Using Its Voice: Glee Shows Us What Kind of Musical(s) It’s Made of

Last week’s episode of Glee was all about its characters finding their true voice; and this one was, to me, ultimately about the series demonstrating its own voice and its space within the world of contemporary musicals. I don’t know what exactly I expected when I heard Joss Whedon would be directing, although it did send me diving for my Buffy The Vampire Slayer sing-along DVD. What I didn’t expect was an episode that didn’t feel like Whedon at all but felt intensely like Glee, more specifically the Glee that endeared itself to me in the first half of the season. What has always appealed to me about Glee, and apparently to Joss Whedon based on this episode and his interview on Fox’s website , was the show’s delicate balance of tongue-in-cheek bitter cynicism, which keeps Glee blessedly away from High School Musical territory, and a sometimes heartbreakingly authentic sentimentality that draws me into a deeply emotional engagement with the characters and a desire to see them triumph. As others on this blog have mentioned, the stunt shows, focusing around a musical theme or dance conceit, are fun but can bring the show away from its narrative engagement and this mix of sincerity and cynicism that musical numbers have often been harnessed in service of.

“Dream On” brought back this dynamic and foregrounded it in contrast to some of the more music-themed recent episodes. Neil Patrick Harris is the king of bitter(sweet) cynicism, and his performance as Bryan Ryan maintained the comedy in what otherwise was in danger of becoming a maudlin episode. Rachel and Artie’s storylines gave both characters an opportunity for growth. Artie’s triumphantly joyful flash mob scene (fangirl moment – thank you Glee, for a flash mob!) in particular made his final moments of aching vulnerability that much more poignant. There has been reflection on this blog about the way that Glee sometimes uses, one might even say exploits, disabled characters for emotional endings and to humanize its more difficult characters (Sue and Rachel), and Artie’s storyline comes dangerously close to becoming part of this trend. There are certainly issues with how Artie’s storyline is presented in this episode, and I leave those issues for other commentators more knowledgeable in these areas. Problematic though this is, it is consistent with the series’ ethos from the beginning. The show has always undermined its own after-school special themes, or at least made them less saccharine, by unabashedly drawing on stereotypes and refusing after-school special endings: Artie cannot dance, Tina doesn’t do the “right” thing. All is not well in McKinley High. If it were, it wouldn’t be Glee.

That this episode spoke most clearly with what I feel is Glee’s unique voice is made even more important through its intertextuality, which evoked a self-awareness on the part of the series about its place amongst contemporary musicals. Here again we return to Joss Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris. Both figures have had important roles in bringing contemporary uses of the musical to television and the web. They worked together on the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Neil Patrick Harris has performed in musical episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Whedon’s musical episode of Buffy often makes lists of the best musical television episodes of all time. In this same episode that the guest director and guest star positioned Glee within the contemporary use of the musical on television, we discover that Shelby Corcoran is Rachel’s mother. Shelby is played by Idina Menzel, who originated Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, with Glee guest star Kristin Chenoweth. Menzel and Chenoweth further link Glee to the tradition of the contemporary musical that may be a much more appropriate reference here than for the more obvious, but deceptive, High School Musical. Contemporary musicals have become increasingly mature, cynical, parodic and subversive, trends that Glee falls squarely within. In an episode so drenched in references to the contemporary musical context, it was all the more important that Glee followed the examples of its characters in the last episode and emphasized its own unique voice. Whedon showed himself to be a true Gleek by emphasizing the voice of the show over his own.


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19 Responses to “ Using Its Voice: Glee Shows Us What Kind of Musical(s) It’s Made of ”

  1. Christine Becker on May 20, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    I too greatly appreciate the darker undercurrents of Glee, but I think fitting minority identity characters like Artie into that scheme needs to be tackled more carefully than this episode did. I hated the Artie plotline, not because it ended sadly, but because that sadness was generated solely from his disability, and a fundamental distortion of his disability at that, the narrow-minded idea that he can’t dance. Could someone please introduce the concept of wheelchair dancing to Ryan Murphy and friends? Somehow, in all her spinal cord injury research, Tina never stumbled across anything on it?!

    • Lindsay H. Garrison on May 20, 2010 at 6:08 PM

      I agree! Artie as tragic victim really bothered me – I hated that storyline.

    • Kristina Busse on May 20, 2010 at 6:47 PM


      I really felt that the dream of dancing that brought to the fore the casting of an able-bodied actor was problematic. But it was nothing compared to the ableist offensive ending where we see Artie sidelined. To me, however, this isn’t so much a misstep as it is indicative of the way glee handles minority issues in general–very carelessly and with little sensitivity!

