Glee Club: Performing Recordings

April 29, 2010
By | 7 Comments
The consensus seems to be that Tuesday’s episode of Glee was terrible.  Since I’m not really a Gleek, this post is not really about what was awesome or cringeworthy this week.  Rather, I want to express some tentative thoughts on the peculiar nature of the soundtrack in Glee and why the soundtrack both pulls me in and repels me from the program.

What strikes me most about the series is that it deals with visual space but that audio space is mostly absent.  Throughout the series, the glee club has struggled to obtain auditorium rehearsal time.  The members have struggled with the structural limitations of the choir room as a practice venue and Sue Sylvester’s efforts to remove any claim the club has on the use of school space.  In one of the most interesting moments of “Home,” Mercedes does a rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” replacing Aguilera’s use of the second-person pronoun with I/we.  The performance number mixes Cheerios and glee club members in the same space – the center of the gym – that has only been occupied up to this point by the Cheerios and school athletes.

Outside of basic sound design rules dealing with the intelligibility of dialogue, editing, and mixing, techniques for achieving and communicating reverberation, distance, and space have little importance in the series.  Occasionally, as in the roller rink scene last night where Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” plays over the sound system, the actual recordings of songs are used for atmospheric effect.  However, these diegetic songs are often supplanted by the diegetically motivated (but clearly lip-synched) songs that are the hallmark of the series.  These numbers are clearly overproduced, largely erasing the “grain of the voice” from the picture.  Regardless of the performance space (interior, exterior, living room, auditorium, choir room, school hallway, gymnasium), environmental acoustics never play an integral role.   Of course, the desire to sell soundtrack CDs and the difficulties of actually doing real live vocal performance while shooting sequences militate against truly authentic performances.  But these economic and industrial exigencies don’t preclude post-production negotiations that could lead to moments of audiovisual play similar to those in Murphy’s Nip/Tuck.

It has been interesting to hear voices with more vocal power (Chenoweth, Menzel, and Lynch) and not just the young adult voices of the glee club members.  Personally, knowing that musical theater stars such as Chenoweth, Morrison, and Menzel can belt it out for real reduces the gap between the recording and the televisual performance.  As reactions to the show illustrate, however, the creators need to wrestle with how to balance screen time and song time between the adult and teen characters.


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7 Responses to “ Glee Club: Performing Recordings ”

  1. Mary Beltrán on April 29, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    Thanks for raising the interesting issues of the series’ production of the music and the related narrative arc that keeps coming up of the glee club’s struggles to find space in which to rehearse and perform their music. In my opinion, this is part of the story line’s need to keep posing the glee clubbers as underdogs; all the better to enjoy their scrappy carrying-on and rising above these petty and sundry obstacles through song and dance. Similarly, while I know viewers are divided on the glossy, overproduced nature of the lip-synched musical numbers, I’m in the camp that loves their utopic excesses. If they can do it, who’s to think I couldn’t pause a lecture mid-sentence and sing full throttle, just as suddenly backed up by my students in four-part harmony and carefully choreographed dance moves? Just saying.

    • Jonathan Gray on May 1, 2010 at 12:19 AM

      vis-a-vis your closing point, I think I have your ideal class here, the first lecture for the new Entertainment Industries program in Queensland University of Technology. Watch all the way through, as it keeps adding tricks:

  2. amanda klein on April 30, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    Thanks for addressing the issue of diegetic song production in this show. I want to love this show (since I love musicals so much) but the way the musical numbers are produced drives me up the wall. The show has so much invested in our emotional attachment to these characters as outcasts who love music so much that they can’t help but burst into song, but when the music that emerges is so clearly detached from the mise en scene in the show (I imagine the actors in the studio singing their numbers as I watch them lip synch on the show), I think it really ruins the effect. The show has the ability to incorporate the acoustics of the mise en scene into these numbers, but it doesn’t and I can’t figure out why.

