Glee Club – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Glee: The Countertenor and The Crooner, Part 3 Tue, 17 May 2011 14:10:48 +0000

Darren Criss, America's Boyfriend

This is the last of a 3-part series of articles on these male voices in Glee.

“Your eyes are like stars right now…Mind if I move in closer?” sings dreamy crooner Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss) to our countertenor hero, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), as they perform the classic Hollywood duet, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” This is only one of the many charming and provocative romantic overtures Blaine makes, in song, to Kurt as well as to other young men during the course of Glee’s second season, and it is only one of the many performances by Blaine, both with Kurt and with his a cappella group The Warblers, that queers the performance of a traditionally gendered song.

With Blaine’s character, Glee both honors and re-imagines the crooner for the new millineum. As I discussed in Part 1, the crooner has long been a liminal figure in American culture, operating both in the commercial mainstream and on the fringes of gender normativity, and has been culturally stigmatized for both reasons. But Dalton Academy is Glee’s version of Oz, where normative American gender expectations and roles have been suspended and gender hierarchies largely reversed. The allure of the prep/college boy culture has always been, in part, about prolonging male adolescence by delaying the assumption of normative male roles. Indeed, the first crooning idols originally emerged from college culture in the 1920s, and it is a world in which the crooner thrives.

Glee celebrates the crooner for the very qualities that masculinist America does not: his alignment with the cultural feminine through his preference for romantic songs and commercial pop, his status as an erotic object for male and female audiences, his beauty and sensitivity, his emotional openness and transparency. And Glee’s producers have cast an actor as Blaine, Darren Criss, whose star persona emphasizes and extends these same qualities to a remarkable degree. Like Kurt/Colfer, Blaine/Criss offers a new model of American male performer, one that goes beyond being gay-and-girl “friendly” to truly embracing a gender-queer performance style and persona. Blaine/Criss retains the sincerity of the crooner even as he performs beyond the boundaries of a fixed or normative gender identity.

As an all-male a cappella group, the Warblers sing de facto love songs to each other, a violation of gender norms that has generally made such groups accessible only to the cultural elite (they are dubbed by Tuft University’s Beelzebubs). But Glee takes its transgressions much further. Because Blaine is the lead singer, an out gay character, and seen primarily through Kurt’s desiring eyes, all of his performances have a homoerotic charge. Moreover, Blaine specializes in songs by female singers without changing the lyrics, thus often positioning himself in the feminine role, whether that be as the erotic object (the one who will “let you put your hands on me in my skin tight jeans”) of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” or the annoyed girlfriend of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.” When Blaine does play the seducer (he’s versatile), he serenades other boys as girls, for instance, when he continually addresses a male Gap store attendant as “baby girl” while wooing him with the Robin Thicke song “When I Get You Alone.”

It is Blaine’s musical performances with Kurt, however, that give emotional and narrative weight to the Warblers’ gender-play. When Kurt transfers back to McKinley, Blaine and the Warblers come to sing “Somewhere Only We Know” to him, evoking the “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” period of Kurt’s stay at Dalton, but assuring audiences that, unlike Dorothy, Kurt will retain both the maturity Dalton gave him and a dreamy prince:

This particular performance sparked euphoria among fans as soon as the single and the scene were released on Youtube, which happened a few days prior to the episode’s premiere. The verbal and physical reactions to crooning haven’t changed that much in 80 years; fans repeatedly cry when listening to the song, compliment Darren Criss on the beauty of his voice, claim to be falling in love as well as erotically aroused by him (“Can this song make me pregnant?”), and indicate “repeated abuse” of the replay button to prolong their ecstatic state. What is less common here is the context for such intense emotion: the fact that Blaine is singing this song to Kurt makes the song more rather than less meaningful for fans, who largely identify with Kurt and love Blaine as the boyfriend Kurt “deserves.” Cross-gender identification is common practice for television fans, who often create “slashed” homoerotic fiction surrounding a relationship that is not homoerotic in the text. In this case, however, the intensity of fan euphoria is tied to the text slashing itself, further naturalizing gay relationships by revising the rules of the musical genre. As the warm, pure-hearted crooner, Blaine becomes the perfect counterpart and love object for the more ambitious, complex Kurt and for fans.

