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.

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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.

What I'd failed to consider in orchestrating the gift was that it wasn't the show choir thing itself that interested my boyfriend, at least not primarily. What primarily interested him, and what primarily interests the vast majority of the other television consumers who made Glee the top-rated entertainment series among teens and the third-highest among adults for a while, is the repeat characters, the snappy dialogue, the sustained dramatic narrative—basically, the things common to all good TV. The show choir thing is merely a theme, a shtick, a treatment, a leitmotif.

At first, Glee met with considerable acclaim, much of it with specific regard to its achievement of the musical motif. Certainly, these approbations are deserved. First of all, in any staged production, viewer subscription to the shtick at hand comes at a cost, and the show choir motif is surely more exacting than most, simply for those added dimensions of all the singing and dancing. Given everything about the character of Rachel Berry as played by Lea Michele, on my rostrum, securing Idina Menzel to play Rachel's mother earns Casting Director Robert Ulrich the silver medal in Casting a Series Regular's Mystery Absentee Birth Mother. (The gold, by the way, goes to Leslie Litt for the choice of Teri Garr to play Phoebe Buffay's.) Likewise, staging something like "Thriller/Off With Your Head" (of Glee Season 2, Episode 22) probably required a lot more pre-planning and precision than do many other shows' biggest big-group scenes, e.g. in Season 1, Episode 7 of Girls, the Bushwick warehouse party at which Shoshanna has a crackcident. Moreover, there is no denying the unique something about the element of music itself, that something it does for homo sapiens sapiens that nothing else quite can. And Glee has really nailed these things. In February 2011, halfway through its second season, the Glee cast broke Elvis Presley's record for the most titles on the Billboard Hot 100 list; by February 2012, the group had become the eighth-best-selling digital artist of all time. But if you control for the relative labor intensity and preconscious magnetism, show choir is still a motif like any other. As it turns out, on its own, no motif is enough.

In the years before Glee, co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk collaborated on Nip/Tuck, wherein the leitmotif was—need I say it?—a plastic surgery practice. Nip/Tuck was the number-one basic cable series among 18-to-49-year-olds for five of its six seasons and was even said to have changed cable TV. The medical students I've known often congregate for first-runs of such shows as Nip/Tuck and Grey's Anatomy, during which they shout things like "THAT's not even a real body part!" at the TV and high-five each other. But other than this small contingent, the vast, vast majority of Nip/Tuck fans were not nodding thoughtfully at the closing credits, switching off their sets, and then heading out to jostle each other for seats in the nation's august surgical theaters. That preponderance of Nip/Tuck fans were not—just as the preponderance of Glee fans are not—watching for the motif but for the characters, the dialogue, the narrative, the "everything else." And although fans would never ask for it (indeed, it kind of hurts to even think about), the motif can be separated from the everything else, such that a successful execution of one does not guarantee a successful execution of the other; there may be no better proof of this than what's broadly considered the gradual deterioration of Glee.

Around the time that my boyfriend and I were realizing just how little we cared about show choir, Glee reviewers and recappers were starting to wonder whether the mounting of Glee's non-successes was anomalous or if non-success had become the new norm. Since then—that is, over the course of Season 3—the general consensus has only skewed more toward an expectation of mediocrity. The best episodes, it seems, are the ones in which the characters move forward in their lives, wherein they are occasionally inspired to break into improbably apposite song, replete with even-less-probably-perfect backup and choreography to match, à la what's always been endearing about the musical theater model. By contrast, those found to be the hokiest have been the "theme" episodes, where it seems the writers, for whatever reason—blind Rocky Horror devotion, an impulse to influence the MJ legacy, having lost a bet to the Brothers Gibb—engaged in all sorts of narrative contortions in order to accommodate some musical gimmick-of-the-week...that is, expected the music to carry the show, instead of the other way around. Those who once loved Glee now complain that the situations swing wildly between cloyingly trite and disruptively farfetched, that the narrative arc has become less arc and more disjointed, jumbled mess, that the social messaging has become so chintzy that that the show resembles a weekly public service announcement or pulpit sermon. To top it all off, many of the first-three-season regulars have graduated from McKinley High School, which has engendered a panicky cycle of speculation and reassurance between those who create the show and those who consume it.

That night two Aprils ago, we'd been there maybe an hour and a half when my boyfriend asked me how much longer remained in the show. His eyes held that honeyed, slightly stunned look that comes from eating an entire king-size pack of Sour Punch straws for dinner (which, because I'd hocked our shot at hot pizza for proximity to Slater, he had), but they bugged out a little when I consulted my program and told him that Large Mixed Finals would probably wrap up in another four or five hours. Actually, my own eyes were bugging a little, too. So we left. As it turns out, without any cohesive narrative to follow, and especially once the singers we've watched grow and maybe come to love have deserted the stage, show choir on its own, even excellently executed, isn't really enough to keep us in our seats.