Friday, December 14, 2007

THE PHENOMENON FORMULA: High School Musical and Hannah Montana

Almost every article that discusses High School Musical or "Hannah Montana" touches on this question: why the hell are these so popular? These two seemingly unremarkable pieces of Disney entertainment have become genuine phenomena, and most people are utterly baffled by their success. I approached my research basically asking that question over and over again: Why do you like it? Why do you think it was so successful? I was desperately trying to discover some secret ingredient to its success, in hopes of zeroing in on it and analyzing it individually (hopefully posing some controversial question about sex, religion, or money). But after surveying strangers of different age groups, interviewing Disney execs and tween media tycoons, posting questions on heated forums, talking with my mom and ranting to my friends, no individual factor emerged as the clear winner. Everyone had different, incomplete answers, and most of the people who responded seem unsure or hesitant. Why? Because no one really knows.

So I poured through all my research, read more articles, and watched High School Musical and several episodes of "Hannah Montana" again. After letting it all sink in, I realized something that I’m sure most kids already know: there is no individual feature that has squeezed into the hearts of millions. There is an extremely calculated formula (concocted by a very brilliant company) and “a little bit of magic.”

Thus, I decided that the most worthwhile use of my time would be to try to make sense of this formula, and luckily the ones used in High School Musical and "Hannah Montana" are almost identical. Just to be clear, the two works are actually quite different in many ways. High School Musical (HSM) premiered two months before "Hannah Montana" as a Disney Channel Original Movie, whereas "Hannah Montana" (HM) is a sitcom. New episodes premiere on Friday nights, but Disney repeats episodes each night at 7pm. The fact that the formats are different is somewhat important, because TV shows have staying power while movies usually do not. Also, although they are both ‘musical’ pieces of entertainment, HSM is a traditional musical format (in which viewers must suspend reality while characters break out into song spontaneously), while HM is performance-based. She sings because she is a pop star. Finally, HSM is an ensemble cast and Hannah Montana is a solo act (she has friends but they are no Hannah Montana).

And yet, their success is related. On a literal level, because Disney always does a lot of cross-promotion, but also because they were successful for essentially very similar reasons. Those reasons are: stars with iconic appeal + simplicity and wholesomeness + layers of awareness + catchy songs with a pop sensibility + a marketing campaign that created an experience = phenomena. The explanation is a bit lengthy, so bear with me.

STARS: When I asked VP of Original Movies Michael Healy why he thought High School Musical saw so much success, in comparison with all the other Disney Channel original movies, he said “I think first and foremost it was that cast... I think if these had been actors and actresses who were very skilled but didn’t have that extra something that Zac Efron has and that Ashley has, I think it might have been successful, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful.” That ‘extra something’ that Healy mentions is a combination of silliness and offbeat good looks. Angie Diersman, photo editor of Tiger Beat Magazine, mused “I think Zac was a big pull for it. You know all the kids-- well, all the girls-- want to look at somebody cute.”

Hannah Montana has the same iconic qualities. Miley Cyrus, who plays Hannah Montana/Miley Stewart, is extremely dynamic, and is supported by a cast of energetic, good-looking young teens. But there is something more there than good looks and a little bit of talent. Disney has made an effort to make these characters, as well as the actors that play them, appear really regular. In a 2006 Boston Globe article studying the "Hannah Montana" phenomenon, Adam Bonnett, the head of Original Programming at Disney Channel, explains that “the mandate is to place ordinary, accessible kids in extraordinary circumstances” (Weiss 2006). This seems an accurate comment, and can be applied to every program currently on the Disney Channel, especially "Hannah Montana." Miley Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, a regular girl who leads a secret life as a popstar. As Miley Stewart, she is goofy, awkward, and deals with all the same problems that regular girls do. As Hannah Montana she is classy and confident. You can see this dichotomy in the theme song video for the show.
The lyric in the pre-chorus is “Whoever thought that a girl like me / Would double as a superstar?” This line emphasizes her normalcy, just ‘a girl like me’, and her character on the show plays to that extreme. I mean, she has a braces lisp, for god’s sake! What is more normal (and nerdy) than that? Editor-in-chief of Tiger Beat Leesa Coble stated it eloquently in our interview: “When you hear her talk or when you see her, she feels really tangible.”