    • Kyra Glass on May 20, 2010 at 7:20 PM

      I actually agree with you that Artie’s storyline had significant problems, particularly the ending and the ways in which it felt exploitive, and yes the lack of wheelchair dancing was bizarre, especially given the Proud Mary dance sequence. I fully admit to side stepping this issue because I wanted to address other things and I hoped others would discuss it in the comments instead. The question I am struggling with and this goes to Kristina Busse’s comment too is whether or not there is ever a situation that justifies the insensitive handling of minority issues. Here I am not talking about Artie’s storyline so much, which to me really is more exploitive then comedically or narratively driven. In other cases, Kurt, Mercedes, Rachel, I find myself internally wincing at some of the stereotypes used but then find myself equally, if not more, bothered when the show slips into after school special mode. Given that the show takes on all of it’s characters in sometimes offensive ways is there any excuse for these use of stereotypes or is it always inappropriate? I find myself torn on this issue and am curious about everyone else

      • Kristina Busse on May 21, 2010 at 1:56 PM

        Interesting question. Or rather, interesting binary of after school special and insensitive -isms, so to speak. I think there are certainly ways to walk that path without either resorting to platitudes or offenses.

        Said differently, the hipster -ism that pervades Glee seems to be an attempt to avoid the after school specialness you (and they) fear. But aren’t there ways to address ‘issues’ with complexity and without belittling them? The show has a plethora of amazing characters and yet at the end of the day, it defaults them into their caricature…

        As to your second more general question: the problem to me seems to be who does the talking/writing. In other words, I think there’s a real difference in representation of race depending on whether the writer/producer is white or of color. Likewise, given that we are steeped in systemic racism, I don’t think we should simply treat Sue’s stereotype the same way as “the other Asian”‘s!

        Finally, however, my one big issue with the show from the beginning was its generic shifting. I think certain caricatures might be acceptable in a text where everyone is drawn in sarcastic outlines. But the shows move back and forth between melodrama and satire affects these whiplash characterizations as well. Possibly because Rachel et al end up getting enough screen time to moderate the sharp stereotyping with more complex dramatic arcs…

        • Kyra Glass on May 21, 2010 at 10:22 PM

          Great points here. I didn’t mean to pose it as an either/or, which of course it isn’t, although Glee sometimes frames it this way. I completely agree about the difference depending on who is writing/producing the image is important as well as genre. This may come down to the question of how parodic Glee really is.

          • Kyra Glass on May 21, 2010 at 10:23 PM

            As well as whether any individual problematic image is being used parodically or simplistically, insultingly, exploitivly, etc.

          • Kristina Busse on May 21, 2010 at 10:29 PM

            I think that’s exactly it: parody cannot be simple repetition. That’s what got me about the Vogue video and about the general sense I’m getting in some contemporary pop culture where artists will do offensive things but frame it as ironic–as if their oh so pomo awareness of the offense suddenly makes it nonexistent.

            And now I feel like I want to reread The Joke and Its relation to the Unconscious 🙂

  2. Mary Beltrán on May 20, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    Thanks for this interesting post. I also found this the most fully realized, aptly paced and believably emotional-yet-joyfully snarky episode yet, and was impressed with how Joss Whedon was able to shore up the series with his direction, support the show’s original ethos as you note, and still offer some of the most inspired musical numbers to date (the flash mob dance scene, with its postmodern inclusion of some of the ensemble members – seemingly as themselves rather than their characters! Morrison and Harris’s duets! And of course the former glee clubber support group). I’m left wondering if Glee will ultimately make Broadway musicals seem more accessible to a wider audience.

  3. Mary Beltrán on May 21, 2010 at 7:53 AM

    I just wanted to also weigh in briefly on the series’ treatment of Artie in the episode and the reliance on stereotypical associations with race, physical ability, gender, etc. in the series overall. I see the series as very problematic in this regard. However, to some degree, I see it simply more obvious and honest in foregrounding that the primary POV that we see on television, all the time, is white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, and ableist – and making that problem central to its ethos and in fact to the characters’ conflicts. It doesn’t in any way make the show PC, but it does open up possibilities for dialogue in a way most shows don’t. In addition, in the tradition of the musical it does include fantasy elements that perhaps can be understood differently than we would interpret “realistic” storylines; would Artie not dream of being able to dance?

  4. Christine Becker on May 21, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    I do sometimes feel funny for criticizing Glee’s minority representations when it’s one of the few shows on TV making an effort to genuinely offer them. But then again, if it’s going to do that, it perhaps has more responsibility to negotiate them wisely than a show that doesn’t explicitly put itself across as teaching us Very Special Lessons about identity issues. And that’s what ultimately drives me nuts about this aspect of Glee: the writers rely on stereotypes but clearly intend to self-consciously interrogate them, even mocking the show’s own shortcomings therein (Sue poaching the minorities saying the glee club never features them, “Other Asian”). So yes, it calls attention to and forces thought about that. But then it rarely delivers on consistently deepening its minority representations in the end, making it a huge missed opportunity. Tying that back in with Artie, I can see that Artie would dream of being able to dance abled-style, but then the rest of the storyline reduces him to just that as a tragic shortcoming, hence becoming a huge missed opportunity. To further clarify why I find it so problematic in this way, I’ll cite this quote I saw from a recap ( “[Kevin McHale] can move & I hope the writers are able to work in another way to get him out of his chair & dancing again sometime soon.” So the episode has encouraged this reviewer to be excited for the moments when the disabled character is not disabled, which signals to me a very problematic representation.