Part of the reason Blaine is so beloved is because of the young man who plays him. Darren Criss himself occupies queer cultural space in that he identifies as straight but plays gay, champions the mass culture associated most with women and children (like Disney songs), and is more than happy to be an erotic object for both sexes (see, for example, his spread in Out magazine). Perhaps most unusual of all, Criss writes and performs songs from a female point of view even outside of the Blaine character. Criss composed the song “The Coolest Girl,” for the character of Hermione in a musical adaptation of Harry Potter. In concert, he often performs the song, asking the largely female audience to join in, since “I am not a girl, although I try to be sometimes”:

Just as Colfer provides a model for queer kids who have not yet been represented, so Criss provides an equally significant alternative model for queer straightness. Both performers, through Glee and beyond it, give voice to radically fluid adolescent masculinities that do indeed offer their audiences new ways to dream.


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Glee: The Countertenor and the Crooner, Part 2 Tue, 10 May 2011 13:00:38 +0000

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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Glee: The Countertenor and The Crooner Tue, 03 May 2011 11:00:40 +0000

This is the first in a series of articles on these male voices in Glee.


Part 1: The Trouble with Male Pop Singing


What immediately struck me about this still of Glee’s Chris Colfer (as Kurt Hummel) and Darren Criss (as Blaine Anderson) from Entertainment Weekly’s January 28, 2011 cover story is that this image might easily have been taken in the mid-to-late 1920s,  but it would have been unlikely to appear in the mainstream press since that time. Attractive young men in collegiate attire, sporting ukuleles or megaphones, singing to each other and to their adoring publics in high-pitched voices was a mainstay of 1920s American popular culture, then vanished during the Depression. Even the easy homoeroticism of a boy positioned between another boy’s legs dates back to popular images of the 1920s. In the early 1930s, a combination of greater media nationalization and censorship, increasing homophobia, and panic regarding the emasculating effects of male unemployment formed the context for the first national public attack on male popular singers as effeminate and as cultural degenerates. As a result, new, restrictive gender conventions became entrenched regarding male vocalizing, and the feminine stigma has remained. Until now, that is. The popularity of Glee, and, in particular, these two singers, has made me think that American culture may finally be starting to break with the gender norms of male singing performance that have persisted for the last 80 years. Since much of my research has focused on the establishment of these gendered conventions, I would like to offer some historical context and share some of the reasons why I find Glee’s representation of male popular singing so potentially groundbreaking.

Male singing has not always been so inextricably tangled up with assumptions about the gender/sexuality of the performer. Before the reactionary gender policing of popular singing, men who sang in falsetto or “double” voice were greatly prized. Song styles such as blues, torch, and crooning were sung by both sexes and all races; lyrics were generally not changed to conform to the sex of the singer or to reinforce heterosexual norms, so that men often sang to men and women to women. Crooners became huge stars for their emotional intensity, intimate microphone delivery, and devotion to romantic love. While they sang primarily to women, they had legions of male fans as well, and both sexes wept listening to their songs.

When a range of cultural authorities condemned crooners, the media industries developed new standards of male vocal performance to quell the controversy. Any gender ambiguity in vocalizing was erased; the popular male countertenor/falsetto voice virtually disappeared, song styles were gender-coded (crooning coded male), female altos were hired to replace the many popular tenors, and all song lyrics were appropriately gendered in performance, so that men sang to and about women, and vice-versa. Bing Crosby epitomized the new standard for males: lower-pitched singing, a lack of emotional vulnerability, and a patriarchal star image. Since then, although young male singers have always remained popular and profitable, their cultural clout has been consistently undermined by masculinist evaluative standards in which the singers themselves have been regularly ridiculed as immature and inauthentic, and their fans dismissed as moronic young females.

From its beginnings, however, Glee has actively worked to challenge this conception. The show’s recognition and critique of dominant cultural constructions of performance and identity has always been one of the its great strengths. Glee has continually acknowledged the emasculating stigma of male singing (the jocks regularly assert that “singing is gay”) while providing a compelling counter-narrative that promotes pop singing as liberating and empowering for both men and society at large. Glee‘s audience has in many ways been understood to be reflective of the socially marginalized types represented on the show, and one of the recurring narrative struggles is determining who gets to speak or, rather, sing. Singing on Glee is thus frequently linked to acts of self-determination in the face of social oppression, a connection that has been most explicitly and forcefully made through gay teen Kurt’s storyline this past season, which has challenged societal homophobia both narratively and musically. In the narrative, Kurt transfers to Dalton Academy to escape bullying and joins the Warblers, an all-male a cappella group fronted by gay crooner Blaine. Musically, Glee also takes a big leap, shifting from exposing the homophobic, misogynist stigma surrounding male singing to actively shattering it and singing on its grave.