WHOLESOMENESS: In the same Boston Globe article, Syracuse professor Robert Thompson is sited as saying of Disney, “They’re essentially taking what their old franchise was, which is just squeaky clean innocent naive kinds of things, but updating them with the iconography of modern youth” (Weiss 2006). This naive cleanliness clearly appeals to parents because they can feel comfortable with their kids watching it. There is no mention of sex, drugs, and violence in High School Musical nor "Hannah Montana." They just simply don’t exist at East High or Malibu High, and if they do exist, they are entirely irrelevant. In internet debates called things like “Who thinks Hannah Montana sucks?” people who defend her generally call her a ‘good role model.' Healy explains of HSM, “I think that it was about something that kids responded to, which is, wouldn’t it be great if high school were the kind of place where all the problems could be solved with a song.” This is comforting to kids of all age groups, whether or not they are familiar with the realities of high school. 15-year-old HSM fan Julia said in her survey, “It makes you feel like everything is perfect.”

The ‘perfection’ of High School Musical stems out of its simplicity. It is perhaps one of the most straightforward, clich├ęd, predictable storylines in Hollywood, but oddly enough, that is part of its beauty. Julia’s friend Abby said “I like that it is easy to follow.” When I asked 10-year-old Katie who her favorite character was, she responded “Gabriella, she makes everything simple.” The storyline revolves around a jock and a smartie that realize they want to audition for the school musical, but-- oh no! That is not their place in the high school social scene. The song “Stick to the Status Quo” epitomizes that theme, and the unambiguous nature of the entire movie’s message.
The musical revolves around this conflict: It is better by far to keep things as they are. Don't mess with the flow, no no. I don’t want to ruin the end for you, but I will: The nerds and the jocks try to break up Gabriella and Troy to set things right in the school again, but eventually they realize their mistake and get them back together. Then, Gabriella and Troy overcome several obstacles to make it to the audition and snab the lead roles, later winning both the basketball game and the academic decathlon. "Hannah Montana" has a similar predictability in that each episode, Miley gets in trouble because she does something silly, and then through her actions, proceeds to learn a lesson about family or friendship. This simplicity is attractive, comforting, and a huge part of the appeal.

AWARENESS LEVELS: In the above video, you also get a sense of the absurdity of the entire concept of High School Musical. In this number, the ensemble is essentially singing about how they are appalled that basketball star Troy wants to be in a musical when he is the basketball captain. And to do so, they break into song. This absurdity is amplified in HSM2 in a singing and dancing number entitled "I Don't Dance." This nonreality is somewhat expected in musicals, because viewers are asked to suspend disbelief. "Hannah Montana", on the other hand, retains an even greater absurdity because the show is supposed to operate entirely within reality. And according to the laws of reality, a blonde wig is not sufficient to hide one’s true identity from her entire school (including her best friends for a while).

This absurdity is a very important element of both because it does not register to those below the age of , say, eleven. The concepts make complete sense to kids and they do not think to question it. However, the teenagers or parents who wander in while their kids are watching, pick up on it immediately, and this is essentially a make-or-break factor in determining whether someone outside the age range will like it. If someone appreciates ridiculousness, they will immediately be drawn to both High School Musical and "Hannah Montana."

An anonymous user on Yahoo! Answers says “It’s pure cheese. Sometimes its fun to watch something that is obviously making fun of itself.” However, the ridiculousness permeates High School Musical much more than "Hannah Montana", which might be one of the reasons why my survey responses indicated that "Hannah Montana" is not as popular among the college or older high school crowd. It has the initial absurd concept, and the show is a comedy, but the jokes are all on one level, geared towards tweens. High School Musical, on the other hand, has a lot of ridiculous nuances, both intentional and unintentional, that older people latch onto. For instance, Ryan, the brother of the reigning drama queen and a theater lover himself, is generally accepted by everyone I know to be gay, and they find it adorable and hilarious. However, RIC Professor Jessica Sternfeld, who has done research on the subject, explains “Anecdotal evidence suggests that the movie's young fans don't particularly register this implication; chat rooms are full of girls talking about how cute Ryan is, and how great his voice his, and they even tease him about his fashion sense, but say nothing about his orientation” (Sternfeld 2007). There is also a moment in “Stick to the Status Quo” where one of the skater dudes seems clearly to be stoned, which is something that a person unfamiliar with the effects would not notice.

