Growing Up with “Scream”: A Closer Look at High School Musical 3’s Most Dramatic Song

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High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) dir. Kenny Ortega. Walt Disney Pictures.

by Katherine Clowater | September 21, 2020

“Playing a role is easy, but being yourself, now that’s a challenge.” – Ms. Darbus

For some, rewatching High School Musical is a childhood nostalgia trip, reminding oneself of the simple joys of tuning into your local kids’ channel to sing and dance along with the lovable students of East High. For others, such as myself, a rewatch of this trilogy – especially High School Musical 3: Senior Year – is eye-opening. As a 10-year-old, seeing Troy Bolton break into his school in the middle of the night to run around panicked about colleges and his future seemed like an over-the-top reaction to simply choosing a school. What was the big deal?

When I turned 18 and entered senior year, I found out. Once I started applying to universities and deciding my major, the visual of Troy being thrown around in a spinning hallway suddenly made sense. The seemingly overly dramatic teens of East High that I once viewed as much older than me were now people my own age and they expressed the same struggles and anxieties of high school that I was facing—although for them, there was a little more singing involved. Maybe Troy Bolton wasn’t being so outrageous after all.

The pressures of scholarships and acceptance letters, the anxieties of choosing the right career path, the realization that this may be the last time all your friends will be in the same place; each of those experiences that seemed cliché or unrealistic, eventually became my reality — and the reality of so many other teenagers. I had passions for writing and movies but, like Troy Bolton, I wasn’t sure if they were hobbies I dabbled in or things I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. It’s a big decision to be asked to make at the ripe old age of 17 or 18, when your brain is still developing and you’re only just starting to truly explore your interests and individuality. As the countdown on my time in high school began to tick away, and adulthood and important choices about my future loomed in the ever-nearing distance, I recalled Senior Year, and I remembered “Scream.”

I’ve been the proud flag bearer of the “‘Scream’ is the best and most important High School Musical song” stance for years and this feeling has only intensified as I’ve gotten older (even now as I rewatched the scene countless times while writing this essay). Not only is it the pique Angsty Troy Bolton Song™ (yes, even more than “Bet On It”, I’m sorry!), but it encapsulates the struggles of Troy throughout Senior Year, the trilogy as a whole, and so much of the teenage experience—all in one song!

Scream” begins with Troy slamming the door on his rusty old truck as thunder booms and lightning crackles overhead. His face is concealed by a dark hoodie that he tears off to replace with his soon-to-be retired basketball jersey, still wearing his regular jeans and sneakers. He’s literally split down the middle: one part of him holding onto basketball, the other drawn toward something else. Cue the soft piano and Troy’s angst-filled existential crisis solo number.

Troy stands at centre court as basketballs descend from the heavens, threatening to overwhelm him. At the same time, (through the song) he articulates his frustration with his friends, family, teachers and their expectations of him to choose either basketball or theatre—without ever asking him what he wants. Troy expresses this during a conversation with his girlfriend, Gabriella, earlier in the movie when he says, “You chose Stanford. [University of Albuquerque] was sort of chosen for me.” He feels like his desires are unheard. Like many other teens, he is tasked with adult responsibilities but is not being treated like one. The catalyst conversation that sparks Troy to run to the school as refuge is one between him and his father who recalls how much Troy talked about going to the University of Albuquerque as a kid, and Troy cuts him off by exclaiming that he’s not a kid anymore. Wanting to be taken seriously and be seen as an equal, as a grown up, but being looked at as a perpetual child to adults is a frustrating aspect of getting older that many teens have to face. 

These seemingly infinite basketballs thud around him, just like the voices of the people in his life telling him “they know best.” In response, Troy punches and kicks the balls, trying to fend them off and give him the quiet he needs to think for himself. In a visual reference to Hamlet, another brooding student struggling to make a life-changing choice, Troy catches a basketball and holds it out balanced in his palm like a skull. To be or not be a basketball player? That is the question. His worlds of basketball and theatre colliding. Everyone has expectations for him, but what will he choose for himself?

As these questions tumble around in his head, Troy is tumbling around in a spinning hallway. He is thrown off balance before he is even able to find his footing again, aimlessly stumbling like Alice through the looking glass. The once familiar, welcoming and warm environment of his school has transformed and twisted into a cold, nightmarish carnival funhouse. His disorientation is not only caused by the rotating hallway but by the uncertainty he faces each day in a place where he used to feel safe and secure in himself. A place that is brimming with student life during the day is suddenly empty and lifeless at night. Simultaneously, the hallways are confining and claustrophobic, and threatening to cave in on Troy as he tries to break free.

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Zac Efron as Troy Bolton in High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008).

In the beginning of the movie, Troy and Gabriella share the desire to have time stop since the end of the year is approaching fast. As Troy crawls backwards up the staircase, fearful and lost, he is still moving forward and ascending without knowing what is ahead of him but he cannot stop it no matter how scared it makes him. High school ending is inevitable. Climbing those stairs backwards is a high risk, high stake scenario; slipping and missteps likely lay ahead but he can’t know for sure where they may occur. And even with those risks, he has to keep going. Lightning flashes behind him like an apocalyptic scene, as though the world is ending. For Troy, and for so many teens and young adults, these looming milestones can feel world-ending and as though everything is falling apart but they still have to enter the world every day and keep going even if it is uncertain. It’s terrifying.

As the song reaches its bridge, Troy reaches the cafeteria and pleads to the room of empty lunch tables, “Can the music ever be enough?” Is this just a hobby or a true calling? A giant poster of himself playing basketball towers over him. He is faced with himself, the way people view him and the expectations they have for him, and he tears it all down. In this moment, he embodies teenage rebellion: defying his father and his basketball coach all at once (as they’re one in the same). In this moment, Troy has his breakthrough by shedding the expectations weighing on him and is on the way to forging his own future.

After his realization, Troy is beckoned to East High’s theatre like a sailor to a siren’s song. In his basketball jersey dancing at centre stage, he is able to express who he truly is and has decided who he wants to be. By embracing both of his passions, he finally feels comfortable enough to scream. To scream, for Troy, is to verbalize the feelings he has been holding in throughout the film and the entire trilogy. He is constantly interrogated and alienated for exploring interests outside of people’s preconceived notions about him but a crucial part of growing up and being a teen is growing out of some things and growing into others. Our passions, desires, interests, and convictions are constantly evolving as we continue to learn and meet new people on our way to becoming adults.

By the end of each movie, he resolves these issues to an extent, but Senior Year solidifies the fact that the choice ultimately becomes his own. This weight and realization is what leads Troy to “Scream” and choose for himself regardless of what those around him perceive as the ‘proper’ path. This is the first time in the trilogy that Troy seems truly content to live authentically — because it is his choice. 

“Scream” is loud, dramatic, and even downright Shakespearean in its portrayal of doubt, anxiety, and the growing responsibilities of adulthood — but that’s how it feels to be a teenager. It’s emotional, all-consuming, even if in hindsight it seems smaller than it was—in the moment, it can feel overwhelming; so overwhelming that sometimes it just makes you want to scream.


Katherine Clowater is a writer from Canada. She recently graduated with a BA in English and hopes to write professionally. She devotes her free time to reading books, watching movies, and over-analyzing Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @_katclo.