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Prom Pop and the Rites of Adolescence

As the older of my two daughters went off to her senior prom last weekend, I couldn’t help but think back to a trip to the local mall to see Disney’s Prom made with her back in 2011 just on the other side of her high school years.

Hollywood’s rating system works in one direction: the older you get, the more “mature” is the content you’re allowed to see without your parents, bearing in mind that maturity and the Hollywood movie generally stand in oxymoronic relation to one another. There is no guide, other than common sense and word of mouth, to inform chronological adults that they might best avoid the most egregiously infantile creations from America’s Dream Machine.

Yet just because a movie is benign and cuddly, doesn’t mean adults won’t enjoy it. The first film I saw in the cinema with my elder daughter, then three-and-a-half, was Disney’s The Tigger Movie back in 2000. I loved every minute of that picture, marveling especially at the enduring musical craftsmanship of the songwriting Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, then in their seventies.

But men of a certain age can probably only go to such a movie in the company of kids. Imagine the distrusting stares a middle-aged man would get if he tried to go alone to The Tigger Movie. That would appear far more “inappropriate” than an unattended six-year-old buying a ticket for the latest Terminator incarnation.

The above-mentioned daughter was thirteen when I took her and a couple of her friends to go to Disney’s, Prom. I harbored no secret desires to see what by definition must be a pointless movie, but I have always seized every opportunity to go to the cinema with my kids. I’ll also have to admit that, having made it through Disney’s epic High School Musical  trilogy in the company of my daughters, I had developed a fascination with the Mouse House’s treatment of the rites of adolescence.

Going to the movies with a group of girls, one sees all the more clearly how divided along gender lines filmmaking and marketing are, especially for the teen-set. A man going to Disney’s Prom feels about as out of place as a woman sitting on the Board of Directors of Icahn Enterprises.

Although I loved going to the movies with my daughters, I did realize that all they really needed was a ride to the mall. Once they had reached double-digit age they were only too happy to let me drift off to another movie so they would see their thing without me nearby. An inveterate screen-surfer when at the mall, I always scan the LED readout, and that time saw that Thor in 3-D was just starting.

Once inside the multiplex I let the girls wander off towards Prom, and then tried surreptitiously to reach into large cardboard recycling container holding the returned 3-D glasses for Thor. In the process of getting the lid off I knocked the whole thing over with an impressive crash. Forty feet away the ticket-taker, a Gothic teen who seemed unconcerned about doing his part to maximize Regal Cinema’s profits, gave me a casual nod. I grabbed a pair of the glasses, hastily reassembled the container, then ducked into Thor.

The vast majority of this film’s audience was pre- and early-teen boys; hardly a female was to be seen in the packed theater. Yet another Disney picture, Thor was directed by the somewhat celebrated Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh, apparently enticed away from more legitimate projects by the lure of greater fame and bigger money in fantasy action pictures. Whereas Prom is presumably is intent on training young girls in the arts of chaste courtship and class spirit, Thor might just as well be a recruiting ad for the U. S. Marines.

I donned my borrowed 3-D glasses as a forlorn-looking Anthony Hopkins, his face wedged comically between the cheek protectors of his Roman helmet, descended from icy clouds on a white horse. The redoubtable Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack strummed its ominous electro-acoustic lyre while superheroes in tight leather and armies of bad guys batted about in three-dimensional cinematic airspace. After three minutes of this tomfoolery, Prom seemed like a beacon of believability and relevance, so I left Thor to the men and boys, and headed over to the girls in Cinema 11, dropping my 3-D glasses in the bin on the way.

The first thing one notices about the audience for Prom, one far smaller than the throngs in Thor, is not only that it is almost exclusively female, but also very young. Aside from the chaperoning mothers, my daughter and her friends were among the oldest kids. A large birthday group of what looked like five or six year-olds was nearby our seats. What they were getting out of this movie, which flopped badly, was hard to fathom. From the earliest age children are fascinated with somewhat older children, and the infantilizing methods of Disney’s Prom perhaps make it possible for a six-year-old to identify with the on-screen figures.