From the very first moment Kurt is introduced to Blaine and the Warblers, as they perform a cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” to a group of equally enthusiastic young men, we know we’re not in Kansas anymore. The song choice is appropriate in that it posits future-boyfriend Blaine as both a romantic and erotic dream object for Kurt, and it presents Dalton as a fantasy space in which the feminine associations of male singing are both desired and regularly celebrated. “Teenage Dream” was the first Glee single to debut at #1 on iTunes, immediately making Criss a star and indicating that a good portion of the American public was eager to embrace the change in vocal politics.

And “Teenage Dream” was only the beginning. This fantasy moment has become a recurring, naturalized fixture of the series. Just as Kurt turned his fantasy of boyfriend Blaine into a reality, so did Glee effectively realize its own redesign of male singing through a multitude of scenes that I never thought I would see on American network television: young men un-ironically singing pop songs to other young men, both gay and straight; teen boys falling in love with other boys as they sing to them; males singing popular songs without changing the lyrics from “him” to “her” to accommodate gender norms; and the restoration and celebration of the countertenor (male alto) sound and singer in American popular culture (I will address Chris Colfer’s celebrated countertenor voice in the next installment of this series). And instead of becoming subjects of cultural ridicule, Colfer’s rapturous countertenor and Criss’s velvety crooner have become Glee’s most popular couple, its stars largely celebrated as role models of a new order of male performer. It’s about time.


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Glee as Integrated Musical (Finally!) Thu, 07 Oct 2010 15:16:03 +0000 As a fan of the film musical, I have a peculiar love/hate relationship with the television musical, Glee. On the one hand, I am so excited to see musical performances on television that I am willing to accept them in any form. On the other hand, my love of the film musical also makes me critical of what I see as Glee’s misuse, even squandering, of one of the key functions of the musical number. In the film musical song and dance performances should act as a bridge between the various oppositions erected by the musical’s syntax, namely, the barriers between fantasy and reality. A good musical number should convince the viewer that it is possible to feel the joy of song and dance (fantasy) in our everyday lives (reality). As Jane Feuer writes in The Hollywood Musical, “In the musical, as in life, there are only two places where we feel secure enough to see so vividly: in the theater and in dreams. The musical’s multiple levels of reality contrast the stage with the world, illusion with reality” (68).

Musical numbers are also used to express the inexpressible. When Gene Kelly performs the title number in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), his voice and his body radiate pure joy. He has just fallen in love and the only way he can express these emotions is through song and dance. Therefore, the transition from the real world, where a rainy day is dreary and depressing, becomes a dream world, where the pouring rain is a delight. For most of its run, Glee has eschewed this type of musical number. Song choices may relate to the narrative, but performances are rarely used to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality (for more on Glee’s mishandling of some of the basic conventions of the musical genre, see Kelli Marshall’s insightful Flow article). Instead the show often functions as a kind of “Glee’s Follies,” that is, as a musical revue featuring unrelated performances that showcase the talents of each of its stars and sell singles on iTunes.

However “Grilled Cheesus” (a fantastic title) is one of the few Glee episodes to not only establish, but also to play with, the opposition between dream world and real world in the musical. For example, early in the episode, Mercedes tells the Glee club that she has been struggling to come up with something comforting to say to Kurt after his father is hospitalized: “Then I realized I don’t want to say it. I want to sing it” she explains. Mercedes then launches into a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” which asks Kurt/the audience to believe in the ability of a higher power to comfort us in our suffering. The shot/reverse shot between Mercedes and Kurt at the conclusion of the number implies that Kurt has been moved (his eyes are filled with tears) and that he now “believes” in the dream world created by Mercedes’ performance. But instead, Kurt calls out the lie of the musical, telling Mercedes, “Your voice is stunning but I don’t believe in God.”

This scene thus pulls the audience into the dream world only to abruptly force us back out of it again. As Sue Sylvester notes, in a brutally honest argument for the case of atheism, “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an amoral thing to do.” Mercedes may have a beautiful voice, but Kurt should nevertheless be prepared for the possibility that his father will die.

