Music Made 'Glee,' and Music Killed It

The once-great show has become the victim of its own gimmick.


On a muggy Saturday not long ago, New York's Hammerstein Ballroom is both packed and operating on General Admission seating, or "trip someone if you have to." In spite of that, and of the fact that my then-boyfriend and I arrived late, we've snagged terrific seats in orchestra, front-and-center. When the houselights dim, a mere two rows separate us from the stage, on which some 50 high-school girls in identical cardigans and circle skirts are swinging into motion, dancing, miming, singing, smiling, under spotlights so bright we can count the brackets on their braces.

We are at—ready?—the Finale National Show Choir Championships. In recent months, my boyfriend has shown an abrupt and obsessive interest in Glee, and what better birthday gift for a new fan, I reasoned, than taking the TV show of his obsession, adding "reality," and subtracting "TV?" Glee, Fox's musical dramedy about a high school show choir (or "glee club"), has been a hit. I assumed that there'd be a corollary proliferation of real-life glee club fans out there, just waiting to jostle me for tickets. I agonized over them, checking Ticketmaster multiple times daily and several times telephoning the Finale National headquarters to inquire about whether I'd somehow missed them (which it always turned out I hadn't). The representatives were consistently very nice about it, but never so nice that I felt invited to ask why they hadn't issued a public "thank you for your patience" to all us fans who were starting to get kind of peeved that tickets were going on sale so much later than promised. When at last the purchase came together (and my blood pressure, down) and at last the day arrived, I assumed we'd be tripping throngs of art-appreciating New Yorkers (and other Tri-State Area'ers who knew what was good for them) in the GA kerfuffle. Instead, the august venue's upper tiers are filled with show choirs waiting their turn, and the lower ones, with parents—parents to whom those third-row orchestra spots are, in one moment, more precious than the gold plating on their own darling's teeny first character shoes and then, with the change of an act, worth less than the microwave pizza they can still get from the hot concession if they hustle. And so these tony seats—still warm!—are ours.

The girls on stage, who make up the first contender in the Women's Finals, are doing a number about the pleasures of keeping house and husband. Together, they have the affect of a warbling, regressive kaleidoscope. When the music slows and they all come to a standstill, there appears before their assemblage a conductor—the same conductor who, we've been informed, won't take his show choir anywhere without bringing along his concert choir (read: no dancing, no costumes, just singing), too. And this artistic eccentricity of his is apparent in the sound of his show choir: the harmonies and blending are exquisite, and the singers' compliance with the direction of his hands, flawless. For all our proximity, I can't identify the soloist, which is maddening because the voice is so very, very pure. Even when it is singing, I cook like Betty Crocker and I look like Donna Reed, its movement is unencumbered by vibrato or other gratuitous trills; its nimble climb along the melody is, like the tune's own resolution, utter relief.

A relief, too, is my realization that these uncomfortably retrograde lyrics amount only to the first number in a medley whose theme is different financial arrangements a woman might experience, from "Desperate Housewives" to "Independent Woman." Okay, so it's still a little heteronormative (has this school no Kurt Hummel of its own to object??), but as messages to women coming of age in Middle America go, I'll take it. There are flubs of choreography here and there: Some are probably noticeable to few others than the given singer's mother; some are more conspicuous, like the way the little redheaded girl keeps posing with her hand in a fierce claw when everyone else is doing a uniform hip thing, like maybe she was out sick the day the director said, "I've changed my mind; let's get rid of the ad-libbing." But on the whole, it's good—really, really, really good. In between sets, we get performances by an American Idol finalist and the winners of America's Best Dance Crew. As if all that wasn't enough, guess who's emceeing? Mario Lopez. Not. Even. Kidding.

Clearly, I should retire now, having pulled off the ultimate birthday gift. Sure, instead of Kathy Griffin pretending to be a regional-show-choir-competition-judge-slash-conservative-politician, it's AC Slater pretending to be a national-show-choir-competition-host-slash-anything-other-than-hottest-jock-ever-to-hit-Bayside, but that's really the only difference. Basically, for one magical night, my lucky inamorato is getting to live Glee. I sneak sideways glances at him to see how he's enjoying it, if he needs more snacks, whether he's using his phone to email the relevant committee(s) about nominating me as Awesomest Girlfriend Ever, etc. Smugness abounds. That is, until I notice that he's been slumping lower and lower in his chair not because that's how seriously he's beta-dogging to the gleeful awesomeness unfolding before him, but because he's sleeping. When again the lights come up for a break in the action, I nudge him awake to guard the seats while I venture out to get fresh provisions from the non-hot (and, by now, only open) concession stand and indulge in some perambulatory sulking over how my gift has bombed.

This was in April 2011, a few weeks before Fox aired the episode of Glee that's been called "an uneven end to an uneven season," and perhaps I should have seen my boyfriend's apathy as no more than an ill-timed augury of the ebbing devotion of Gleeks on the whole. He was at that time just finishing medical school, and to temper my hurt at his snoozetastic reaction, he'd pointed out that if nothing else, this show choir safari had been a reminder that there are people out there—a LOT of people—who are thinking about something other than medicine. Indeed: Not only did the alien hoopla then swirling around us confound the my-tiny-world-is-the-only-world-view held by his own circumscribed cohort; it was also live evidence of the untold other circumscribed cohorts out there whose members, likewise, are surprised to discover people who are thinking about things other than THEIR own tiny world. The lobby I skulked sulkily out to that night was aswarm with teenagers whose t-shirts read "Ben Davis"; when I ventured to ask one of them who Ben Davis was, she replied with words that said, "um, Ben Davis High School?" but a tone that added, "Why are you waiting at this concession stand when you could just snack on your goobers-for-brains?" Having looked it up, I know now that Ben Davis is a public high school in Indianapolis, where it's considered something of a powerhouse in the competitive performing arts, but I didn't know it then. And why should I have? We were there as Glee fans, not high school show choir fans. As it turns out, there's a difference.

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Rachel Lieff Axelbank is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Boston magazine, PresenTense magazine, and The Jewish News of London

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