    • Kristina Busse on May 21, 2010 at 2:03 PM

      Great comment, and it really articulates my discomfort with the show. or rather, my discomfort with the reception of the show. Because you’re totally correct to point out that it’s somewhat unfair to hold the show to a higher standards because it already tries. But the trying and failing (and to my mind, the substitution of succeeding with ironic mocking thereof!) with its subsequent praise from its audiences in many cases makes it to me more toxic than other shows with huge race, gender, ability issues.

      [To say it differently, I’d always say I love Supernatural in spite of its race and gender issues. But I’ve heard too many Glee fans love the show because of its minority representation!]

  5. Allyse Knox on May 21, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    I agree that Glee can be taken more in context with the contemporary musical than with something like High School Musical…and it’s done that with casting from the beginning, not just with guest stars but with its regulars, which include Matthew Morrison (Hairspray, Light in the Piazza) and Lea Michelle (Spring Awakening), and continuing with Lea Michelle’s Spring Awakening costar Jonathan Groff. I particularly appreciate the way the show mixes in Broadway songs as just another part of pop culture–which they are to many of us who are growing up in this mashup generation. I would argue that part of Glee’s voice is this reckless mixture of influence, which is not entirely unique, but is truer to the way our lives are infiltrated with pop culture in our contemporary cultural moment than I’ve seen most television be.

  6. Allyse Knox on May 21, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    About Artie’s story line in this episode…I just realized I didn’t work it in to that comment.

    I believe, for the most part, that this episode was very true to his character. Just because someone has accepted their condition–and I was watching for this at the episode, and caught it somewhat in his explanation to Tina that “it’s okay”–doesn’t mean they can go back and forth about abilities they have lost, particularly in Artie’s case, as someone who wants to dance but can’t anymore, or alternatively, as a teenager who wants to be “normal.” I think acknowledging that his spinal cord injury has been difficult for him, and continues to be so every once in a while, is part of representing his honest experience.

    However, his life is not a tragedy. What I would like to see is Glee emphasize the ways in which Artie’s particular diversity can be celebrated or understood as something other than a hindrance to his dreams–to be able to focus on his disability without representing it as negative. If the writers took this step, I would be blown away. Unfortunately, I don’t particularly expect them to do this…

    • amanda klein on May 21, 2010 at 12:34 PM

      Yes, of course it makes sense that Artie would wrestle with what it means to be in a wheelchair throughout his life–especially in high school when being like everyone else is so important. But his passion for dance seemed to come out of nowhere in last night’s episode–and seemed to work better for the episode’s theme of “Dreams” than it did for his character.

  7. amanda klein on May 21, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    Christine, I totally agree with you re: Artie’s brief flirtation with able-bodiedness. It seemed odd that he suddenly wanted to DANCE RIGHT NOW, despite the fact that he has an irreversible spinal cord injury. In other words, one would think he had come to terms with a lot of those emotions years ago. Once again the show seemed to bend character to the needs of the evebing’s plot (i.e., what is your dream?). And surely Tina could have choreographed a better routine incorporating his wheelchair.

    Nevertheless, I kind of agree with the review you quoted in that I LOVED seeing McHale dance. He has this nerdy persona on the show, with the sweater vests and horn-rimmed glasses, so his fantastic hip hop moves were even more jolting. And I found myself swept up in his joyous routine.

    • Christine Becker on May 21, 2010 at 8:43 PM

      You’re hitting on what ties me in knots about this show. The Safety Dance routine was viscerally wonderful — joyful, awesomely shot, delightfully choreographed, clever — but was based on a premise that I hated (particularly in retrospect after I saw where the plotline went…or didn’t go). But in line with that, the review phrasing of “get him out of his chair & dancing again” is at the very least a poor choice of words.

  8. LeiLani Nishime on May 21, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    I agree with the above criticisms of Artie’s representation in last night’s episode, but I was also thrilled to see the final number with Tina and Mike, the Other Asian. I can’t remember another instance of seeing two Asians dancing together (unless you count _America’s Best Dance Crew_) on a television show. Even though in the narrative Mike is merely a substitute for the partner Tina really wanted, this is the first time Mike got to be front and center for an entire number. Their routine reminded me of the documentary _Forbidden City, U.S.A._ and the excitement I felt at seeing Asian Americans express a kind of physical exuberance that so rarely makes it into mass media.

    Part of my discomfort with the representation of Artie comes from how much I enjoyed the flash mob sequence. It was a great number, but I wonder if there was a way to convey that same kind of joy with Artie dancing in his wheelchair. It seems to set up this dichotomy between artistic expression and being able bodied and silent resignation and being in a wheelchair.

    • Kyra Glass on May 22, 2010 at 10:21 AM

      I love your comment and I think it entirely hits on the problems/pleasures of Glee. Part of my own discomfort came not just from loving the flash mob sequence on a pure performance number level but also how close to tears I was brought by his performance of the last song. Even as a part of me objected on political grounds I couldn’t help by getting swept away but the emotions and then feeling guilty for doing so. I suppose what we can hope for is that the tensions in the show create that kind of self-awareness for viewers to reflect on how complicated issues of representation really are.