The thrill of admiring the somewhat older kids would also explain why no high-school seniors, or for that matter any high-schoolers whatever, were in the Prom audience. It is not merely the disjunction between the realities of proms and the Disneyified version that keeps the late teenagers away, but the fact that it would be massively uncool to be seen watching this stuff from the vantage point of senior year in high school.

But identification of the supposed high-schoolers in Prom as larger children defies all credibility. In the movie, class president and prom organizer Nova is played by the twenty-one-year-old Aimee Teegarden, while apparent bad boy, but actually big-hearted Jesse is embodied by Thomas McDonell, who’s at least twenty-five if he’s a day. Even the wizardry of lens gels, expert lighting and makeup, and expensive plastic surgery cannot make these faces appear to be those of teenagers. It is oddly comforting to see how, like weeds busting through asphalt, nature so easily thwarts Hollywood’s highly evolved anti-aging technologies.

Kindred forms of scalpel work are applied to the compilation soundtrack of hit songs. That pop traffics almost exclusively in sex while Prom avoids the topic completely tells us much about the Disney enterprise more generally: avoid the truth wherever possible in order to protect the magic kingdom of good clean family fun. The culminating scene of Prom is set to sexually proactive Katy Perry’s heart-warming mega-hit “Firework,” one of three number-one singles from her 2010 album, Teenage Dream and the over-the-top climax of her 2015 Super Bowl half-time show. The song is all optimism and ebullience, extolling the potential to be found inside every individual: “Baby you’re a firework / Come on let your colors burst.” Never mind that Perry has had transgressive hits like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Ur So Gay.” For Prom her work is on message and seemingly unobjectionable.

Most of the numbers on the Prom soundtrack are anodyne and unthreatening. Where decades ago parents feared the potency of rock ‘n roll to incite youthful rebelliousness, if not outright rebellion, it has long since been co-opted by everyone from corporate advertisers to Christian praisers. Prom bolsters its often flagging story line, and its most ridiculous conceit—that the girls must wait to be asked to the prom by the boys—with jolts of upbeat, whitebread pop.

With Nova longing for goody-two-shoes Brandon, who only thinks about himself and the fact he’s just gotten into Princeton, a blast of smarmy sensuality by the Neon Trees, fronted by the mohawked Mormon Tyler Glenn, tries to make us feel how important prom is for our heroine and all the other good kids. We don’t hear the song’s creepy opening: “I got close to your skin while you were sleeping / I taste the salt on your hands” (though you get that on the movie soundtrack album). This could by sung from the point-of-view of a faithful dog licking the palm of its master or mistress, but I don’t think so. Instead we hear only the adoring lines appearing later in the song “You look like a thousand suns.” But then there are the pathetic pleadings of “Oh, how long till your surrender?” Exactly what is to be surrendered is not hard to guess.

The furtive erotic drive of this song is neatly suppressed in the service of proving that sex does not exist in this movie’s Michigan high school, with its palm trees and Spanish colonial architecture.

In spite of the movie’s apparently straitlaced façade, sex lurks around every corner of the musical hallways of the soundtrack. Travie McCoy’s “We’ll Be Alright” presents a radically different vision of youth culture than the images on screen: ” yeah, yeah, come on let’s / Get drunk, toast it up, we don’t give a fuck.” And yes, there are “pretty girls everywhere” to get drunk with, smoke pot, and do what follows.

But these sentiments are skirted in favor of the lyric reminding listeners that “We are young, we run free.” Yet the promise of unbridled liberty is not indulged in the movie itself, the most dangerous escapade being a low-speed ride on Travis’s motorcycle with Nova holding on tight behind him—a quaint updating of “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

Sex is the white elephant just off-screen. Yet even if the movie bowdlerizes its songs it cannot suppress what the rhythms and textures of pop are all about.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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