On the Transformative Power of High School Musical -The Toast

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In late 2008 I thought Zac Efron had a weird plastic mannequin face and my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV brain cancer. Three months later, I still thought Zac Efron had a weird plastic mannequin face and my mother was dead.

This isn’t the cancer essay or the dead parent essay; for those, may I direct you to the rest of the internet and also to a considerable part of contemporary literature? Fuck cancer, as the t-shirts say, and your parents will all eventually die, as the far less popular line of t-shirts say. My mom was my best friend and hero and died after a short and horrific illness, and that sucked. I found comfort in some of the classic standbys of the grieving, like blowing the life insurance settlement on having food made of different varieties of cheese delivered to me to be eaten in my bed in the dark, and also by blowing the life insurance settlement on expensive and exotic booze. Mom would have approved of both of those things, I figured.

My friends had been very supportive during my mother’s illness and my mourning process, serving as shoulders to cry on when I wanted to cry, and providers of pictures of kittens and stupid internet videos when I wanted to think about something other than death for a little bit. And that is how I came to watch the video for Bet On It from High School Musical 2 somewhere between eight and a million times.

“Bet On It”, as you can clearly see (go back and watch the video if you didn’t, this is important), is entirely ridiculous. Zac Efron, weird plastic mannequin face Zac Efron, is running around a golf course filled with righteous anger and teenage discontent, the kind that can only be expressed through dance, hitting golf balls, and throwing sand around. You don’t need context to enjoy “Bet On It.” Zac Efron is so upset he has to sing! He is so angry at that sand! Ugh, I hate you, sand! This is what Zac Efron is thinking in “Bet On It”, before he challenges the listener one last time to bet against his youthful determination and belief in himself.

At some point while drunk on absinthe (very likely Marilyn Manson’s brand, ‘Mansinthe,’ which is surprisingly good), I decided that anything done while drunk on absinthe automatically became subversive. Somewhere around the 300th viewing of the “Bet On It video” (or perhaps the Pokemon version, for variety), my path became clear: I would get tooted up on absinthe and watch High School Musical. I fired up the torrents and went to the liquor store.

My first reaction on seeing Zac Efron’s beautiful plastic mannequin face, his 19-year-old larvally handsome face, starting to sing with darling nymph Vanessa Hudgens in the first scene of the movie was to laugh. Oh, goodness, we two beautiful teens who have never met before are pushed onto the karaoke stage together! Oh, what fortune that we sing so beautifully and can spontaneously harmonize with each other! Now, I’m not a stranger to the suspension of disbelief required by musicals — one of the major bonding activities with my mom when I was a kid had been watching endless musicals. I looked at these two fresh-faced kids, possibly grown in some lab deep beneath the Magic Kingdom, and could do nothing but laugh in a combination of incredulity and delight. It was the start of something new.

I kept pouring absinthe into myself, but as the movie went on I was becoming less subversive with every dance number. I’d never been good at enjoying things ironically; how could I bring any shitty hipster attitudes into something that took itself completely seriously? Sincerity pours out of every line and note in High School Musical. Those kids might have secretly rolling their eyes before snorting lines off of Lucas Grabeel’s pert bottom behind the scenes, but they had me buying into this world presented on screen, a New Mexico high school full of a (statistically unlikely) diverse student body where the greatest concerns facing them were the idea that a gamine jock and a charming pixie of a math nerd might want to buck the status quo and sing. A basketball player whose greatest secret is that he bakes! A chubby nerd who has hidden her love of hip-hop dance! A Disney-sanitized version of a stoner who no one knows plays the cello! My wounded heart couldn’t resist such simple sweetness; this was the medicine I desperately needed. I was acquiring High School Musicals 2 and 3 before the credits even rolled.

(A note to the RIAA or FDA or whoever is watching Pirate Bay: I have since paid good money for DVD versions of these movies. And the soundtracks. Kenny Ortega rests his head on a pillow stuffed with life insurance money. I learned my lesson about downloading movies, which will appear a few paragraphs from now.)