Even Rachel’s schmaltzy version of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” worked in this regard. The scene begins with Finn and Rachel sitting in the park at night. When Finn asks why they are outside, Rachel explains “Because I don’t want anything coming between us and God. And because Yentl was outside when she sang this song in the movie.” So while Rachel’s song is a musical prayer for Kurt’s father, it is also very much about Rachel’s desire to perform. The scene transitions from the dark outdoors to the bright interior of a hospital room, where we find Rachel singing to Kurt’s comatose father. Rachel’s passionate performance effectively transports the viewer into the dream world of song and faith. However, we are abruptly returned to reality when Rachel concludes her emotional song with“Who’s next?”

While I am prone to criticizing Glee, I think this episode worked as both an example of the musical’s primary theme—dream world versus real world—and as its critique. Yes, it is unrealistic that Kurt’s father wakes up from his coma at the conclusion of the episode. But the deus ex machina is not faith in God, but rather Kurt’s faith in his father.  The episode seems to be equating the former with fantasy and the latter with reality. And it’s hard to get too wrapped up in the dream world of the final number, “What If God Was One of Us,” when it is intercut with Finn contemplating, and then eating, his Grilled Cheesus.


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Glee Club: What a Journey Thu, 10 Jun 2010 17:11:55 +0000 Tuesday’s episode (aptly titled “Journey”) marked the end of Glee‘s hugely successful first season. It also marks the end of our weekly Glee Club columns here on Antenna. In  the spirit of fostering discussion and multiple points of view, this last Glee Club column is a roundtable of sorts that incorporates brief takes on the finale (and the season) from our Glee Club contributors: Kelly Kessler, Amanda Ann Klein, Sharon Ross, LeiLani Nishime, Ben Aslinger, and Mary Beltrán.

With some incredible musical numbers, including a touching rendition of “To Sir with Love” and a return to Journey songs that helped launch the show’s initial success last fall, the finale included some of Glee‘s signature (if uneasy) aspects of spectacle, emotional appeal, and snarky self-awareness. But like many good television shows, the reactions and take-aways vary dramatically.

Kelly Kessler: “OH NO THEY DIDN’T!”  Oh yes they did.  Oh yes!  They totally went there.  I just want to say that I can name that tune in 2 notes.  I believe Lulu’s “To Sir with Love” officially trumped “Jessie’s Girl” as making my season through fabulous song choice.  The hyper-emotion connected to the musical genre came full force in the total cheesiness of this number.  So much crying!  Kurt’s voice was oh so high.  Everyone was saved by Shu (and “black guy” and “other Asian” even got to talk).  As I sit here crying during my second viewing of that number, I contemplate my inadvertent Antenna role as the defender of the powers that Glee.  Well, I’m okay with that, and I swear I’m not on the take.  Was it ridiculous?  Hell yes it was ridiculous.  Am I annoyed by that or do I feel led astray?  Hmm…no.  I really found this season finale to be the best of what Glee and the musical do (even if those things are at times ridiculous).  It gave me drama, fabulous (and at times forgotten) music, love, redemption, and dance, dance, dance.  I’ll forgive it for continuing to marginalize its secondary players, and I will continue to look forward to how it develops from here.  Season 2, I wait for you with bated breath.

Amanda Ann Klein: Much like Lost, the Glee finale left me with many questions: Have “the black kid” and “Other Asian” really made it through an entire season without names? How can Rachel claim that Jesse has “no soul” after hearing his kickass rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody”? How were the Glee kids able to stay for the duration of Quinn’s labor and delivery and still make it to the awards ceremony? Why did Quinn give birth to a 5-month-old baby? And should I be happy that Shelby Corcoran doesn’t want a relationship with her biological daughter but does want a relationship with someone else’s biological daughter? Am I to believe that Finn loves Rachel? Puck loves Quinn? Quinn loves Mercedes? Santana loves Glee club? And why did this nonsensical finale make me cry three different times–when New Directions performed their Journey medley, when Quinn first held her baby, and when Will and Puck performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?