    • Myles McNutt on April 30, 2010 at 1:32 PM

      If my memory serves me correctly, the show has done a few examples of live performance: I believe a couple of the auditions in the pilot were live, and the entire cast performed Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” (which you can watch, in poor quality, here) in “Throwdown.” And what fascinates me is that the show doesn’t do this more often: as Amanda points out, there are plenty of opportunities to break down the admittedly infectious utopia the overproduction creates to get at something deeper – it’s something the show used really well in “Wheels” when Kurt cracked on the High F in “Defying Gravity” – suddenly the recording stopped and the scene took over.

      Perhaps the show would argue that because these moments are so uncommon they stand out more and have a greater impact, but I’m just imagining something like the start of Mercedes’ performance of “Beautiful” sounding less produced and seeming more vulnerable, and I’m that much closer to not finding it a cloying mess.

      All of this said, I am entirely up for Mary’s teaching strategy, and will spend my summer brushing up on harmonies in preparation.

  3. Lindsay H. Garrison on April 30, 2010 at 10:07 AM

    Thanks for this Ben – I think you’ve touched on a really important aspect of the show. I actually love the fact that the numbers are over-produced; I enjoy reveling in their excess. It always makes me giggle when you see the band suddenly appear, or they’re all of a sudden in a totally different room, magically transported in a single verse. For me, those moments signal the ways in which the students (and viewers) can find pleasure in song, that music is for them (and us) a utopian break from their lives as outcasts.

    Also, Mary, I would LOVE to see you sing full throttle while lecturing. I’d totally jump up and sing back-up! 🙂

  4. Kelly Kessler on May 1, 2010 at 2:45 PM

    Just a few quick comments.

    First, I really understand what you mean about the over-production. It drove me nuts from the beginning. As someone who really digs the musical, the falseness of the over-produced moment (also very common in most contemporary movie musicals and the over-mic-ed quality of many stage musicals) drove me nuts. I have been able to live with the show by clinging onto a statement made by a friend. She had suggested that the over-produced nature is what the glee kids (and others) sound like in their own somewhat delusional heads. I’m able to get by on that.

    On another note, I would just like to point out that many of the “teen” voices bring with them the legitimacy of the stage (not just Morrison, et al.). Lea Michele (Rachel), Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina), and Jonathan Groff (Jesse St. James) are all on the heels of their performances in the Tony-winning Spring Awakening. I also stand by Artie (ex-boy-band member), Mercedes (American Idol reject), and Kurt. I don’t find myself questioning their skills or vocal authenticity. Although I find extratextual pleasure in the adults and the appearance of Broadway cameos, I don’t think it’s because they provide me better vocals.

    On a final note, I’m not sure why this is the case, but I continue to be swept up in the emotion of the musical numbers, despite the over-production. I re-watched the “Sectionals” episode and cried about 5 times. Almost every time it was linked to a cut from the performers to Schu or Emma listening to them.

  5. Ron Becker on May 2, 2010 at 8:31 AM

    I think Ben’s comments about the musical production numbers are also interesting when put in relation to American Idol’s emphasis on live performances–not only in the live broadcasts designed to counteract time shifting but also in the rough, live versions of performances fans can purchase. Although at some point (perhaps after it gets down to the top 12?) American Idol seems to produce full studio versions of each song, in the earlier stages of the contest, fans purchase the short, live, under-produced versions (I assume to make the process as efficient and cheap as possible.) Regardless, I am struck by how unusual the experience of listening to those versions is. It reminds me of the old days (the 80s!) when I would simply put a tape recorder to my parents TV and record the theme music from my favorite shows (e.g., Falconcrest, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Double Trouble…remember that one!). While I like the studio versions of the American Idol songs, listening to them doesn’t create the same sense of connection to the program as listening to the live ones does. For me, the highly produced songs on Glee have a similar effect, but actually distance me from the character and stories while I’m watching them.