Glee: The Countertenor and the Crooner, Part 2

May 10, 2011
By | 8 Comments

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.


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8 Responses to “ Glee: The Countertenor and the Crooner, Part 2 ”

  1. Kristina Busse on May 10, 2011 at 4:58 PM

    Allison, I’m enjoying you focus on the male voice–last week and even more this week.

    However, I’m a bit troubled by the conflation of voice, gender, and sexuality that you disavow in the earlier parts of your post yet all but replicate later on. I think that the embracing and reappropriation of negative stereotypes is a powerful move yet requires complex negotiations. To be had, I fear that as much as Kurt and Colfer’s merging of queer empowerment, feminine diva embrace and the countertenor functions as an immensely strong statement, it simultaneously reinforces the voice/gender/sexuality conflation that could usefully be challenged.

    [And I’m writing this only in part as mom to a teenage boy soprano who had chosen to perform Blackbird the week Kurt sang it and was certainly aware of the connotations his performance thus invoked. :)]

  2. Racheline on May 11, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    This is my favorite thing on the Internet today.

    As a genderqueer, female-bodied person who can only wander near the upper parts of Colfer’s range on very good days with my voice teacher, it has been ridiculously pleasing to me to listen to a male voice that’s aspirational for me.

    Glee, which is often incoherent about many issues, seems to make its most interesting choices about gender and queerness around music (the layers of potential meaning in the song they had Blaine sing in the prom episode, for example, is something I have to get around to writing about as soon as I have time), even as I’m not always a fan of how the show tends to under-utilize the musical format with often mundane justifications for performance.

  3. Allison McCracken on May 11, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    Hi Kristina, and thanks so much for your comment.

    I honestly think Kurt’s character is an unalloyed good. He literally gives voice to the large number of gay/queer kids who have high-pitched voices and love show tunes but have been scorned by both the straight and gay communities because of general hostility to the cultural feminine. I kept thinking of a quote by Eve Sedgwick when I was writing about Kurt: “In dealing with an open secret structure, it’s only by being shameless about risking the obvious that we happen into the vicinity of the transformative.” Because Colfer’s performance is so brilliant, he has reclaimed the high-pitched voice for all boys, and he helps all of us better appreciate what we have been missing by not having a voice like his in the mainstream. From what I have observed regarding Colfer’s fandom, his popularity crosses all kinds of age/identity boundaries. I think it truly remarkable that kids can now grow up wanting to sing like Kurt, and I believe this will, in time, reduce the stigma surrounding voices like his.

    I do feel, however, that it is also important that there are a variety of straight/gay/queer characters singing on the show, and that singing isn’t only aligned with gay men or even with one type of gay man. Singing is shown to be liberating for all young people, especially straight boys; critiquing the stigma attached to singing is one the core tenants of the show. Moreover, as Racheline suggests in her comment following yours, there are any number of gender-queer performances on Glee that continually disrupt social norms and gender/sex binaries. But more on that next week!

    (And go boy sopranos!)

  4. […] in. And we can all discuss how Kurt’s effeminate or has traits associated with femininity (this piece on the significance of his being a counter tenor is about my favorite thing on the Intern…) all day long but none of that necessarily has any bearing on either his gender identity or how he […]

  5. […] > There’s quite a cool article on the implications of Chris Colfer’s/Kurt Hummel’s countertenor here: […]

  6. Joanne on May 15, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Thank you for a fascinating article which helps me understand my own admiration for Colfer’s singing, and for your location of Colfer in the history of countertenors in popular music. Despite my admiration, I have to admit I am sometimes made uncomfortable by Colfer’s voice because it IS so unique for our times right now; I don’t always know how to digest it seeing as how we are usually fed a mainstream binary-gendered musical diet. Colfer’s utter commitment to his own voice helps with this discomfort, as does the growing number of others who appreciate it. Colfer, and the Glee creators, are to be admired for going towards that which is beautiful and true in this particular story line. On a personal note, I myself (straight female ally, middle age) love to sing but have been too inhibited in recent years to express this. Kurt/Chris has helped me rediscover my voice, and I especially enjoy belting out “Defying Gravity” in my car as a daily anthem to reach for what you want in life (much to the mirth, I’m sure, of other commuters on the road).

  7. Ama on May 15, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    This is a very well-written and well thought-out article. It’s very gratifying to see an analysis of such a groundbreaking character that focuses on Chris Colfer’s unquestionable talent, rather than the sometimes uneven work of the writers. My only question is whether there is another version of “Rose’s Turn” that could be used in this article; having listened to the original about 87 times, I could tell within half a second that this version was actually modified to make Colfer’s voice lower, which is good if you want to avoid the song being raided by Fox on YouTube, but bad if you’re writing an article praising his high voice!

  8. Jacq on May 19, 2011 at 6:50 AM

    I love this series you’ve written so much. As a female tenor, I was never looked upon with much suspicion, so I was shocked at the kind of rhetoric that was leveled at Chris Colfer when Glee really started to take its place in popular culture.

    I admit, I had no idea about the history of countertenors. It’s funny though, you can see how it gets missed. Most choirs find themselves inundated with women, which is why many of us end up singing tenor if we can manage it, but choirs are rarely at a loss for people to sing alto or soprano parts.

    I hope you write more. These articles are positively delicious.