I have a vague recollection of Disney Channel Original Movie High School Musical becoming, in 2006, a tween “cult hit” (if that’s even a thing) that gradually became so popular it moved into “crossover hit” territory.
The plot is as broadly sketched and predictable as you’d expect, though I still admire that it only took us through tryouts of the titular play, not through its actual production. That shows some sense in narrative craft and restraint, even for a piece of over-engineered pre-teen fluff. (With consummate professional Kenny Ortega, of Newsies fame, at the helm, should we be surprised?) The film was enjoyed unironically by my little siblings and quasi-ironically by me, then a college freshman. (About 90% of stuff I did as a college freshman was quasi-ironic.)
The plot, if you don’t remember, is about 70% Grease, 20% “let’s put on a show,” and 10% heavy-handed pandering about following your own dreams.
One thing I do remember thinking was that the soundtrack was an unabashed piece of guilty pleasure: Pop confection dressed up as the score to a musical, alternately generic fun and memorable pop. In this way, Grease is a particularly apt comparison, though let’s not get carried away: Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are no John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
Anyways… My team at work just launched its long-running project. At some point in the final weeks before go-live someone said “we’re all in this together,” and it made me think of this. As if that wasn’t enough inspiration, my brother sent me this beautiful creation, and I knew:
It is time for me to revisit and review the soundtrack eleven years after its release. Here are my thoughts, track by track, of the High School Musical soundtrack.
Track 1: “Start of Something New”
Oof. I don’t recall this being a favorite track of mine, but this song is legitimately bad. Like, awful. The production is equal parts bland and artless, and the song’s tune is dull. There’s a vague sense of climax late in the song, but even at a relatively short 3:15 this opener feels interminable.
What’s most strikingly garish about the song may be the unappealing timbre of the two leads, or it may be the vocal flourishes that Troy and Gabriella use to punctuate each other’s lines that is intended to indicate chemistry and musical intuition. Either way, this track is utterly lacking in flavor, unless you count “bad in an insubstantial, non-fun sort of way” as a flavor.
The lyrics are on-the-nose and pedantic, but I’m basically going to take that for granted for the rest of this article. It’s freaking Disney Channel.
Track 2: “Get’cha Head in the Game”
I remember thinking fondly of this track, but, in retrospect, that may be simply because it has an aesthetic, unlike “Start of Something New.”
The use of basketball noises to create a hip hop rhythm backdrop for a song is a cool idea, and the most fun part of the song is probably the opening thirty seconds as the ambient gym noise builds into a palpable rhythm. Too bad the song itself is featherweight and tacky (especially that “get-a-get-a-get-a-head in the game” chorus).
Track 3: “What I’ve Been Looking For”
Woah! These characters were the villains of the movie? The level of vocal charm, punctuated by sprightly production that uses simple but effective harmonies, is miles better than the first two tracks.
Using only this re-listen of the soundtrack as a guide, I guess the idea is that Sharpay and Ryan are hammy and tacky as opposed to the more authentic and “real” Troy and Gabriella. I’m sure the script also makes them into meanies. But it makes no damn sense to root against these guys. This is a stage show: Having a boisterous presence is a GOOD thing.
I won’t get carried away, but this is the type of fun pop I was hoping for.
Track 4: “What I’ve Been Looking For (Reprise)”
The Troy and Gabriella version ballad-ize the song with a clean production that further emphasize the elastic charm of the underlying composition. This isn’t quite as much enjoyable as the original, but I get it. High School Musical emphasized that the vibe of slow and expressive = authentic and better, while upbeat, showy, and fun = bad. I completely disagree, but I at least recognize the sentiment. At least we get respectable takes from both the fun and emotive angles — always cool.
Track 5: “Stick to the Status Quo”
Hey, an honest-to-goodnes showtune — full of rich choral harmonies and dramatic heft! I think it’s safe to say that there’s more happening in this track than everything that has led up to it combined. And, like any great theater number, this is full of life and character moments: In highlighting conflicted side characters, the track emerges with some real personality to complement the catchy arrangement. (I certainly think of this song whenever I hear the words “crème brûlée.”) A winner.
Track 6: “When There Was Me and You”
Blandzilla. I usually enjoy this type of longing number. Ostensibly, this fills the “Hopelessly Devoted to You” role, but Vanessa Hudgens’ best efforts, while admirable, are at best 25% of peak Olivia Newton-John. This track isn’t quite as bad as “The Start of Something New,” but it’s just as uninteresting.
Track 7: “Bop to the Top”
In 2017, High School Musical‘s use of over-exaggerated Latin music affectation as shorthand for hammy silliness comes across as borderline racist (certainly caricatured). That said, Good Lord, is this song fun. What more do you want out of a upbeat singalong than “gimme gimme, shimmy shimmy” and a soaring chorus?
I’ll repeat: Judging by the soundtrack alone, there’s no way that anyone other than Sharpay and Ryan deserved the play’s lead roles. #wildcatgate
Track 8: “Breaking Free”
I gotta admit……… the 2006 nostalgia is strong in this track for me. I’m too swept up into my fond memories of the time (despite the fact that my freshman year of college sucked) to honestly judge whether this is a good pop song. But I’m going to do it anyways, and say yes, this song is good! Romantic duets get an automatic bump, and where the simplistic harmonies drag, the chorus is actually pretty rousing. Sharpay and Ryan still deserved the parts, but, again, I get it. Bland production be damned, “Breaking Free” is a winner even before you add in the Smash Mouth.
Track 9: “We’re All in This Together”
I will always click on links related to Mr. Rogers; The “wholesome memes” subreddit is one of my most-frequented forums on the web; This video of a dancing German Shepard is one of my favorite entries on YouTube.
In other words: I’m a sap. A softy.
I don’t deny it, and I firmly embrace ridicule for it. But the truth is, I like nice and friendly things. I like movies and worlds that make me smile and want to hang out with them.
In short, I like “We’re All in This Together!” and a large part of that is because it’s just so damn smiley and upbeat. I know all kid-oriented media must conclude with a mantra-ized positive message, nuance and complexity be damned, but this is a great and sweeping closer. I especially love how the song integrates in cheerleader chants, adding lots of lighthearted energy.
And then there’s this:
I pray that I find something to commit myself to the way that Lucas Grabeel dedicates himself to rocking a velvet red fedora and pumping his hips in response to his character being named the understudy to dopey-faced, can’t-sing Zac Efron.
Ryan is the hero we need, not the hero we deserve.
I would vote for Ryan for President of the United States based on this gif alone.
If anyone provides me with this outfit, I will not only wear it every Halloween for the rest of my life, but will also wear it every Monday for the rest of the year, and next year too. Everybody needs a little bit of spirit to start the week.
Track 10: I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You
I’ve never heard this song before in my life. Is this in the movie?
Track 11: Get’cha Head in the Game (by B5)
A bad composition is not a good song regardless of whether a skillful pop group performs it. But that’s an irrelevant digression because, if this performance is to be judged, B5 is about as far from “skillful” as their lazy name would suggest.
I counted four tracks I actually enjoyed this time around. So, is High School Musical‘s soundtrack still worth a listen? Four tracks is a better hit rate than many pop albums. But I ultimately cannot recommend this as a standalone listen, unlike some of the truly great musical soundtracks that traffic in pop songs (Newsies, Grease).
Of course, nostalgia is the trump card here. If you have fond memories of this music and this bizarre little pocket of youth culture, you probably don’t need my encouragement. Bop your-damn-self right to the top. Enjoy it, quasi-ironic or not.