite pinpoint the exact origin of my elementary school obsession with “High School Musical.” Maybe it was Ashley Tisdale, whom I’d seen on “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” or Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, then-newcomers whose appearance in the made-for-TV film would propel their careers to a household name status. Most people underestimated “High School Musical”—its own writer, Peter Barsocchini, would later remember calling it a “fun little movie,” secondary to another project he’d been working on at the time. But in my infinite eight-year-old foresight, I trained a well-honed eye on the advertisements that were sandwiched between episodes of “Kim Possible” and “Hannah Montana.” This, I thought, was going to be something big.

Almost overnight, the movie proved me right. Barsocchini’s other, more serious project, a one-hour Lifetime drama, was ultimately cut from the air, while the “fun” one became an international teen juggernaut, launching two sequels and an international tour. The kids in my grade knew all the words to every song. We blasted the soundtrack in the car as our parents drove us to school.

In those days, I was obsessed with a lot of things—yet I consider this my first real brush with super-fandom. I loved it with a fervor that I didn’t know was possible. I remember begging my parents to buy the soundtrack CD and the DVD of the movie. One birthday called for a “High School Musical” t-shirt. The next garnered a trivia book and a special edition of Tiger Beat that included salacious behind-the-scenes details. I tracked the progress of production for its sequels. It thrilled me that Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens had started dating, as if some of the on-screen universe had bled into the real one. (Video evidence suggests that I even pressured my younger brother into performing a theatrical rendition of “Bop to the Top.” The choreography involves a ladder.)

It was easy to love. I loved it for its music, which seemed then to articulate truths I already knew about the world — defy stereotypes, be who you are inside — yet also seemed to gesture at something greater that I was too young to understand: romantic love, or a Disney lyricist’s approximation of it.

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I suspect now that there was another rationale altogether, one whose subconscious underpinnings I was too young to interpret. “High School Musical” was based on an ethos of authenticity and acceptance, which understandably appealed to me, an eight-year-old Asian American girl who’d always stuck out unfavorably among white classmates. In the anticipation of a social media era — one founded on the premise of self-presentation, self-mediation, and judgment — it was essentially ludicrously effective anti-bullying propaganda, wrapped up in flashy production and catchy show tunes. Basketball players can dance, and scholastic decathlon nerds can sing Broadway tunes. Even skaters can play the cello! Teachers and parents, with all their old-school expectations and pressures, will yield eventually to persistent, plucky teenagers with a newer notion of the world, one that accepted — encouraged, even — bucking the norms. Or to borrow the film’s own terms, breaking free, as opposed to sticking to the status quo.

But it was never disruptive enough to be threatening. There was no sex, no drugs. It sold a wholesome view of American adolescence, as if the most scandalous indulgence a high schooler could have would be secretly baking crème brûlée or break-dancing. Nothing about my concept of morality was ever challenged. Good kids like Troy and Gabriella were rewarded with summer pool parties and happy endings; bad kids like Sharpay learned their lesson, then promised to reform, to come back as nicer kids, until the next movie rolled around. (I’ll save the politics of punishing Sharpay for being a woman with ambition for another “High School Musical” thought piece.)

Maybe if I’d had a little more foresight, I would’ve seen that the cost of teen fame created devastating consequences for many of its beneficiaries — when Hudgens’ private photos were leaked to the public, and Efron suffered from cocaine addiction, and even cello guy was arrested for robbing a pizza store — that under the strictures of Disney PR, their public lives were perhaps as performative as their onscreen characters’.

But those revelations were still yet to come, even by the end of the “High School Musical” franchise in 2008. At the time, it felt like an important cultural moment. The third and final installment was the only one to screen in theaters, and my mom took me one afternoon, a rare movie outing. When the final curtain dropped — a moment that Hudgens would later describe at the film’s 10-year cast reunion as “saying goodbye to our childhood” — I felt strangely empty. Was this goodbye to my childhood, too? I wondered. Would this irrevocably seal off some era of my life?

It did not. It was 2008. I was 10. By the time I arrived at high school myself, I had long since been disabused of the notion that being a teenager involved New Year’s dance parties and spontaneous karaoke with strangers who looked like Zac Efron. In retrospect, there was little authenticity or novelty: a version of teenagehood dreamed up by adults for whom high school was already a distant memory. There were teen movies before “High School Musical,” and there were teen movies after “High School Musical.” It seemed self-aware about the conventions of its genre, but so was 2001’s “Not Another Teen Movie,” which parodied teen movie clichés with much more focus. Its title is almost laughably generic: “High School Musical” is as literal as a Chinese restaurant naming itself “Chinese Restaurant.” Rewatching the movie now, it’s comical how hokey some of the lines are: “The ice princess returned from the North Pole” as a searing insult, or “We were worse than jerks, because we were mean jerks” as a heartfelt apology.

But in the advent of Internet meme culture, it’s precisely those campy, unrealistic lines and strange jokes that endear it to its viewers. It has somehow managed to become a cultural touchstone for an entire generation, inspiring enough memes and Tumblr posts to supply a few Buzzfeed listicles (most famously, variations of Troy’s very understated, very subtle “Bet On It” performance from the second movie).

About a year ago, a fan-made teaser trailer uploaded to YouTube imagined a fourth installment to the franchise. A newer, acoustic rendition of “What I’ve Been Looking For” was superimposed on clips of the original cast’s more recent work. “Once a Wildcat,” the title card read, referencing the film’s fictional basketball team.

It was a strange nostalgia trip, seeing these actors whom I had grown up watching, now a decade older, their familiar faces like old friends’. I remembered, suddenly, what it felt like to care so deeply about a movie, and I was reminded of how much time had really elapsed since I had watched the movie for the first time — like seeing an old picture of yourself, and noticing how much you’ve changed.

One thing was certain — I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Shared eagerly on social media and circulated widely by online pop culture blogs, the fake trailer has since garnered 13 million views and counting. In the age of reboots, it was not implausible for even an older franchise like “High School Musical” to get another installment many years later, and the trailer, despite being unofficial, had the films’ fans — now college-aged and older — clamoring for another movie.

There are few films that can unite a generation as ubiquitously as “High School Musical.” For better or worse, it’s seared in our collective pop culture memory, like an inside joke we were all in on together. You know how the saying goes. Once a wildcat….

—Caroline A. Tsai ’20, a Crimson Arts Associate Editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House.

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