The Inherent Tragedy of High School Musical

Last week, I watched High School Musical for the first time. I know. According to the overwhelming consensus of my friends who grew up cheering for the Wildcats and hating Sharpay, I did not have a childhood. Unsurprisingly, I loved…hating the movie. The plot is derivative and meandering. The acting is amateurish and unconvincing. Even the significant charms of Zac Efron’s dimples cannot save us from his puppy-dog earnestness.  But he is so conflicted, my friends protest when I complain about his acting. I interpreted the same scenes as Troy suffering from a mild stomachache. Thus, there is no point in seriously analyzing High School Musical. Sometime in the first decade of my life, a train of adoration passed me by and I will never have a chance to board it. There are some pleasures that are restricted to specific periods of our life. In the case of this movie, it was probably during the span of time before I read Romeo and Juliet, before I had any comprehension of story structure or character construction. It was when I could appreciate a plot where Troy and Gabriella’s friends cause more damage than the ‘antagonists’. It was probably a more care-free time. Alas, it is inaccessible now.

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I envy the people who can return to that point in their lives endlessly through the lens of this movie. They gain as much enjoyment from the candy-coated plot as when they first watched it. It is a sheer joy that my cynical heart secretly envies. Many of my childhood loves seem to have aged particularly badly, transforming before my eyes into reductive clichés. It makes me reluctant to return to any of those shows that I enjoyed in the past, even things that I have watched more recently. It is simply impossible to recapture the initial shock of The Good Place season one finale or the devastation of every Bojack Horseman episode. These, too, were shows that were specific to one moment, one place. Would I have enjoyed them if I had watched them in different circumstances? Probably not. There was a unique chemistry to each moment, each element contributing to the perfect emotional reaction. Yet, although I cannot replicate those feelings, media allows me to recall them in flawless detail. In this era, we are allowed to endlessly visit the past. We do not even need to wait for reruns. All we need is a Netflix account or a friend generous enough with theirs.  Then, we can shamelessly watch the things that have touched our hearts before. For me, it wasn’t High School Musical. But it was SpongeBob and Avatar: The Last Airbender and even Arthur. I can remember the moment that I fell in love with all these things and I can feel a faint echo of it all these years later. I am glad that my friends can watch Troy and Gabriella and collapse into the long-sold sofa of their childhoods. I guess I will have to settle for simmering disgust instead.

For Nostalgia’s Sake

Don Draper, in one of the defining scenes of Mad Men, described nostalgia as ‘the pain from an old wound’. An ad-man to his core, Don, of course, misrepresents the truth. Nostalgia truly means ‘the affliction of homecoming’. However, I think both interpretations contain a similar significance. Nostalgia is something that nags at us. It is that prickle of feeling whenever we reference our childhood. It may not be painful, but it is certainly uncomfortable and a little sad. If it is an affliction, it wounds us all. There is certainly a place for nostalgia in art. To write, for me, is to return to a familiar place. It is there, that a piece of me travels to every time I seek to translate a crisis of emotion into words. The place is not a defined location, but it has a definite origin. Writing began at home. The urge to retreat there is inevitable, every time I begin another piece because nostalgia is my tool, as important to me as a computer or a pencil. I use it to access another time and give those moments a truer meaning, one that couldn’t have existed before. When I look back at the past, I never recreate it in exact proportions. I give the past some part of the present by interpreting and evaluating it. All art must come from some part within us before it can take on meaning for someone else.

However, recent forays into nostalgia-focused art, also demonstrates its limits. To look at the past in total reverence, without critique results in bland worship. The surge of reboots and remakes of classic films and television shows demonstrate that people are hungrier for the past than ever. Even original movies, such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, are trapped, reliant on references for audience appreciation. The popularity, though, does not seem to stem from any ‘wound’ or ‘affliction’.  Instead, it is a hyperactive appreciation that urges us to embrace what we already know. It has transformed from nostalgia into simply an exact recreation of the past. As exciting it is to watch the Iron Giant stride into theaters alongside the DeLorean, I am not sure this is the type of entertainment we should be craving.

