This episode has been hyped for quite a while, with news of Madonna’s approval for licensed use of her songs breaking last fall to Ryan Murphy’s discussion of Jane Lynch’s Vogue number at Paleyfest earlier this year, not to mention this great promo FOX has been running for the last few weeks. It’s the series’ first tribute episode, and who better, really, than Madonna?
Ryan Murphy (Glee‘s showrunner) has said that Madonna was like “the soundtrack of [his] life,” her music something he’s always found empowering. And that discourse of empowerment was somewhat central to the episode, even if the musical numbers weren’t incredibly central to the show’s overall narrative. Sue admits she is a Madonna fan; her lifelong dream is to pay homage to Madonna, a dream she begins to realize by choreographing a Cheerios routine to “Ray of Light” – on stilts. Will overhears the girls in glee club talking about guy problems, and worries that “teenage girls feel like they have no power.” His solution, in John Fiske-ian fashion, is to assign the glee club to sing Madonna songs, to find such characteristics as “strength,” “independence,” “quality,” and “confidence” in her music and in themselves.
Other than an umbrella-theme of empowerment, though, most of the songs in this episode served very little narrative or character-building purposes that the musical numbers often do in Glee. In fact, not much happened to move the narrative along too far at all this week (aside from Will and Emma deciding to call it off and Jesse moving to McKinley High, of course). But for me, like Mary and many Antenna readers, the story of the show is mostly secondary to the musical performances and overall fun and joy those bring to each episode.
Some numbers were better than others; I really wanted to love the “Express Yourself” set, featuring all female cast members trying to prove the boys wrong in their assumption that Madonna was “only for chicks.” But the empty stage and almost move-for-move choreography from the original Madonna video just made the scene fall flat. (The costuming, with each girl in a different color silk top, reminded me of Hannah Hamad’s great new article on FlowTV about color coding femininities in media culture). Similarly, the shot-for-shot remake of “Vogue” with Jane Lynch felt a little too restrained. I mean, this is Jane Lynch. She’s funny. Let her be funny! There’s certainly something cool and respectful about a shot-for-shot remake, but I think Lynch could really have knocked this out of the park if only she had been let loose to be a little more creative.
However, the “Open Your Heart” number brought a smile to my face with the various Madonna look alikes from different eras passing through the hallway. And the “Like a Virgin” sequence, which I thought might be ruefully cheesy with three (!) different couples on the brink of intimacy, was superbly produced and ended up being one of my favorite numbers of the night. (Will’s line to Emma that “you took ownership of your body when you said you weren’t ready” was probably one of my favorite Will lines ever.) The closing “Like a Prayer” sequence gave me outright goosebumps with Lea Michele’s stunning voice, incredible solos by Amber Riley and Chris Colfer, and the unbridled energy of the gospel choir.
In the end, after she doesn’t go through with the make-over at the hands of Kurt and Mercedes, Sue declares that she’ll “just leave the constant reinvention to Madonna.” In a way, it’s Glee, too, for whom constant reinvention is key to success. Many have marveled at the success of a musical in prime time, especially one that doesn’t come up with completely new and original music. But for Glee, it’s the re-invention that’s important – it works largely because it uses songs we already know and love to sing, and constantly reworks them in a way that is at once familiar and new. This episode serves as a prime example of the fun that can come from such reinvention, including teenage boys singing “What It Feels Like for a Girl.”
Other favorite moments: Kurt and Mercedes speaking up about not getting enough solos, and Brittany’s admission that “When I pulled my hamstring, I went to a misogynist.” An excellent follow up line to last week’s insight about dolphins.