This quality is epitomized in HSM2 during the Troy’s solo number “Bet on It.” This “disaster/masterpiece” (coined by Nicole, 20) is often noted as an extremely funny number in the movie. In fact, there is a popular spoof on Youtube right now, "The Hills Are Alive with High School Musical.” Even when I interviewed Lisa Avent, who heads up licensing for TV products at Disney Channel, she brought up this number: “You know ‘Bet on It’? Now, when I first saw that, my son was with me... And [my friend] and I start laughing... My 10-year-old turns to me and goes ‘What are you laughing at?’ And we’re like ‘Nothing. Why?’.. Well it turned out that was his favorite thing. That meant something to him. That meant power... He’s letting go of all those things in the school, peer pressure... It was kind of cute because we were watching the same exact thing and we got something completely different out of it.” This idea of getting something different out of it differentiates HSM from previous Disney Channel Original Movies, and potentially has a lot to do with its broad appeal. No exec really wants to admit it, but a lot of people like it because “It’s so bad, it’s good” (Marcy, 20). On the other hand, if an HSM fan does not appreciate the initial absurdity of "Hannah Montana", there is not much to latch onto later.

CATCHY SONGS: Well, here’s the duh factor. The music in both High School Musical and "Hannah Montana" is very catchy. The songs are smoothly produced, and have mainstream pop appeal. If fans do not talk about the music first as a reason for liking HSM and HM, they will mention it second. The music is an extremely important aspect of both productions because both revolve around the concept of music itself. High School Musical is more about the performative aspects of it, in that the movie is about auditioning for a musical, while Hannah Montana balances creation, production, and performance (for she is a popstar in the modern recording world).

People familiar with traditional musicals have noted that the music in HSM is not broadway-esque. The music is very much inspired by contemporary pop, with minor hip hop influences in several tracks. This made the music itself extremely accessible to today’s youth. Because they were familiar with the style, they knew how to dance and sing along with it. However, the fact that it was a musical was very important. Another musical movie called The Cheetah Girls was released on Disney Channel in 2003. It saw success, but not nearly as much as HSM, and I imagine it had a lot to do with the fact that it was performance-based. User HSMfan1294 on Yahoo! Answers says “Musicals kind of faded out of the world for a little bit and when they brought it back, kids adored it.” It’s the classic animated Disney musical, updated with songs that no one can get out of their heads. The two videos I embedded above were not necessarily indicative of the HSM ‘sound’. “Stick to the Status Quo” sounded far more broadway-esque than any of the other songs, while “Bet On It” was a less inspired pop track from HSM2. For a sound more indicative of what most people think makes High School Musical great, check out “Breaking Free.”
It begins with a slow piano intro and hesitant, subdued vocals. The singers gain confidence throughout the verse. At the chorus, the drums enter and it erupts into a danceable pop song, still led melodically by the piano. And note the lyrics: “There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach.” Classic inspirational stuff. That’s what High School Musical is all about.

The music in "Hannah Montana" is quite possibly catchier than that in HSM, if that’s even possible. 9-year-old Berit wrote of Hannah Montana, “I like the singing the best. There isn't anything I don't like --- but I don't like her shows - I like her singing.” Although the music and the tv show are very much related, Berit proves that it is not essential to the enjoyment of the songs to see the context (where as with HSM songs, the performance is half the fun). Each episode of the show features at least one Hannah Montana song, often new to the character and the audience. After the song is first performed on the show, it essentially becomes Miley’s next new single. It’s a strange and artificial way to designate hits, but it works within the Disney culture and quickly spreads outward. Two thirds of my survey respondents said that “Nobody’s Perfect” was their favorite song, so it seems important to do an analysis.
The song begins with a melodic string section, over which Hannah/Miley quietly chants. Then drum machines and a heavily synth-ed keyboard enter and the chant gets louder: “Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days.” For the verse, strong, repetitive guitar chords lead the melody, and it mounts for the infectious chorus. It slows down for the bridge as she sings, “I know I mix things up, but I always get it right in the end.” This single lyric encapsulates the story of each episode.

THE EXPERIENCE: But as everyone knows, great music doesn’t popularize itself. One of Sternfeld’s most compelling points about High School Musical was that “They built an image, an experience, a world around the movie” (Sternfeld). This point is one that is often overlooked. People tend to think of all of the merchandising as an effect of success, rather than a cause. They assume that Disney observed the success of their creations and decided to squeeze as much money out of kids and tweens as possible by licensing games, jewelry, apparel, toys, and stationary. This is, of course, partially true, but the merchandising itself was a tool in boosting its popularity and solidifying this experience. Lisa Avent explains “The cross-divisional support behind it helped propel it to a level that was unlike any other.” Kids could brush their hair with brushes that said “I Love Troy,” play with Hannah Montana dolls, and eat High School Musical energy bars off Hannah Montana plates. My friends model some of the HSM merch below.