Sharon Ross: Like almost every episode, last night’s finale featured great one-liners and touching moments riddled with an equal amount of drawbacks.  Sue came through with the snappy zinger, saying to Will after discovering he parked his car near hers:  “I don’t want to catch poor.”  The entire “To Sir, With Love” scene was touching and full of heart, while the worst moment in regards emotional realism was certainly Shelby adopting Quinn’s baby (read: adoption is easy!). Accordingly, the worst moment of the episode in regards to physical realism was Quinn’s return (read: you can go back to classes right after giving birth!). However, giving birth really is a lot like listening to/singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” over and over AND OVER again (especially if one has had an epidural). Overall, it was a solid finale with good setup for next season, despite the fact that the duet-heavy medley was a tiresome return to Finn and Rachel (and honestly a bit of a yawn compared to past episodes’ performances).

LeiLani Nishime: The season finale encapsulated many of the things I enjoy about Glee and many of the reasons why I often walk away from the show feeling like I ate an entire bag of over-processed Cheetos. I loved the simultaneously campy and moving “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “To Sir with Love” productions, and the way the show completely undercut any lasting belief that competitions are based on a meritocracy. But the last fifteen minutes had me squirming. The showdown that wasn’t and the hideously mawkish final song made it much easier to say good bye to end of the season. And I hate to be too one-note about this, but minority representation, once again, came up short.

Ben Aslinger: Next Tuesday, my dentist will replace the permanent crowns on two of my front teeth because someone in the eighth grade pushed me into a chain-length fence for being different, unleashing a cycle of oral surgeries and braces as well as the root canals and crown replacements that I will have (and have to pay for) for the rest of my life.  While I recognize how Glee creatively uses music and encourages fan appropriations, I can’t stomach Glee, perhaps because the brutality and humiliations of the show hit too close to home.  Near the beginning of Paradise, Toni Morrison refers to high school as cruelty “decked out in juvenile glee,” and it is precisely this cruelty in Glee that makes this viewer’s attitude less gleeful.  The question then emerges as to whether (and why) those of us who experienced such cruelty would want to watch it represented on television in such a depoliticized and fantastical way.

Mary Beltrán: It dawned on me in the first minutes of the episode that New Directions of course could not win at regionals.  Because, post-PC humor aside, that¹s not what the narrative is about.  In my opinion it’s about losing, and doing it with heart (mentioned many times in the last few episodes) and scrappy style.  And what a better metaphor for these things than song and dance? One of my chief pleasures in watching Glee‘s last episodes also has been seeing the cast demonstrating more of their talent as their glee club counterparts are believably catching up to them, which has me looking forward, glee-fully, to next season. On another note, it was notable that much of the non-white characters’ development of the last half of the season was cast aside in the return to the Rachel and Finn subplot and duet emphasis in the competition.   Are the non-white characters destined always to be pushed back to the background when the going gets rough?

Ranging from sheer joy to exhausted disappointment, reactions to the season finale bring forth some of the issues that make Glee so complex and contentious.  How do we navigate the simultaneous pleasures and limitations of such post-modern performance, reinvention and representation?


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Glee: The Good, The Bad and The Funky Thu, 03 Jun 2010 10:00:19 +0000 “Funk” opens with Jesse St. James telling the slack jawed members of New Directions that he has transferred back to his old school and rejoined Vocal Adrenaline (ouch!). Before launching into an intimidating rendition of “Another One Bites the Dust,” he tells his former allies, “The blogs and chat rooms say that we’re finished and that you guys are ripe to topple us. We just wanted to show you a little something we came up with a few days ago to see if you agree with that assessment.” While it may be hard to believe that high school show choirs are fervently discussed in chat rooms, Glee itself is often the subject of debate on blogs, chatrooms, and in the pages of magazines. In fact, last week’s episode, “Theatricality,” generated a lively discussion on this blog regarding the show’s ability or inability to accurately showcase the lives of ethnic, racial, social, and sexual minorities. At the risk of grossly simplifying these intelligent arguments, I’d like to select two representative comments from last week’s discussion. First, The Good from Kelly Kessler: “I think there are ideologically problematic issues with the show, but there are ideologically problematic issues across shows and in life. I prefer not to force the show into something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy (and bored) at all times.” And now The Bad from Jonathan Gray: “I feel as though the show is becoming like a person who tells you, no insists, that they’re not racist or sexist, and becomes their workplace’s Diversity Captain…to prove the fact, yet who regularly makes lightweight racist and sexist comments.” Those two comments pretty much sum up the debates that rage in own my head whenever I watch an episode of Glee and this week’s episode was no exception.

