Released: 24th September 2007
Writers: Andy Dodd / Adam Watts
Peak position: #40
Chart run: 40-58
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 60-34-82
Although the High School Musical franchise was true to its name in as much as the characters spontaneously burst into song and neatly choreographed routines, the soundtracks themselves played more like a collection of pop hits. Gotta Go My Own Way is one such number, and a decade earlier would have been primed for chart glory.
Considering it ushered in a new era of movie and TV musicals, High School Musical certainly drew some influence from traditional show tunes (Stick To The Status Quo, for example). But many of the songs wouldn’t have sounded remotely out of place on a turn-of-the-century bubblegum pop album. However, there was nowhere for material like this to go having long since been unceremoniously displaced from the chart landscape. It was an unorthodox formula, but it worked, and the overnight success of High School Musical took everyone – even Disney – by surprise. The soundtrack topped the American chart and sold 8.5 million copies globally to be the most successful album of 2006, so a sequel was inevitable. The following year, High School Musical 2 arrived even poppier than before. Gotta Go My Own Way wasn’t one of the songs widely used to promote the movie, but it was easily one of the best. A show tune, this is not. An absolutely cracking pop song? Very much so.
The track is performed by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens (who does most of the legwork here). However, they are credited by their character names – Troy and Gabriella – as was standard until High School Musical 3, where the actual artists still only got a secondary credit. That was, at least in part, a strategy adopted to get around the fact that Zac Efron’s singing voice was provided by Drew Seeley in the first movie for reasons unknown – even to him. The prelude to the song involves our star-crossed sweethearts and their gang of friends from East High landing summer jobs at the swanky Lava Springs country club (so, the movie actually has very little to do with high school at all). Their plan is to save some money for college and participate in the annual talent show. Alas, the movie’s antagonist (and best character), Sharpay – whose parents own the country club – wants Troy to herself and schemes to drive a wedge between him and his friends. With their summer plans in tatters, Gabriella decides to quit her job and go home. Cue Gotta Go My Own Way.
What’s most immediately impressionable is the mid-tempo instrumental. The looped guitar hook is essentially the heartbeat of the song and utterly gorgeous as it bounces gently along in the background. It’s further complemented by flourishes of twinkling keyboard melodies, creating an almost visceral quality. This is ostensibly a breakup song (although Troy and Gabriella’s relationship was very much a slow-burn, and they hadn’t actually kissed at this point); however, what it really represents is the passing of youth. Each chord is steeped in hazy nostalgia, a panging reminder of those halcyon summer holidays that could be anything you wanted them to be, but which slipped through our fingers all too quickly. It’s a beautiful piece of music with a timeless Disney-esque simplicity wrapped up in a current-sounding production.
High School Musical wasn’t widely known for its vivid storytelling. But what comes across here is how much Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens really get their characters and can convey where they’re at through the song. Troy is well-intentioned, though not astutely aware of the consequences of his actions, while Gabriella is something of an idealist who tends to believe that the best/only course of action is to remove herself from a situation when it doesn’t work out (“Don’t wanna leave it all behind, but I get my hopes up, and I watch them fall every time”). All of that comes across with exceptional clarity in the way the track is earnestly performed, whether you have any knowledge – or indeed interest – in the plot.
There’s no shortage of melodrama here. The chorus is brimming with it: “I’ve got to move on and be who I am, I just don’t belong here, I hope you understand, we might find our place in this world someday, but at least for now, I gotta go my own way”, lest we forget that these are supposed to be two kids in their mid-teens. However, that’s nothing compared to the middle-eight exchange between Troy and Gabriella, which is every bit as brilliant as it is ludicrous:
What about us? What about everything we’ve been through?
What about trust?
You know I never wanted to hurt you
What about me?
What am I supposed to do?
I gotta leave but I’ll miss you
By this point, Gotta Go My Own Way is so wrapped up in itself that any pretence of being a musical number is entirely abandoned. The vocals are layered in a way that one person could not be singing them, while Vanessa Hudgens starts ad-libbing over herself: “We might find our place in this world someday (world someda-a-a-ay)”. Even the movie is barely making any attempt by this point as Gabriella is seen running along a path while apparently holding a steady note, and the visuals slip out of sync with the music as she turns and mumbles from afar. It’s a moment which adds further credence to the notion that Gotta Go My Own Way was composed as a pop song and worked backwards into High School Musical 2 rather than the other way around.
But it works and is a testament to the quality of the track that the sequence it accompanies is relatively static for a movie aimed primarily at a young demographic. Much of it features slow, lingering shots of Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron gazing longingly into each other’s eyes against the backdrop of the Lava Springs resort. The audience had really invested in these characters, and Gotta Go My Own Way – perhaps more than any other song in the franchise – pulls on that as its core.
High School Musical 2 was shown in the UK on 21st September. Considering this was a film about the summer holiday, screening it a few weeks into the new school year was a questionable decision (talk about rubbing salt into the wound), but it made little difference. 1.2 million viewers tuned in to the Disney Channel – a staggering figure for a multichannel kids station – and songs from the movie flooded into the UK chart the following week. Indeed, the entire soundtrack excluding Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (which was cut from the TV broadcast and only released as a DVD extra) appeared in the top 100.
Gotta Go My Own Way stands out in particular because it was an early example of a song whose success was entirely driven by people hearing it and downloading in response. The movie yielded two bigger hits – What Time Is It? (#20) and You Are The Music In Me (#26) – however, both were released as physical singles. Gotta Go My Own Way is purely and simply a track that connected with the audience and benefited from changes to the rules around downloads. Before 2007, there would have been no way to formally measure the song’s popularity; but times were changing and to see it officially memorialised in the top 40 felt like a real underdog triumph. Meanwhile, the soundtrack extended its run atop the UK Compilations Chart to seven weeks and went on to spend a further 24 months(!) in the top 75.
A similar pattern of success was seen in America, albeit amplified ten-fold. Again, Gotta Go My Own Way was the third-biggest hit from High School Musical 2, reaching #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 behind You Are The Music In Me (#31) and What Time Is It? (#6 – no, you’re not reading that wrong). Hardly surprising, considering 17.2 million people tuned into the Disney Channel to watch the movie. It was shown three times over the same weekend and amassed a total audience of 33 million viewers. To no one’s surprise, the soundtrack sold 615,000 copies to debut at #1, where it spent a total of four weeks. High School Musical 2 didn’t necessarily eclipse its predecessor in commercial terms, but what it did do was condense all the momentum the first movie built up and unleash it so that the sequel came out feeling bigger – and better – in almost every way.
There’s actually little question whether Gotta Go My Own Way can or should be considered a show tune. It’s not. And being attached to High School Musical will always be something of a stigma for those outside of the movie’s target audience. Look beyond those factors, though, and you have a terrific little track. Pop music had to wear many hats to survive the ‘00s, and this was just the latest reinvention on its path back to chart domination. With songs this good, it was surely only a matter of time…