High School Musical ★★★★★

Musicals offer freedom. Mostly, freedom from reality - a place of escape. Rejecting 'realistic' depiction, musicals instead opt to hyperbolize and highlight certain elements of reality, reflecting the emotional outlook/journey of it's characters. These characters generally play the role of stereotypical representation, reminding the audience of themselves and their aquaintances, and more importanly their interconnecting roles in the world around them. The clearly artificial nature of the musical allows for a particualr kind of distancing that benefits this real-world reflection. However, what happens when this 'reflection' hardly reflects the real world at all? What happens when this representation goes layers deep? High School Musical. 

Naturally, as a 'place of escape', realism shouldn't be expected, and as something unrealistic, the whole thing is better off being approached representationally. But when approached that way, we're left scratching our heads: who exactly are these characters supposed to represent? Actual human beings? They're really representations of pop-cultural tropes, built from our older representations and made even simpler. This isn't depicting the high school experience so much as it is the 'high school movie'. Moreover, it's depicting the 'high school movie' translated to the stage, and then the stage translated back into film adaptation. 

The opening number addresses this complexity, framing our protagonists on a stage with a television screen behind them playing video of their audience. The movie is a feedback loop of medium and pop-culture, exisiting more as a reflection of filmic and musical influences than any sort of reality in the physical realm. It's meta, it's campy, it's practically a collection of dancing caricatures - almost every element in the film acts to further distance the viewer from emotional investment. And yet, in spite of it all, emotional investment thrived among tweens of the time. Was it because they were young and desperate for identification? Or did this movie just embrace a truth about the state of a culture that's been consistently saturated in entertainment for so long. One where we can't think beyond our representations, where the anticipated 'high school experience' becomes a watered-down John Hughes film, where we become desperate to squeeze ourselves into some bizarrely defined social clique (not defined by us, of course, but by the media that created our expectations of the world). High School Musical celebrates this self-fulfilling system, but through its own self-parodical nature also deconstructs it and helps us to reach a position of "Breaking Free". It's a film about embracing your drives and desires as they change throughout life, about surpassing the expactations created by the old world (parental pressures, social pressures, past identity) and creating a new one, about giving up the 'high school movie' tropes and becoming something better. But in the end, like all righteous who gain positions of power, it became what it hated - another rung in the ladder of escapist cultural feedback.

It's only logical that alongside HSM's increasing popularity and budget came an unfortunate devolution into groupthink. The importance of the first film was Troy realizing that he could exist as both a singer and basketball player simultaneously. He can be a part of multiple groups and he doesn't have to bow to the pressures of any one of them. More than that, he can seemlessly blend the groups together so that the silly social barriers can dissapear and the groups can actually become one. However, as soon as Troy's journey of self-realization brings him beyond the boundaries of his school friends, they villianize him for "changing", and he becomes an enemy. He's not acting in line with his newfound social barriers and thus must be pressured into conforming again. 

"No no no,
Stick to the stuff you know,
It is better by far to keep things as they are, 
Don't mess with the flow no no, 
Stick to the status quo"
 - "Stick to the Status Quo"

Rejecting peer pressure and embracing new life experiences now become selfish, rather than honorable, traits. Of course, the first film just had him trying out new hobbies, the second has him networking with the wealthy and successful. Change is fine as long as it just concerns some silly high school clique, but trying to change financial class? Evil! Money and power make Troy bad! Kind of a sick backwards message when taking into account the kind of lifestyles that this very movie allows for its producers, writers, etc. Getting rich off of tween girls while making sure they don't develop the drives in themselves to get rich as they grow older. Sharpay wants the "Fabulous" wealthy lifestyle and she's a meanie! Work a regular job! And give a portion of those paychecks to Disney for your dopamine rations! This way, you can support the "Fabulous" lifestyles while never striving for one yourself. 

Troy's friends seem to ignore how he's trying to lift them up with him, that he wants them all on the road to success beside him. Through his profound generosity he somehow manages to provide them all with jobs for the summer, working together no less. But because he plays some golf without them and has his own individual life, he's an evil guy, I guess. Contrast this with Ryan switching over to thier group, which of course is entirely positive. 

Despite this logical disconnect, Ryan's sub-plot is likely the greatest part of HSM2, as it stays true to the message of the first film. He and Chad discover that the true categorical boundaries separating each other are cosmetic. They each dance/play baseball for the same feeling of joyous physical release. By the end of their encounter, the two activities are seen as interchangable. When they're hanging out after the game their clothes are inexplicably switched, each wearing the others archetypal garb. They've finally embraced their potential for multiplicity, trying on the costumes of social categories they've hitherto kept distant from. They are each other. Their 'changing' was actually discovery.

The HSM films both celebrate and demonize the notion of 'change' as it relates to identity. Some change is bad and some change is good, and evidently it's up to your peers to decide which is which. But also don't let peer pressure stop you from changing who you are. This conflict of messages is very fitting for the HSM films, a trilogy full of seeming contradictions. Chad dances his heart out singing "I Can't Dance." In "You Are the Music In Me", Gabriella's sings the words "a single voice", and Troy repeats it back to her. During "The Boys are Back", Troy and Chad temporarily become kids again, reveling in the child-like spirit that still lives within them; Later, Troy yells at his dad "I'm not a kid anymore!"

"I don't know where to go
What's the right team
I want my own thing
So bad I'm gonna scream
I can't chose, so confused
What's it all mean
I want my own dream
So bad I'm gonna scream"
 - "Scream"

Conflict, change, uncertainty: maybe HSM accurately reflects the high school experience after all. It's buried under many layers of pop-cultural context, but in the 21st century so are many of us. We develop a lot of our expectations of the world from pop culture, and struggle to reconcile those expectations with our real experiences. Subjected to dogmatic media since birth, we hardly know why we expect certain things, why we look at the world in such narrow categories, why we develop the 'identities' we do. They're just 'intuitive' and 'natural', right? HSM shows just how artificial these categories always were. It begs you to break free, leave your barriers behind and try out new modes of living. It offers you freedom.

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