 

Public Figures

While searching for information on the Cube, I found the website for the President’s Advisory Committee on Public Art. The Committee works to sustain installation and maintenance of public art around campus. Most intriguing, to me, was the assertion that “outdoor sculpture should be an integral part of the educational and research mission of the University”. I have often had both the blessing and the curse of crisscrossing the campus throughout the day, and thus, have probably scurried around these various artistic endeavors more times than I can count. Every time I walk to the Union, whether it is for my daily dose of caffeine or another inefficient study session, I am dwarfed by the Cube or the crossed red beams of the Orion. Less obvious, are the numerous façades on buildings such as Hatcher, Rackham, or the Ruthven Museum. Placed high above, they are brief splotches in our vision as we approach and pass through the brick walls. Then, there are the varied others: the benches, the fountains, the statues.

It is all so easy to take for granted; for I know that come tomorrow, they will still be there, awaiting me. They are patient, unlike the countless that have rushed by them over the years. During the day, they are constantly busy, constants in a bustling Central Campus. But at night, they must become lonely, with only the occasional visitor back from the library or party. Tired eyes don’t see well and cannot offer any admiration in the dark. So they wait, as anxiously as I, for the return of the sun, when they can be glorious once again. The cycle repeats, year after year, decade after decade.

Even if they are oft ignored, public art works have never been useless. In fact, they are all that we lack. They are constantly present, which is more than can be said about people. People pass too quickly. Blink and they disappear. For people, this University is only a temporary place, a jumping off point for bigger and better. Public art, on the other hand, cannot move from their designated place. They must live their eternal lives as they were built. Thus, they can act as an orienting, dependable force in a constantly shifting environment. At the same time, they are constantly adaptable, too. They easily morph to suit each individual desire. I will never see the Cube with the same eyes. Each day it becomes something new. Perhaps tomorrow, I will notice a new feature that had been there all along. Perhaps I will return twenty years later with my hair already graying, and remember exactly how I felt that very first day of orientation, the day I was introduced to the soaring beauty of the campus. Although I will only be at the University of Michigan four years, I know each and every one of those days have been made better, more satisfying by the inclusion of art, even though I may not have had the time to properly appreciate it. But that is alright. Public art is not ostentatious that way. It does not demand anything of us. But it also forms the very heart of the University of Michigan.

Commercializing Art

Last Monday evening, with the Oscars already fading from memory, one of the best films of the year was released. Spike Jonze’s four-minute movie is beautifully smooth and full of captivating color. Featuring FKA Twigs dancing to the new single “Till It’s Over” by Anderson .Paak, the video’s kinetic energy is endless. It is impossible to ignore, impossible to watch only once. Every image speaks to a careful attention to detail, down to the impression of an umbrella handle that stretches into eternity. Too bad it’s an ad. Too bad it’s just another commercial urging us to buy and buy. All this artistry, wasted, by devoting it to selling the newest Apple HomePod. At least that is what some believe. But I’m not sure that this is entirely true.

Art has always had a commercial aspect and it is impossible to separate art from the practical necessities that motivates artists to make it. Mozart and Beethoven were commissioned to compose, paid to produce beauty. Yet, their concertos and sonatas are still regarded as classics. Money doesn’t invalidate the works being created. Instead, by making the creating of art valuable, money contributes to the continuous creation of new and imaginative work. Without the massive coffers of Apple, Jonze might not have been able to invest in a massive practical set or attract the talents of two brilliant artists.  Does it matter, then, that its entire premise is convincing you to buy one plastic, cylindrical speaker over another? Perhaps the video’s aesthetic beauty is enough to cover for the shallowness of its purpose. It is enough that Jonze creates imaginative visuals of an apartment stretching and lighting up in perfect tandem with the flowing music. It is enough that I have discovered the charming abilities of FKA Twigs and Anderson .Paak. It is enough that one of my favorite filmmakers, the director of Her and Being John Malkovich, has created another masterpiece that I will watch again and again until his next movie appears in theaters. Perhaps this capitalist society of ours, it is necessary to accept art however it comes.

In the end, the commercial has done its job. I have shown it to all my friends. I have found my eyes drawn to it whenever it appears: before my YouTube videos, after my favorite television shows, at the Buffalo Wild Wings.  Now, I have devoted a blog post to it, joining the numerous others singing its praises. In fact, I am complicit in spreading its touch, like a careless, flu-addled cougher. I can’t help myself. Perhaps I will never buy a HomePod. But I certainly have the product’s name ringing in my ears. Even worse I will forever associate “Till it’s Over”, Anderson .Paak, and FKA Twigs with the product. These are problems that simply arise when art is so closely associated with a clear monetary purpose. Although, I have enjoyed the video, I will always be reminded by Apple’s classic sleek white lettering that this masterpiece is for the HomePod. Mozart and Beethoven, nowadays, would have been commissioned to write the new jingle for Amazon’s Alexa. It is a dilemma that does not invalidate art, but certainly complicates our understanding of it.

