[16 December 2009]
In a particularly transcendent episode of Disney Channel original series The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, the gang’s high school puts on a stage production of High School Musical. It’s a glorious testament to the bizarrely insular world of the Disney Channel that much of the episode’s humor revolves around cast member Ashley Tisdale being overlooked for the part of Sharpay. Hilarious, right? If you are only mildly aware of “Party in the U.S.A.” or can’t distinguish between Kevin, Nick, and Joe, then chances are you have no idea that Tisdale was the original Sharpay in the three High School Musical movies. For Disney fans, Tisdale’s not being cast as Sharpay was a potent meta-joke, drawing on a shared knowledge of the actress’s persona and oeuvre. Likewise, for these fans, the opening track on her new second album Guilty Pleasure, the punky rebellious “Acting Out”, is meaningful statement of purpose, casting off the burden of Tisdale’s wholesome Disney past. For the rest of us, it’s a bland Ashlee Simpson knock-off fetishizing role-playing as only a drama kid can.
Tisdale’s 2007 debut, Headstrong came at the height of High School Musical’s popularity, and generally fit the Disney mold of innocuous tween pop. This genre has little appeal to adults, and Disney stars have had a hard time finding crossover success, with only Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers making some headway in the pop world. Tisdale recognizes her opportunity to enter the mainstream, and understands the necessity of shedding her wholesome image, hence the faux bad girl theatrics of “Acting Out”. The image shift is too calculated, and she regrettably shows her hand in the song’s second verse, singing, “welcome to a new beginning / It’s time to start the show / No, I don’t think it matters / If it’s real or just a role”. And as Guilty Pleasure makes clear, it indeed is just a role.
Following Pink and Kelly Clarkson’s cue, Tisdale indicates her new edgy direction by using distorted electric guitar as the driving force in most of her songs. Guitars are meant to signify the rebellious tradition of rock ‘n’ roll, and also a certain amount of artistic authenticity not afforded by the dominating synthesizer in pop music. Dressing up songs with mall punk guitars was fairly fresh when Clarkson released “Since U Been Gone” at the end of 2004. Since then, it has been overused by everyone from Ashlee Simpson to Katy Perry, making this record sound dated when it’s striving to be contemporary.
That’s the trouble with Tisdale, she is still a drama kid at heart, and every track on her album sounds like a different role, with Tisdale unabashedly imitating the gamut female singers from the past few years. Clarkson’s influence abounds on the emotive power ballads “Me Without You” and “What If”. Tisdale imitates Katy Perry’s vocal tics on “Erase and Rewind”, unapologetically evoking “Hot and Cold”. There’s an attempt at Beyonce on the bland, Ryan Tedder-like “I’m Alright, It’s Ok”. On “Hair”, she resorts to imitating her High School Musical costar Vanessa Hudgens, with a jazz-lite backing track suspiciously reminiscent of the #41 worst song of the decade “Sneakernight.” And on the “bonus” track “Crank It Up”, Tisdale’s producer gets into the act, doing his best Timbaland impression over a “Sexyback” karaoke beat.
By chasing trends in an attempt to stay current, Guilty Pleasure sounds hopelessly dated and out-of-touch in the ever changing pop marketplace. Add with the oppressively over-produced army of Ashley Tisdale overdubs on each song, the whole thing is overly-labored and not much fun. Not a wholly pleasant experience for an album called Guilty Pleasure.