In a way, this was meant to be the missing half of my Hannah Montana piece from some months back. Astute readers pointed out that my take on the multi-hyphenate one-woman omnimedia engine phenomenon was incomplete, because it skipped any analysis of the teenpop music that ostensibly drives that engine. Now, obviously, Ashley Tisdale is Ashley Tisdale and Hannah Montana is, well, Miley Cyrus — but it’s Ashley Tisdale who recently dropped a new and much-hyped album, Guilty Pleasure, so it is she who goes under the lens today.
A late-inning defensive substitution? Sure. But Tisdale is something of a professional second-stringer anyway. Before her star turn in the straight-to-the-B-list Aliens in the Attic, she specialized in wacky sidekick roles, most notably on Disney Channel’s Suite Life [sic] of Zack & Cody, where she was billed below the Sprouse twins, talent-free muppets whose adorability quotient — never particularly high — has plummeted with encroaching adolescence. She’s best known as the would-be diva Sharpay Evans in the High School Musical series, playing comic foil to the earnest, dull lovebirds Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. Notionally, she’s the Rose Marie of Disney Channel (which would make Corbin Bleu its Morey Amsterdam, I suppose).
I’ll be honest with you — the High School Musical movies are a hell of a lot more fun than they have any business being (thanks, in part, to Robbie Nevil’s songs), and Tisdale is pretty terrific in them. She’s an able comedic actress, nailing Sharpay’s essential comic paradox — she’s both vapid and scheming — with nimble timing. To the standard of The New California Beauty as laid down by the likes of Paris Hilton and Hayden Panettiere (i.e., salon blonde, orange tan, squishy nose and a general softness that renders her cute rather than actually pretty), the Tiz adds a pleasing mobility and expressiveness, along with a willingness to pull goofy faces.
It’s an appealing package, funny sweet, and genuine — genuine in this context, at least. So, naturally, the Powers That Be have decided to market her as a cock-crazy damage case.
Oh, sure, they’re pushing Guilty Pleasure’s lead single “It’s Alright, It’s OK” as a spunky girl-power breakup anthem in the mode of “Since U Been Gone.” But for all those protestations of the liberating power of singlehood, the Tiz makes it plain that willing to the get a-a-all fucked-up over the right guy. “Hot Mess” promises it in so many words, with a sharp little guitar hook, John Frusciante by way of Andy Summers. It takes a dream team of Hollywood’s best pro songwriters to write lines like “You’re so racy, you’re my favorite guy / So unruly, so uncivilized / Cupid got me right between the eyes,” and it brings out weird tics in Tisdale’s delivery — “Before you came along” becomes “bah foyu kay malang,” leading me to wonder briefly if the Tiz is a non-native speaker rendering her lines phonetically — but it’s the strongest melody on the record, from the halting start to the Morse-code stutter of the chorus.
Things take an ickier turn on “Masquerade,” which sets forth a variety of unappealing role-play scenarios — schoolteacher and student, “hot waiter” and customer, mindreader and, I dunno, audience volunteer. It’s like Nine and a Half Weeks set to a stomp copped from Britney’s “Womanizer.” There’s a feeble bit of backpedaling via a bridge that plays like a disclaimer inserted into the song by corporate lawyers, but it fails to convince — it’s blown away not only by the volume of the refrain, but by its gleeful, knowing sleaziness: Do we want what we’ve got? If not, I say, “So what?” Oh, Sharpay, how could you?
So what happened to make the Tiz such a mess, albeit a hot one? It’s the old Philip Larkin defense: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. And the culture of therapy demands that you sing about it, whether you’re Pink or Linkin Park, which is how we get a seemingly well-adjusted young person like Ashley Tisdale belting out the fantastically bitter and twisted “How Do You Love Someone.” I can’t buy it for a minute, coming from her, but somebody on the writing team was digging deep for this one; it’s a grim little piece of songcraft, its bald, economical language deadening the emotional affect even as the funeral-march drums, dirgey keyboards, and the jagged melody ramp up the tension.
Actually, Pink and Linkin Park aren’t bad touchstones for the song musically, either; part of the fun of an album as unabashedly disposable and of-the-moment as Guilty Pleasure is playing Spot The Influence. What’s not so fun, though, is listening to all the songs in a row; that’s just kind of exhausting. The album fades in on the sounds of an orchestra tuning up, and it’s the last moment of unprocessed, acoustically-produced sound you’ll hear for the duration. I probably sound like a cranky old man pissing against the tides of modernity, but it’s God’s own truth. I find myself energized by listening to a spacious recording of live instruments interacting, but the hot, hyper-compressed mix of Guilty Pleasure literally fatigued me. Look at the waveform on this:
Everything’s in clip, and even at a low volume, after a while my ears just wanted to fold themselves shut. The vocals are the worst of it, multi-tracked, pitch-shifted, and quantized from here to sonority. The inescapable synthetic quality is enough to send me out to a karaoke happy hour, just to be reminded of that sound unprocessed human voices. It’s soul music for Cylons, and as a default setting it gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies.
Of course, it’s taken only a few years for Auto-Tune to go from a tool, a thing with a purpose, to a standard-issue effect as ubiquitous as reverb; so who knows what the state of the art will sound like by the time the next Ashley Tisdale album comes along — if there is one. Because the Tiz herself is ultimately the least essential part of this record, and if she becomes a problem, she can always be replaced. By another singer, at this point — a human presence on which to hang the expertly-crafted songs — but eventually I suppose they’ll have a machine that can handle that, too.