In the Background

Something that I’ve noticed over years of procrastination and long sessions of studying, is that I can’t sit down to work without a solid backing track. The music varies, but my requirements do not. For productivity’s sake, the piece can’t be too attention grabbing. Instead, it should easily fade into the background, willing to be ignored for hours on end. But I am a contradictory human being, so I also want my music to be inspiring at other moments. I want it to rise up and give me the motivation to finish one more reading, one more math problem. Finally, I need music to flow continuously. The music should wind a parallel path to my thoughts. It should be in the midst of its own story while I am in the midst of mine. Services, like Spotify or YouTube, have the bad habit of leading you to unexpected destinations and unknown artists. Perhaps this is palatable, even valuable, if one was out and about in an exploratory mood. It is a musical adventure that I would be willing to embark when I am walking from class to class, with nothing else on my mind other than the lyrics of a song. The music in our ears matches the actions of our bodies, the thoughts in our mind. It helps define our feelings at a certain moment of time through other people’s words. But when I am studying, I feel trapped by other people’s words, other people’s ideas. I do not need another world intruding. It is a delicate relationship that I do not have nearly the energy to maintain. Someone with more care would, perhaps, put together complementary playlists, maybe painstakingly find songs that blend in theme and tone. But I am stuck between caring and uncaring, so I do nothing. Instead, I listen to endless compilations of classical music, loop movie scores, and replay albums. I have even in my most desperate moment listened to Spotify’s ‘Your Favorite Coffeehouse’ , a list manufactured mellow, that made me feel as if I were drowning in pillows. As an amateur music listener, I drift toward the generic and emotional. I am grabbed by obvious arrangements and even more generic lyrics. Sometimes, though, you just need a loyal friend chattering in the background. Someone to stay by your side through the tired midnights. It is a comforting presence, one that I can’t work without.

Snow Fall

Snow falls from the heavens like a thousand discarded angels. Snow falls to land on grey pavements and yellowed winter grass and disappear in a few short-lived moments. Snow falls, feather-like, onto my face and leaves gentle scrapes of coldness on my skin.  I breathe out. My revenge melts some of my tiny antagonists. But still snow falls. They are drawn in an ever downward spiral. I am no longer sure where they come from. The invisible grey sky is secretive and perhaps, more importantly, I no longer care. I only want to keep walking through the blowing sheets of falling whiteness until I finally reach my destination. But even that has become unclear. Snow falls, making distances and time stretch longer into infinity.

Somewhere, I sense other beings, bravely traversing the winter storm, with faces tucked into warm coat collars. They make no sound, other than the muffled crunch of boots on fresh powder. No one dares to exchange words as we hurry past each other. The snow is deafening in its silence. The great University and its students are cowed by the weather. The distinguished brick buildings are thrust underneath fluffy caps, transforming them into childish caricatures of their normal selves. They surely cannot withstand the impact of a thousand icy cuts. Soon, they must fracture and crack. Their pipes becoming brittle and bursting. I imagine the world around me exploding silently, unseen as I walk by. Perhaps there will be no warm haven awaiting me. Perhaps it, too, has already been broken and absorbed. My imagination strives against the cold that numbly urges me to stop. Snow falls ignorantly past me. Sometimes, I spot footprints where they should not be, in four-foot-deep drifts. I also spot cars where they should not be, making slow progress through greying slush. The machines do not belong here, in this natural world of cold crystal and hot, humid breaths. Those passengers watch the snow from behind a barrier, separated from this pure battle between woman and Earth.

It is usually so easy to ignore or at least compromise with the weather with t-shirts when it becomes too hot or umbrellas when it rains. But when the snow begins to fall in earnest, it exploits every vulnerable chink of our armor. Every minute in the snowy air becomes another reminder of all that we have built as protection, and how useless it all proves. The plows push futilely, only able to move snow from place to place. Its presence accumulates. It comes and leaves of its own accord, gradually melting from existence. Ashes to ashes, water to water. We treck through this ethereal gift with heavy boots and track it into the soggy carpets. We kick it to the side and ignore it. But as I take a final look upwards, at the snow, falling, a ridiculous wonder fills me. Snow falls as I enter the building. Snow falls eternally on unseen spinning tracks. Snow falls, and I wish I could fall with it.