I will admit I don’t remember High School Musical 2 very well. I’d had a lot of absinthe when I watched that one, which is the only of the trilogy I’ve only seen once, and most of it is a beautiful green haze. I’m still not entirely certain why Zac Efron was so angry at that sand, but I am absolutely certain that Ryan and Chad are definitely in love. I prefer not to get too subtextual with High School Musicals, since that counteracts my desired simple and sincere interaction with them, but come on. They exchanged outfits.

But, since we are on the topic of implied homosexuality, let’s dig a little into that rainbow. You obviously can’t make a movie about high school musicals without dancing Fosse-style around some gayness — or at least if you could, your high school drama department had a very different demographic makeup than mine did. The metaphor is easy to slip into in the first movie: we must let no one know about our secret activities and relationships! The climax of the movie is a coming out scene. Troy Bolton stands, garbed in the purest white track suit, and admits before his sweaty jock friends and his hot dad that yes, he’s a jock and a singer. The song is even called “Breaking Free.”

To say Ryan Evans is coded gay is an understatement. He’s basically the personification of a discarded purple feather boa floating peacefully on top of a pile of foam party bubbles. His code name when getting into shenanigans with his sister Sharpay in the second movie is ‘Jazz Square.’ We know that Ryan is our high school gay boyfriend, the one you all fall in love with in drama club but no one ever gets to date, the one where when you find him on Facebook ten years later and his profile says ‘Interested in: Men’ you realize how weird it is that you’re surprised. He’s a caricature, but so is everyone, and his fabulousness isn’t mean-spirited; it’d be crueler to have a movie about high school drama activities and not have a boy like Ryan.

But we must let Ryan (and whatever feelings Chad has for him that he sublimates through trying to refuse to dance) exit dramatically stage left and turn to the ladies of East High. Sweet, tiny, piano-playing Kelsi (who composes all of the musicals, because one must presume all of East High’s budget goes to strobe lights for the basketball court with none left over for the licensing fee for Pippen) gives off a cute little baby lesbian vibe, in her precious Diane Keaton ties and hats, and the way that the fella she gets her duets and dances with is Ryan. God, I love a lavender marriage.

Now, the Bechdel Test is not the be-all and end-all of determining a movie’s quality, but the High School Musical series frequently passes it. My particular favorite instances are when Gabriella and her best friend, the type-A Taylor, both women of color, get some nice sit-down time together to talk about how Sharpay is a pink and blonde ball of high school danger. And Sharpay is. I have to be careful here, because I could write an entire book just about the power of Sharpay. It is honestly a crime that Sharpay (and Ashley Tisdale, I suppose) hasn’t risen to the pantheon of gay diva icons. She is a diamond cupcake full of razor blades, and if there aren’t some drag queens out there somewhere doing versions of “I Want It All,” they need to get the hell on it. And though Sharpay’s role as antagonist may have her occasionally seeming to try to steal Gabriella’s man, all Sharpay really cares about is success, attention, and occasionally home-baked cookies. Sharpay doesn’t need a romantic partner; there is none that could reach her standards. No one in East High has the balls to be Sharpay’s man. Sometimes I daydream that Sharpay is a beautiful lesbian queen bee, deigning to do dance numbers with her twin brother and tending to her purse dog, who is very legitimately and actually named ‘Boi.’

I have deeply digressed. High School Musical 2, for all of its sand tantrums and first kisses, is just the edge of too self-aware for it to serve the same medicinal purpose as the others. High School Musical 3, though, is the big game, the big show: graduation day. I wasn’t even drunk when I watched it; I was too invested, too genuinely wrapped up in seeing how all of this wrapped up. I forgot about the pains of my life as I watched Zac Efron — who had really grown into his plastic mannequin face by that point — scream his torment as basketballs rained down upon him and he slid around a spinning hallway set like a gym-shorts-wearing Jamiroquoi. I’d only been in East High’s grip for a week or so, but the pleasure I got at seeing plot threads satisfactorily concluded was the most honest and real good feeling I’d had since I’d gotten that terrible phone call from my brother in October of 2008.

