This is the second in a series of articles on these male voices in Glee
Last year, in an undergraduate class on American Popular Culture of the 1900s-20s, I presented the historical concept that gender-fluidity in vocalizing was common and unquestioned in popular music at the time and that singers were valued by critics and the public for their wide ranges. The most prominent example was the countertenor, a male singer whose voice extends into the alto or soprano range, generally reaching to a high F above middle C (F5). Although I had examples of such singers from the period, the limitations of the recordings diminished their power, so I instead played a solo of Chris Colfer (as Kurt Hummel) singing “Defying Gravity” from that week’s Glee. This was Kurt’s first big number, performed as a duet on the show but also released in a solo version on iTunes. I asked the students to describe the voice to me. None of them yet followed Glee, and they were baffled. No one could say for certain whether the singer was male or female. For them, as for most of Glee’s audience, Colfer’s voice represented a new sound.
While countertenor soloists largely disappeared in the 1930s, from the 1890s-1920s, they were at the top of American popular culture. Publisher Edward Marks recalled that “they had a practiced quaver in their high, pure, almost soprano voices that served them for years.” Boy sopranos were also immensely popular and publishers employed them as song pluggers; their beauty and charm, as well as their affecting portrayal of the song’s narrative, was essential to selling sheet music.
Colfer’s is the first solo voice in recent memory to break into the mainstream as gender-queer, and as such, has become the site of both euphoria and anxiety. The gender ambiguity of his voice, specifically its “feminine” register, is always a prominent thread in discussions on websites ranging from YouTube to gay-specific blogs such as Towleroad, and this femininity is almost always framed as a problem (“he’s got a good voice, but he sings like a girl” or “he’s the worst gay stereotype”). Such responses reiterate dominant conflations of voice, gender, and sexuality, and Colfer’s deviations from these norms has spurred dismissive reactions to his “inauthentic” style and allegations of Auto-Tuning. But the nay-sayers only reinforce his cultural significance. Colfer and his voice embody the complex emotional life of what is usually the most ridiculed of gay stereotypes: the sissy. Initially a potentially stock character, Kurt has developed into a transformative one.
“Defying Gravity” is the earliest representation of what has become the Kurt/Colfer signature vocal performance sound and aesthetic: one that combines a soaring countertenor with a theatrical presentational style and, at the same time, a raw, emotional intensity and vulnerability that speaks to his marginalization as a gay teen in a hetero world. Colfer himself is an out gay adolescent, only twenty, with a long history of being bullied in school for his high-pitched voice. His character’s development has mirrored his own, and in the fall of Glee’s second season, Kurt’s arc synched up with the national grassroots campaign against gay bullying (“It Gets Better”). Colfer’s star discourse emphasizes the way he embraced his own difference by working hard to preserve his countertenor voice. While most adolescent boys are relieved to lose the stigma of femininity associated with a high pitch, Colfer fought to keep his by continually practicing songs in high ranges; he also preserved the vibrato trilling equally associated with effeminacy, which has become one of the most poignant, affecting aspects of his vocal production.
“Defying Gravity” both reflects Kurt’s character and transcends him, presenting the feminine male voice, as, quite literally, defiant. In Colfer’s hands, this song becomes a manifesto for a new generation of queer kids. Kurt is here defying the dominant gender norms that would keep his voice from taking flight, as well as defying the sex binaries of American mainstream culture that would prevent from him playing a girls’ role. In Glee’s narrative, Kurt protests at not being allowed to sing the song because “it is a girl’s song.” “Defying Gravity” is the beginning of Kurt/Colfer’s gradual erosion and queering of the gendered/sexed norms surrounding popular singing, which Glee most often presents through Kurt’s reclamation of the diva.
“Defying Gravity” began Glee’s practice of having Kurt reinterpret selections from the gay-fan canon of female diva performances, most of them from Hollywood or Broadway. While these songs are tributes to the singers, as well as an education in the history of gay sensibility, they are also an indicator that the torch is being passed. While the gay boy will surely continue to identify with (and sing along to) female singers, Kurt asserts that he can be his own diva, singing solos in traditionally female vocal ranges; Kurt performs “Le Jazz Hot” from Victor/Victoria because it allows him to “embrace my male and my female sides.” Kurt’s character thus gives young boys permission to make these diva songs their own. In “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, for example, Glee reframes the song as Kurt’s act of painfully, furiously, defining himself once and for all against normative masculinity, even as it is here represented by the father he loves; the reception of this performance by fans was particularly fervent and widely reproduced by many on YouTube:
At the same time, Kurt’s embrace of the cultural feminine has made him an icon of identification and desire for the girls who can sing along with him, and who share his feelings of isolation, longing, and gender-as-performance. When Kurt returns to the McKinley High glee club after briefly transferring to the Dalton boys school and meeting his dreamy crooner boyfriend Blaine (whom I will discuss in the next installment), he belts out his most showstopping performance yet, reinterpreting Norma Desmond’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the Sunset Blvd stage musical as the triumphant homecoming of a mature teen diva. The number affirms that change is indeed possible, that it gets better, and that the countertenor is back and ready for his close-up.