Not all of this experience-creation was after-the-fact. On only the second night of viewing (the day after the premiere), Disney had prepared a sing-along version, complete with lyrics scrolling the bottom of the screen. The next weekend they premiered the dance-along version, which consisted of HSM stars teaching the viewers some dance steps. Although Disney insists they did not anticipate the success, this footage was clearly prerecorded, and the assumption was that the kids would be interested. And they were. Within months, millions of kids had the song and dance moves down pat. For example, I choreographed an after school hip hop class for kids the spring after HSM premiered. One day I was out of ideas, so I borrowed one of the moves from an HSM dance. When I taught it to the kids, they immediately recognized it and could do it flawlessly.

But there are not just two individual experiences. The experience of High School Musical and "Hannah Montana" collide so often, it’s hard to differentiate them. Before "Hannah Montana" premiered, it was promoted during commercial breaks with competitive games between HSM stars and HM stars. Then, Miley Cyrus had a brief cameo in HSM2. After HSM2, an important episode of "Hannah Montana" premiered. In stores, the merchandise for each sit next to each other on the shelves. And, of course, most of the fans overlap. Disney has manufactured a culture that centers around these two phenomena.

But now that they have created this expansive, influential cultural experience, what have they done with it? They have millions of kids and tweens as putty in their hands, and a lot of people are worried about this. Yahoo! Answers user jeffeymartinez says “Some people are highly offended by all the positive publicity with knowing it's just another product to make money, with the morals in there only to make more profits.” Is this true? Are they taking advantage of their position and squeezing money out of the pockets of millions of children? Or perhaps are they manipulating people into adopting their set of Christian ‘family values’? Are they setting naive kids up for dangerous circumstances when they hit ‘reality’? Are they oversimplifying a complex and beautiful world that should not be simplified?

Maybe, and I think these questions are important to keep in mind. But my mom tells me, “most of the people I know at the Disney Channel really believe in what they’re doing and they want to create entertainment that is a positive force in kids’ lives.” So I think we’re safe for now.

See below for works cited.


Cotter, Bill. The Wonderful World of Disney Television. New York: Disney Enterprises, Inc., 1997.

Lowe (Ch. 4) in Music Scenes

Minks, Amanda. “Growing and Grooving to A Steady Beat: Pop Music in Fifth-Graders Social Lives.” Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol 31. (1999), pp. 77-101

Railton, Diane. “The Gendered Carnival of Pop.” Popular Music, Vol. 20, No. 3, Gender and Sexuality. (Oct., 2001), pp. 321-331.

Roberts, Johnnie. “Disney’s Star Machine.” Newsweek Business Magazine. (24 July 2006).

Siegel, David. Great Tween Buying Machine: Capturing Your Share of the Multi-Billion- Dollar Tween Market. Chicago, IL, USA: Dearborn Trade, A Kaplan Professional Company, 2004.

Sternfeld, Jessica. “We’re All in this Together: New Media, New Show Music, Youth Culture, and High School Musical.” AMS Meeting, Quebec City. November 2007).

Weiss, Joanna. “Disney taps wants, wallets of ’tweens.” Boston Globe. (6 November 2006).

“Why is Miley Cyrus so popular?” E! Online. (November 2007).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

See archives for updated survey responses

I just went back and added the four more survey responses I received after I published that post. [The new ones are Katie, Kendra, Marcy, and Nicole.] I wanted to keep them compiled for comparison. In the end, I got three responders from each age group, which isn't so bad considering the length of the survey and the fact that I did not directly know anyone involved (except for Marcy, 20). Although this is only a VERY small sampling of the people who are familiar with High School Musical and Hannah Montana, I think you get a distinct sense of the divergent perceptions in the different age brackets.

All of these responders were fairly positive about High School Musical (which was somewhat intentional, because I wanted to see why different qualities appealed to different age groups). However, I think the Yahoo! Answers responses were a little more indicative of a wider sampling of people, so check those if you want to see some 'haters'.

Here is the video from HSM2 "in which Zac Efron prances through a desert and sings to his reflection" that Marcy, Nicole, and Katie mention: