Live: High School Musical Runs the World

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They're all in this together

High School Musical: The Concert
Continental Airlines Arena
January 8, 2006

If there were any actual high schoolers in the crowd at the Continental Airlines Arena for the High School Musical concert last night, I didn't see them. I'm not good at guessing this stuff, but I'd say that most of the girls who screamed all through the show and who outnumbered the boys by something like fifteen to one hadn't yet hit double-digits; high school is still a distant fantasy-world for these kids. The venue was sold out or close to it, even though those seats cost these kids and their parents $58.50 plus service charges. That's not really a shock, though; the High School Musical soundtrack sold more copies than any other album last year, outselling Rascal Flatts, their closest competition, by about 400,000. It's a powerful reminder about the spending power of children who haven't yet discovered illegal downloading; these kids are basically running the music industry these days. They're also making me feel like a total creepshow. I might not be the only unaccompanied grown-up at the show tonight, but I sure feel like it. I forgot my notepad, so I'm hunched over in my chair scribbling notes on the wax-paper wrapper of the Auntie Anne's pretzel I bought at Port Authority before jumping on the bus to East Rutherford. I can feel these kids' parents' eyes boring into me all night.

But my presence doesn't seem to bother the mobs of seven-year-old girls surrounding me. Not a lot seems to bother these kids. Zac Efron, the movie's male lead, is off in Toronto filming a part in Hairspray, so the show's producers just replace him with some other guy, and none of the kids in the crowd seem to mind at all. Drew Seely, the replacement Zac, even gets a chance to sing his own Disney Channel hit, "Dance With Me," in a particularly bald bit of synergy. Synergy is everywhere: Jordan Pruitt, another Disney Channel star-in-training, opens the show with a solo set that includes a fanatically upbeat cover of "We Are Family," and TV screens everywhere show videos of Disney sales behemoths like Hannah Montana and the Cheetah Girls. Three of High School Musical's stars get chances to perform songs from their new solo albums, and Corbin Bleu, the movie's Afroed sidekick, does a song from Jump In, his own new Disney Channel vehicle. Some of the night's biggest cheers come for the constant teasers of High School Musical 2, coming summer 2007!

Disney has done a pretty amazing job creating its own hermetically sealed pop-music universe. Back in the day, people like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera had to leave the Disney fold to become titanic pop stars. Now, these kids occupy their own closed-off star-system, using TV movies as stunningly successful launching pads for albums that'll get heavy play on Radio Disney and sell a ton of copies without ever needing to cross over to mainstream pop radio. Disney-pop doesn't sound like anything except itself. Other than the "We Are Family" cover, the songs barely acknowledge any music that might exist outside the Disney universe. Lucas Gabreel, who played the henchman brother of the movie's blonde villain and who hosts the night by stringing all the solo mini-sets together with weird interview segments, compares Corbin Bleu to Michael Jackson, and one of Bleu's songs has a Supertramp sample or something, but that's it. Outside of High School Musical's enormous prepubescent cult audience, most people couldn't pick these singers out of a lineup, but they're huge stars here.

Musically, these stars' solo sets don't are all pretty much the same. Ashley Tisdale has a slight Nelly Furtado harshness to her technopop, and Vanessa Anne Hudgens' big single has a vaguely Diwali rhythm track, but they're all working near-identical variations of the sugary Europop that Disney's labs crank out with frightening efficiency. And these kids are total professionals. It's tough to know when they're actually singing and when they're lip-syncing, especially since they often pull the weirdly redundant stunt of singing into handheld mics and headset mics simultaneously. But they all pull off crisp dance moves without ever breaking a sweat or losing their blinding perma-smiles. In his mini-set, Corbin Bleu stage-boxes his backup dancers, jumps rope, twirls a baton, and pretends to play drums; he's like an entertainment android or something. During their interview bits, Bleu and his castmates reveal all sorts of illuminating information, like how excited they were the first time they heard their songs on the radio and how they can't believe all this is happening to them. There's a band on the stage's unlit back-riser, even though the show wouldn't be much different if the singers performed to backing tapes; the performers make sure to shout out every band member by name between songs. The show unfolds like clockwork, all leading up to the big final number where sparks shower the stage and a huge cloud of confetti shoots over the audience.

The whole show couldn't possibly be more planned-out or test-marketed, but every kid I see leaving the arena after the show is smiling. And it makes sense: they've all just been treated to their own pop-music spectacle, a thoroughly professional circus of beats and riffs and smiles and lights that's all been staged just for them. The mad scientists behind High School Musical and its accompanying Disney empire understand something about pop-music that pop musicians sometimes forget: when it's done with energy and hooks and eager professionalism, it can reduce arenas full of kids to screaming ecstasy. High School Musical is making a few people rich, and it's making millions more extremely happy. When everything goes according to plan, that's what pop music does.

Voice review: Mikael Wood on the High School Musical soundtrack



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