Let’s begin with The Good: I loved Finn and Puck’s rendition of Beck’s “Loser,” sung in the aisles of Sheets n’ Things because it cameclose to my definition of a true integrated musical number, that is, a song and dance number that arises seamlessly out of the diegesis, expressing character emotions and furthering the plot. Indeed, the tone of Beck’s slacker anthem perfectly expressed the ennui, the funk, if you will, of a dead end job. And the workers’ robotic movements—sweeping, stacking, and folding in time to the beat—were a classic example of non-choreography. “Loser” moved effortlessly from reality to fantasy and back again—something that most numbers on Glee fail to achieve. And while I don’t think Quinn had the vocal chops to tackle James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (very few singers do), I was nevertheless moved by her passion. If anything can illustrate how we are all still living in a “man’s world,” it is a line of sorrowful, pregnant, teenage girl’s. Funky? No. Poignant? Yes.

The Bad: “Funk” was peppered with moments that were intended to be “edgy” but just came off as offensive. When, for example, Terry catches Puck playing air guitar in the middle of Sheets n’ Things, she snipes, “I thought Jews were supposed to be smart.” This joke might have worked if Puck’s Jewish identity had been highlighted earlier in the episode or if he had actually been doing something stupid at the time. But without these elements in place, the comment is out of place, offensive, and worst of all, not very funny.

The Funky: Early in the episode Mercedes scoffs at the idea of white people being “funky” and Finn seemed determined to prove her right; I noticed that the camera kept cutting away from his dance moves during “Good Vibrations,” as if it were embarrassed to watch for too long. However, Will’s sultry performance of “Tell Me Something Good” (and the close-ups on his tight rear end) was reminiscent of George Michael (and I mean that in a good way). Also bringing the funk was Brittany, whose dancing is so much better than her castmates’ that it can become distracting in group numbers. During “We Got the Funk” I found that I kept searching for her in the crowd, waiting for her next solo. But we should expect this from the dancer who toured with Beyoncé.

Ultimately, “Funk” exemplified everything I’ve come to expect from Glee: a confusing mix of rousing musical performances and out of place racist/sexist/heterosexist jokes — a perfect mix of the good, the bad and, thanks to Will and Brittany, the funky.


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Glee’s Theatrical Identities and Other Bad Romances Thu, 27 May 2010 13:00:23 +0000 Theatricality was the title, theme, and just about every other word used in this week’s Glee, and who better to convey that concept than Lady Gaga – except maybe Madonna, but that’s another episode. Even better, the show managed to pair up the Lady Gaga numbers (performed by the girls plus Kurt) with Kiss songs (all performed by the boys) to remind us that theatricality is not a new invention nor does it somehow escape the limits of gender.  The show, despite some confusing diversions, managed to both present and critique the notion that identities are fluid performances, offer up some excellent one-liners, and end with one of the weirdest and, in my opinion, best duets of the series.

As others have argued, the themed episodes often bury narrative and character development, but this week saw a powerful blending of Lady Gaga’s music and persona and the storyline.  Her promotion of both over-the-top performance and being a “freak” allowed the show to return to one of its favorite themes and to deepen its representation.  All the glee club members are the school’s freaks, but while the show has depicted their social ostracism before, it often leavens it with satire or humor. The social policing in the school hallways was confined to a face full of slushie or getting thrown in the dumpster which were presented as mildly humiliating or inconvenient.  In this episode, however, Kurt, Tina, and Finn are all threatened with beatings for their overt theatricality and for their deviation from high school norms. In the most moving scene of the show, Finn, dogged by rumors that he is gay, fights with Kurt and calls his room “faggy.” He is confronted by Kurt’s father Burt, and we see the emotional toll of the homophobic slurs on Kurt. The now common-place celebration of a flexible identity, a kind of free-market philosophy of identity formation is tempered by the reminder of the costs of choosing a non-normative identity. In fact, the show questions how much “choice” is involved in the face of constant coercion.

The best moments in the show happen when we are reminded that while all the identities are performances, only some are targeted and punished while others are normed. When Kurt and Tina are threatened for wearing their Lady Gaga outfits to school, Kurt tells the bullies that when they wear their football uniforms to school, they’re also using their clothes to express their identity.  The last musical number is a duet between Rachel and her newly discovered mother, Shelby. In a bizarre move, they sing an acoustic version of “Poker Face” including the lines “Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin’.” Yet, the strange juxtaposition works because 1) the singing is gorgeous and 2) the audience is constantly made aware of the, yes, theatricality of moment. The song begins with Rachel calling for the piano player, Brad, saying “He’s always just around” and reminding us of the way that musicals constantly defy logic. The chorus of the song itself tells us that we all wear a poker face that may or may not be the real thing but that always mediates between ourselves and others.

On a different note, I think Mary Beltrán asked me to write this blog entry because it was supposed to be about Tina’s identity crisis. Except for the one great line (“I feel like an Asian Branch Davidian”) Tina was pushed to the sidelines. It’s been said before but needs to be said again. Glee really needs to step it up with its portrayal of racial minorities on the show.


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Using Its Voice: Glee Shows Us What Kind of Musical(s) It’s Made of Thu, 20 May 2010 12:00:02 +0000 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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Friday Night Lights: The Musical! or Glee‘s After-School Sing-a-long Thu, 13 May 2010 12:55:56 +0000 I’ll just get this out of the way from the get-go.  (1) I’m taken aback by how good Lea Michele looks in denim and perhaps annoyed by how good Rachel looks in her glee costumes, while looking so doofy in her own clothes.  Perhaps we’re simply supposed to accept that just as their voices sound better than they would  in real life, the performance costumes make them all look like bigger, better, and sexier versions of themselves.  (2) “Enjoy it while you can, Weezie” wins for best (yet still offensive) line of the episode if not the season.

Wow.  I’m just really a bit flabbergasted.  I feel like the “powers that Glee” (PTG) are really trying to combat complaints of minimal plot development.  After last week’s most excellent narrative-filled musical numbers, my hopes were high that they could maintain momentum this week.  It looked like they might be able to pull it off, but then it became Glee meets Friday Night Lights. Say it ain’t so!  Anyway, to me it seems as if they’re amid a generic struggle.  The musical—old school, at least—is not known for its riveting narrative development, but instead lets the music do its talking.  Last week worked just that way.  “Run, Joey, Run” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” projected the show’s burgeoning love triangle through what it does best—dazzling video-esque numbers.  So, kudos PTG.

This week they almost scored with the same tactic.  They came ever so close to doing what musicals do well.  It looked as if the episode was really embracing the traditions of the genre.  “Jessie’s Girl” provided a fabulous mix of show-number and personal development soliloquy.  (And, come on, it’s “Jessie’s Girl.”  It made my day at least 5% better by its mere inclusion.)  The episode did an amazing job of using the duet (until they ruined it).  Secondary players took center and deftly blended musical integration and glee club performances.  Mercedes and Santana’s duet of “The Boy is Mine” melded a fierce narrative moment with classroom performance and then allowed the action to ultimately transcend the bounds of the song as the girls continued their catfight.  (It was a little bit Dreamgirls.)  Mercedes spontaneously joining Puck in “The Lady is a Tramp” was a touch of integrated perfection.  Kurt’s bookended solos—“Pink Houses” and “Rose’s (Kurt’s) Turn”—provided painfully poignant moments for a guy who has surely had some narrative high points, but doesn’t generally develop very far within the narrative.  I particularly liked the latter number (no offense, Mr. Mellencamp) and the lurky way his father appeared.  It felt very old school, when someone’s true feelings come through in the solo and a love interest happens upon the scene.  The following moments between father and son were heartbreaking, heartwarming, and all around fabulous.   (Equaling that extremely touching moment was Kurt asking Brittany, “what do boys’ lips taste like?”)

