Overthinking The Fall 2009 TV Lineup:  Glee

Overthinking The Fall 2009 TV Lineup:  Glee

Far and away the most anticipated show of the fall is Fox’s Glee, a glossy musical about the misadventures of a rag-tag high school show choir. There is much to overthink here.

Our website's name is toooo looooong.

Our website's name is toooo looooong.

This is the first image that comes up on a Google Image Search for "glee."  I think my internet is broken.

This is the first image that comes up on a Google Image Search for "glee." I think my internet is broken.

Far and away the most anticipated show of the fall is Fox’s Glee, a glossy musical about the misadventures of a rag-tag high school show choir.  There is much to overthink here, including:

• the show’s surprisingly radical social agenda, which so far seems to be pro-teen-sex, anti-childbirth, and anti-marriage

• whether they actually hired the production staff from Pushing Daisies, or just ripped off the show’s entire aesthetic

• the astonishingly convincing marriage of soap opera and music video, which makes me wonder why we ever put up with one of them without the other

• is it just me, or do we have some misogyny issues here?  Quinn, Sue, and Terri are all entertaining, believable, and well drawn characters (well, Terri maybe a little less so), but why are the forces arranged against the show’s heroes so overwhelmingly female?  Even the principal and the coach, who seemed like possible male villains in the pilot, got a lot more sympathetic in the second episode. Puck is still a total wad, though.  (Ah, Puck.  Good old reliable Puck.)  And credit where due, though, the main female protagonists strike me as strong characters, female, in the best sense of those words

• the racial politics, which seem to subscribe to the Scrubs strategy of “Let’s just make the cast kind of flamboyantly multi-racial without trying to hide our agenda, because hey, maybe being diverse for diversity’s sake is an okay agenda to have, but don’t worry Mr. and Mrs. Joe Six-Pack because the most important characters are all still totally white”

• the debt this show owes the High School Musical series, although I’m probably going to have to watch one of those movies before I really tackle that question, and possibly the debt HSM in turn owes to American Idol

• how many episodes it will take before they give the asian girl another line

• and last but not least, the innovative way that the aforementioned anticipation was drummed up.

I will be discussing none of these.  Instead, I’m going to focus on the big production number from the second episode.

So far, each episode has several minor songs and one epic, transcendent, like, freaking, audiovisual event at the end.  If they can keep this up… well, let’s just hope they can keep it up.  It seems like it would not be easy.

The pilot episode had a version of “Don’t Stop Believing” which I think I might like better than Journey’s version of “Don’t Stop Believing.”  If you have any interest in this show at all, you’ve heard it—it was pretty inescapable this summer.  The second episode had Rihanna’s “Take A Bow.”  Take a look if you haven’t seen it already.  Or even if you have.  It’s so good!

[Ed. Note: We can’t find YouTube video that Fox hasn’t found first. The whole damn thing will be available today on Hulu, once Fox airs the next original episode, so head over and watch it there.]

We all know this girl.  We've all BEEN this girl.
We all know this girl. We’ve all BEEN this girl.

So really, there are three performances going on here that it cuts back and forth between, right?  We’ve got 1) Rachel singing on stage, into a mic, with backup singers and elaborate lighting, looking very made-up and professional 2) Rachel singing into a hairbrush in her bedroom, looking like she’s had a good long cry, 3) Rachel singing in the hallway of her school, in the process of having said cry.

It’s a pretty standard music-video setup.  But there’s a crucial difference.  In, say, a Whitesnake video, when they cut back and forth between Dave Coverdale rocking out on stage on the one hand, and Dave Coverdale riding a hippogriff with Tawny Kitaen on the other, the concert footage is the “reality,” the narrative section the fantasy.  But in Glee, this dynamic is reversed.  We’re not supposed to think that the onstage performance is an actual performance of the New Directions show choir.  And the section in the school isn’t reality either, because in Glee, unlike most musicals, when people start singing everyone else can always hear them.  This leaves us with that sad, sad shot of Rachel singing into a hairbrush.  This is reality. (Sad sad reality.) And of course the other two are what she’s imagining as she stares into that mirror.  I mean, her ambition as a performer is her main character trait, so what would she imagine to cheer herself up other than a triumphant performance?  And who among us, in a fit of high school angst, has not imagined screaming out our grievances to the people who hurt us?  Who among us was not listening to, and indeed singing along with, some angsty song or other while we did?

Out of all of Glee’s virtues, this I think this is the most important one:  it does not use original music.  My gut reaction to this was to complain about all the songwriters out there who aren’t getting the exposure they deserve because people are using Journey covers instead, but I’ve come to realize that my gut was wrong, dead wrong, as indeed it is in so many things. (Corn dogs for lunch AND dinner? What was I thinking?!)  For a show about the lives and loves of high school students, using existing pop songs is the only appropriate artistic choice.  Nothing could ring truer.

There is one missing element in the equation, though, which is Rihanna herself.  When high school students—or people in general, rather—rely on pop songs to give weight and validity to their emotions, they don’t make a clear separation between the song and the artist.  Maybe Rachel should have been imagining herself singing a duet with Rihanna instead of just singing with her fellow gleeks.  Or maybe she should have been imagining herself singing as Rihanna, although I’ve got no earthly idea of how one could put that on film without it looking ridiculous.

