Thursday, February 19, 2009

Breaking the Status Quo: Confessions of a High School Musical Fan

I haven’t always been an East High enthusiast. Just a few years ago, if you had asked me, “What team?”, I certainly wouldn’t have responded, “Wildcats!” I heard about High School Musical shortly after its release, but I had absolutely no interest in pursuing it further. You see, I knew who the fans were: shrieking junior high girls. The fans of High School Musical wore lip gloss, smelled of fruit-infused lotions, and carried at least one “Hello, Kitty” accessory. They weren’t college graduates, they weren’t aspiring film critics, and above all, they weren’t men.

That was my reality in the Fall of 2006. I invited some guys over for an evening of epic battle board games, while my wife (fiancée at the time) spent the evening in the next room with a friend of ours watching a movie. Little did I know that destiny was taking a hand. The ladies watched High School Musical that night, and every ten minutes or so, I would get up from the game and go into the living room to see what they were laughing about. My fiancée and friend were cackling relentlessly over the cheesy lines and melodramatic dilemmas, and they assured me that I would not enjoy the film. Based on what I saw that night, my assumptions were confirmed. High School Musical and I didn’t have any future together, but unbeknownst to me, the seed had been planted.

More and more of my friends and acquaintances encouraged me to see it, if only to poke fun at the film’s shortcomings. I even found myself on occasion reciting phrases I had heard from the film, like, “Get’cha head in the game” or “This could be the start of something new.” Insiders lit up when I spoke their language and they wanted to discuss the film further, but I couldn’t. I felt like the American who went around Paris asking store clerks, “Ça va, aujourd’hui?” without knowing enough French to continue the conversation. I was a poser in over my head, and I needed to come clean and choose a side. After much thought, I settled on the perfect compromise. There were HSM fans and bashers in equal measures, so I resolved to keep a foot in each world simply by seeing the entire film, from start to finish. I would then be able to intelligently address both groups.

As my wife and I watched the film together, we had fun pointing out all the problems. There were clichés galore, cheesy exchanges, contrived situations, and emotional moments that just rang false. Even as I pointed my finger, I knew that my academic observations were inappropriate. I was only bashing the film because I thought I was supposed to, but I wasn’t ready to admit the deeper, more troubling truth: I was bashing the film to mask my secret admiration. The very traits I had mocked quickly become endearing, and I felt like I was back on the playground, pulling a cute girl’s pigtails. I had thoroughly enjoyed High School Musical, and now I was posing all over again, only this time, from the other side.

Over the following days, I found myself humming the songs, remembering how fun it all was. I knew I was becoming a fan, but I stared long and hard at my film collection: Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather ... as a serious film appreciator, how could I possibly add High School Musical to that shelf? My friends had no idea what was happening to me, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them. Coming out would call all of my values into question, but I had to be true to myself. I could no longer take Sharpay’s advice and just “stick with the status quo.” I had to follow Troy Bolton’s lead and get outside my comfort zone. If Troy could be a basketball superstar and sing in a school theater production, I could be a film appreciator with a love for High School Musical.

As it turned out, there were more serious movie buffs on the inside than I could have dreamed. When High School Musical 3 debuted in theaters and critics everywhere were forced to publish their opinions, the majority gave positive reviews. It was nice to know that I wasn’t alone. Why shouldn’t something so wholesome, cheesy, silly, and fun be seen and appreciated as the enjoyable entertainment that it is? I’m sure there are plenty of thirteen-year-old girls who actually think that it’s better than Shakespeare, but most fans that I’ve met understand the situation. We don’t have delusions about what High School Musical really is, but we’re not ashamed to acknowledge how enjoyable it is, either. We wink at each other even as we sing the songs.

I can’t help but wish that my high school had been more like East High. Students constantly build each other up, seeing their differences as strengths, rather than weaknesses. I know there are some (I was once among them) who wish the whole phenomenon had never come to pass, but I’ll always be grateful that something so lighthearted and morally-grounded became so popular. If you’re afraid to come out because of what people will think, know that there is safety in numbers: a whole Wildcat Community ready to welcome you home. If you’re on the other side, though, convinced that it’s not for you and as skeptical as I once was, I encourage you to just give it a chance. Start with a simple viewing in the comfort of your own home - it might just be “the start of something new.”

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