Then it happened.  TPG tried to kill the episode.  While they had been using musical integration beautifully to project inner turmoil and relational conflict to a level perhaps heretofore unaccomplished on the show, they went one step too far. They betrayed the old school version of the genre and went very special episode.  They tried to make the narrative go too far, too heartfelt, and well, just too weird.  Everyone knows what I mean. The plotline with the paralyzed ex-football player was just uncomfortable and exploitative, and by trying to fit him into the Glee format TPG created a giant, awkward, and offensive intrusion on an otherwise touching episode.  I’ll simply leave some questions here.  Why did we need that plotline?  Really, tonsillitis = total paralysis?  Was it supposed to be Rachel’s version of Sue’s sister?  Why did the poor guy have to be naked in the 2nd scene?  Why is he the only guy not to have an overproduced voice (so he’s not only trapped in his damaged body, but he’s also trapped in his ill-sounding and unenhanced voice)? Why does Rachel not sound, act, or move like Rachel in that scene?  Did Lea just know how bad it was?  Why do they leave a nice group number (that almost allows you to forget how uncomfortable you just were) to return to the narrative-killing scene and the worst vocal stylings since early episodes of American Idol?  If they want us to pretend that the over-production is “real,” perhaps they shouldn’t point out that it isn’t.  Use your head, PTG!


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“I Don’t Give a Damn About My ‘Bad Reputation’”: Glee Talks Back Thu, 06 May 2010 13:00:24 +0000 There’s something really cool about how the last episode of Glee (“Bad Reputation”) unintentionally engaged in a call-and-response with previous Antenna posts that offered viable critiques of episodes this spring (as well as critiques from other pop culture infused TV shows: “Jeff Hates Glee,” Community 1.18.)

Figures I would end up with the one that “packed it all in” (damn you, Mary Beltran!)… Just when Glee makes you think you’re indulging yourself as a viewer lost in the joys of song and dance, it taps into a range of emotions and provokes thought—so a disclaimer that there’s no way I can cover it all in this column.  (Have at in the comments!)

There are 4 key themes that struck me the most in this episode. The first is how “Bad Reputation” offered up an insightful commentary on current YouTube culture (and also the show’s YouTube/iTunes culture). The “Glist” that propelled the narrative asked to think what it means to live in a world in which being ranked and literally counted is what matters most, regardless of the “content” of what/who is being viewed. This appears to be somewhat generational at first, as Sue is pained when her singing and dancing is made public…But the episode quickly turns something culturally and historically specific into a series of universals.

Thus theme 2: the universal pains of invisibility—including a lack of voice and being desexualized/oversexualized. The foiled attempts of the “off-Glisters” (Arty, Tina, Mercedes, Kurt, and somehow, in a screamingly funny way, Brittany) to become visible to the point of being willing to be expelled meshed beautifully with Emma’s public flogging of Will as a slut and Rachel taking advantage of “her boys” to soothe her own ego (and what a charming gender role reversal that was!). Even Sue showed vulnerability as she struggled with slow-motion laughter and how to deal with her wave of conflicting emotions.

Thus theme 3: Here we saw some genuine character development, really reminding me of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its gentle, incremental character growth. Emma’s final speech to Will about needing to come to know each other as they truly are was a much more real step than the claiming of her sexuality that occurred in the Madonna episode, as was Rachel’s “too late” awareness of her self-centeredness as being rooted in an insecurity that ultimately hurts others as well as herself. And who would’ve thought the line “You’re a really great teacher, even if everyone is saying you’re a man whore” (from Quinn to Will) could carry such weight in representing the severe pain of Quinn’s situation as a pregnant teen?  But of course, the moment I cried (oh, yes, I cried) involved Sue’s heartfelt moment with her sister Jean—the only content character in the episode, who is perhaps the most invisible in terms of societal knowledge. A simple story about two bears leading to a simple yet tremendously powerful declaration and promise of eternal sisterly love. It was, quite frankly, the kind of moment I live for on TV.

And thus theme 4. Here was the episode that dared to challenge the central appeal of the series: that there is pure pleasure to be had in the joys of music and dance. The idea of context and intention mattering ran strong through the show’s musical numbers; performers don’t always send the message they desire and audience members should from time to time think through why they love and hate what music (and TV) they do. I found Rachel’s story goal of “musical promiscuity” to be the most telling in the end. There is a “dark side,” if you will, to the arts of song and dance and TV…a tendency towards exhibitionism and aggrandizement (that even Olivia Newton John noted in regards to her “Let’s Get Physical” video). Just because something/someone is popular and fun doesn’t mean it/they are important or unproblematic. And, just because something/someone is popular and fun doesn’t mean it/they are not important or valuable. I think this is the essence of Glee’s appeal: It “mashes” together the old and the new, the shallow and the deep, and in the end asks us to appreciate that our lives are much like popular culture—sometimes bad, sometimes silly, sometimes painful, and sometimes a little ridiculousness that can lead us to something sublime.


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