And this actually points to a slightly more general problem with the show’s use of pop songs.  They seem to want us to sever these pieces from their original performers and their original contexts, which I’m beginning to think is just not possible.  Look, I don’t care if they’re using the radio edit, isn’t there something very alarming about showing a pasty white high school teacher from Ohio dancing around with his students and rapping “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger/ but she ain’t messin with no broke – broke – broke?”  Again, it’s totally believable that he would use the song to process through his marital difficulties.  But if he did, it would probably look something more like the way the guys in Office Space relate to gangsta rap, that is, more like an appropriation of a culture which is not his own, and one which he fundamentally does not understand.

But this is a minor quibble.  Glee—and the Rihanna number in particular—has me psyched for a busy fall schedule of tv-watching.  Check back in a couple weeks for my take on the premiere of Community, and some of my favorite returning shows.

6 Comments on “Overthinking The Fall 2009 TV Lineup:  Glee”

  1. Genevieve #

    I disagree with some of this… but then, I’m pretty disagreeable, so that’s not surprising.

    One minor quibble: you can watch the 2nd ep in its entirety on fox.com right now (I did so last night) so, unless there’s something inherently superior about hulu that I’m somehow missing, there’s no reason to wait.

    Anyway, about which “Take a Bow” setting was the “real” one. I had sort of assumed that it was, in fact, the one on stage – or perhaps *both* the one on stage and the one in the mirror. I came to this conclusion based on the fact that Rachael’s previous scene concluded with her asking Will if she could use the auditorium to rehearse, after school. Given the ridiculously short time in which she cobbled together a performance-ready version of “Let’s Talk About Sex,” it’s totally believable within the world of the show that she and the other wunderkind gleek girls could’ve indeed been rehearsing, in those shots. I’d have to watch it again, but I remember the theater being pretty dark and the lighting being rather simple, both of which speak against the likelihood that it was an actual (if imagined) performance.

    I also want to pull this idea out for further discussion: “When high school students—or people in general, rather—rely on pop songs to give weight and validity to their emotions, they don’t make a clear separation between the song and the artist.” I would disagree, heartily. I can’t quite figure out how to argue against it in any concrete sense; all I can say is that speaking from experience, having been a teenager who did such things on a pretty regular basis, my daydreams never involved duets, or me dressed up as the performer or anything. They were pretty much just me, being awesome. There is always, as a singer, an element of mimicry of *style* and even *voice quality* that tend to occur. Having never heard Rhianna or her version of this song, I can’t say whether Rachael’s voice was doing this. I also can’t speak for any other teen wanna-be-chanteuses; I’m just saying that the scenes sat right with my memories, while your challenges don’t.

    Oh, and I thought the radio edit of Gold Digger was “broke *bloke*” – that’s what it sounded like they were saying, anyway. It makes more logical sense… but given the history of radio edits, that makes it more likely that my hearing is wrong.


  2. Genevieve #

    Wow, I just reread my comment and it’s so incredibly negative! Sheesh. We both agree that the show is awesome :)


  3. stokes OTI Staff #

    Hmm. Back when I was being angsty, my music of choice tended to be angry guitar rock. Nirvana and the like. And I spent a lot of time thinking things like “Oh Kurt Cobain, you’re the only one who understands the torment of my poetic soul.” That’s what I mean when I say that the artist is involved… I never imagined myself as a member of Nirvana, but it meant a lot to me that someone out there was feeling the same things I felt. (Or so I imagined. I think it was a major milestone in my emotional development when I realized “Oh, wait a minute. His pain is waaaaaay worse than mine ever was.”


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I can’t imagine Stokes feeling angst. I’m going to try harder… now.

    Nope. Can’t do it.


  5. Genevieve #

    stokes, I can totally understand that (only for me it was Neil Peart instead of Kurt Cobain, but there’s no need to get into that.) The thing is, though, that these kids (and adults) are identifying with the music *as music,* not as part of a larger repertoire of the artists’ work. They may not even know any other songs by these singers or bands, let alone know them well enough to identify with the artists. With Rachael, we’re talking about a character who sings songs from Broadway shows that are older than she is. She may very well have never even heard any of the pop music until she went searching for sheet music for the club.

    Which brings me to another element you’re not accounting for, which is that these aren’t traditional fantasy sequences or musical interludes. These are show choir arrangements. It’s pretty much the standard M.O. of choir arrangements to divorce the songs as thoroughly as possible from their original contexts and performers. Most especially for characters like Will & Rachael, the music is taken for what it is. If anything, they might identify with the composer rather than the performer (eg, “Take a Bow” wasn’t written by Rihanna) – but I still don’t see how that could be convincingly integrated into a show that so definitively (by the very nature of the show choir conceit) allows the characters to have their own take on the music.


  6. Gab #

    I’m with Genevieve, I saw the stage setup of the Rhianna song as “Leaving on a Jet Plane” in the pilot, as in it was genuinely happening and juxtaposed with other scenarios that feed into the interpretation/meaning the song is supposed to have. So I think the “fantasy” for Rachel is when she’s singing in the hallway.

    I hadn’t realized what made it feel so familiar until I read your mention of _Pushing Daisies_. You’re right, it’s extremely similar- although, I must say, the banter in _Pushing Daisies_ is a bit better.


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