To say that the movie musical dominated my youth would be an understatement. I wore the High School Musical merch. I absolutely flipped my lid when I found out my L.A.-based uncle working in the music industry had seen Zac Efron (“17 Again”) and Vanessa Hudgens (“Tick Tick Boom”) eating lunch mere tables away from him. I longed for weekends when my dad would leave town on business and my mother, sister and I, per tradition, would get Steak ’n Shake from the drive thru and watch “Hairspray.” Even in my young adult life, I made “Lemonade Mouth” a mandatory viewing for all of my friends. These films not only entertained me but slowly radicalized me — if, of course, being a “radical” means that you believe in equity.
Some people are the adventurous type, deriving a thrill from new things. Me, I take comfort in routine. So, in late 2006, when my grandparents arrived in town with a “High School Musical” DVD in hand, I refused to even consider watching it for at least a week. Eventually, I agreed to give it a shot, and about an hour and a half later faced the anticipated question: “What did you think?” At this juncture, I had two options. I could lie and say I hated it or confess the worst: The adults were, in fact, right. I couldn’t contain my joy enough to lie, so an era was born. I collected t-shirts, CDs, anything “High School Musical” I could get my hands on. Meanwhile, through numerous rewatches, I internalized the show’s messages. One was its propagation of compulsory heterosexuality, which I could have done without, but at its core, “High School Musical” also communicated that the arts are “not a want, but a need.”
Though the struggle to maintain the relevancy of the arts in schools was somewhat understated in favor of the love story of the early 2000s’ most iconic duo, the arts were instrumental in that story. Without one fateful night of karaoke, the movie’s central couple may never have gotten together. Throughout the film, I saw Gabriella (Hudgens) be told that her involvement in the arts detracted from her intelligence. Meanwhile, Troy Bolton (Efron) faced cruel and quietly manipulative behavior from his teammates because of his love of the arts, and Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed, “Love is Love is Love”) struggled to convince Coach Bolton (Bart Johnson, “Once I was Engaged”) that the drama department could offer his son a joy basketball couldn’t.
“This school,” she shouted at the basketball coach, “is about more than young men in baggy shorts flinging balls for touchdowns!” I didn’t take shelter in her words because I needed them, by any means. Frankly, I was a much better athlete than I ever would be a singer. But “High School Musical” told me that if I wanted to, I could be both, and that the arts could bring me a certain fulfillment that sports might not. I might never have guessed that I would be here, spending my college career discussing art with all of you, but “High School Musical” certainly convinced me that it was something worth talking about and something that everyone should have uninhibited access to.
Following the release of fruity sophomore addition “High School Musical 2,” the world of movie musicals repackaged a true classic: “Hairspray.” Without this movie, my life certainly would not be the same. When the movie hit theaters, I was 6 years old and my sister was 3, which our father thought was far too young to begin conversations about racial politics.
I am forever thankful that my mother disagreed. As long as racism continues to plague our society, dealing consequences on the lives of children of Color before they’re even born and throughout their lives, white kids are never too young to learn about it. “High School Musical,” I suppose, tried to be progressive in its own way. Only two thirds of the main cast was white, instead of all of them, but “High School Musical” had no interest in unpacking structural inequalities.
In “Hairspray,” however, the realities of racial discrimination took center stage. This conversation did not situate itself in the academic realm at all; arts versus sports or arts versus academics was not part of the equation. “Hairspray” only presented the arts, in this case dance, as something that you could enjoy at the expense of an education, rather than as part of it. However, this conversation about the arts emphasized that the arts shouldn’t belong only to skinny white people, which, despite Tracy’s (Nikki Blonsky, “Geography Club”) fictional success on WYZT, remains an issue today. A television network might not overtly prohibit you from dancing because of your race, but your race will still determine your treatment on that network and the obstacles you face on your way there. Still, “Hairspray” taught my sister and me that equity is a goal worth fighting for, in the arts as well as every other avenue, and that we had an important responsibility to use our platform to amplify the voices of others in the struggle for liberation.
“High School Musical” crafted a more subtle message about funding the arts, and “Hairspray” focused on body image and racial discrimination whilst (unfortunately) harboring a slight white savior narrative. “Lemonade Mouth,” however, took an explicit approach to communicating its position on the arts and authority, going quiet on racial politics in the storyline despite offering the most diverse main cast of these films. In this way, “Lemonade Mouth” is like so many other films of the late aughts-present: Diversity is meant to be celebrated, but the material inequalities it brings are not to be discussed. In most other ways, the film defied convention, choosing to tackle the issue of “question(ing) authority,” capitalism and arts funding head on. Like “High School Musical,” the film is situated at a high school that values sports over the arts, but all aspects of conflict are dialed up to a ten. TurboBlast (the Gatorade of fictional Colorado?) pours money into the school’s athletics and infrastructure at the expense of the arts, and our outspoken “ragtag group of five” faces not only intimidation from their peers but threats from their administration. The band’s commitment to art and demand for increased funding not only threatens the TurboBlast brand deal, but more importantly the status quo.
I can’t think of another time a megacorporation produced a film, much less a kid’s film, in which the heroes defy authority to such an extent (and, because of their money-hungry TurboBlast enthusiast principal authority figure, capitalism by extension). This is a Disney movie where the heroes go to jail (for staging a micro-protest in their support of a family-owned business). Despite some of these rough patches, the band achieved arts-athletics equity at Mesa High. I saw not only that equity was worth fighting for but was also convinced that it could be done, if you really committed to revolution. Sure, things ultimately fell into place remarkably well for the band, but “Lemonade Mouth” still provided a playbook (albeit a relatively rudimentary and partially unrealistic one) for resistance. I think if we mounted the kind of resistance that Stella (Hayley Kiyoko, “Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster”) did in our schools, communities and journalistic organizations, we might not win over the administration for the picture-perfect happy ending that “Lemonade Mouth” had, but the world would certainly be a better place, full of even more beautiful art.
So if you think that the arts deserve just as much love and resources as sports, news or any other category or section; if you think that everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or any other factor, should get what they need to survive and thrive, I’ve got news for you: You just might be a little bit “radical.” And personally, I’ve got the movie musicals of my childhood to thank for it.
TV Beat Editor Emmy Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.