I mean, we get to see Troy and Gabriella really kiss! Beautifully and perfectly and I kick my feet and squeal every damn time. We finally get to watch the high school musical! The people I’d told about my High School Musical journey had all agreed: it was pretty fucked up you didn’t get to see the high school musical in High School Musical. High School Musical 3 ends with fifteen minutes of glorious show-within-a-show medley. Just like Adaptation! (I haven’t seen Adaptation.)

Once I’d completed the High School Musical saga those movies became a part of my routine, a part of the cycle of grief. More than once I would be spending time with friends at my place, all good fun times, until I hit that ounce too much of wine or got reminded of the wrong thing or heard the wrong song and became nothing but a puddle of tears and ache. “What can we do to help?” my friends would say. “Let’s watch High School Musical,” I would say. “Okay,” they would say, using an interesting new pronunciation of “God damn it, I hoped you wouldn’t say that.”

Did you know that the High School Musical DVDs have auto-play mode? Designed for parents so their kids can shove it into the DVD player and not have to worry about finding the menu selection that makes it go. Did you know the High School Musical DVDs also have a mode where it will play just the musical numbers and nothing else? Did you know that I once rewound and watched the part where Chad and Troy spin each other in mid-air six times while in a sobbing heap? Did you know one of the DVDs contains a special feature where you can learn the choreography to one of the musical numbers, and that I attempted to learn this while drunk and in my 8′ by 8′ bedroom? All of it is entirely true.

As I surrendered myself to the comforts of synthesizer-based auto-tuned tween delights, I grew to have a great fondness for that weird plastic mannequin face and the young man it was attached to. Zac Efron was quite a little talent and charmer! Around this time his movie 17 Again was released in theaters. I wanted to see it, but I still had shame in my heart, as a 27-year-old woman who had a crush on Zac Efron would naturally feel. I couldn’t ask any of my friends to go see it with me, and I definitely couldn’t go see it by myself, so I naturally went to the torrents and attempted to download it. Of course, you should never ever download a movie that is currently in theaters, I know now, because you will end up with a computer-crippling virus that will take $300 to repair. I learned not to be ashamed or try to hide the things I love the day I handed over some more life insurance money for that. 17 Again, for the record, is an unsung, delightful comedy, even if you are forced to believe that anything could ever happen to Zac Efron’s beautiful elf face that would make him turn into Matthew Perry.

I was emerging from this experience, the warm cocoon of High School Musical and the shimmery embrace of Zefron’s bangs, as a changed woman. I now refused to be ashamed of or try to hide things I loved just because they were ridiculous. And at its heart, High School Musical is deeply, profoundly ridiculous. There’s nothing real there. It’s shallow pap made to please barely formed human pupae. It’s a money factory for Disney. Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens were probably in some contractual romance to better sell lunchboxes and sticker sets. The songs were surely written in an afternoon, and the whole concept was likely born on the back of an envelope. No one ever even managed to think of a better title than High School Musical. High School Musical is cultural flotsam.

My mother’s been dead almost five years now. It doesn’t hurt every day like it did back when I needed my regular trips to East High, but it still hurts. That’s a pain that doesn’t ever go away. When it rises up again, though, well, I get my head in the goddamn game. Mom would’ve loved these damn movies and would have had some fabulous embarrassing obscene thing to say about Zac Efron and his weird beautiful plastic wonderful mannequin face that I would kiss all over. It breaks my heart I never got to watch it with her, but I know that when I watch it, I’m part made of her. We’re all in this together.

Whitney Reynolds lives in Brooklyn and can be found on Twitter @whitneyarner.

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