Glee Club: “The Power of Madonna”

April 22, 2010
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This episode has been hyped for quite a while, with news of Madonna’s approval for licensed use of her songs breaking last fall to Ryan Murphy’s discussion of Jane Lynch’s Vogue number at Paleyfest earlier this year, not to mention this great promo FOX has been running for the last few weeks. It’s the series’ first tribute episode, and who better, really, than Madonna?

Ryan Murphy (Glee‘s showrunner) has said that Madonna was like “the soundtrack of [his] life,” her music something he’s always found empowering. And that discourse of empowerment was somewhat central to the episode, even if the musical numbers weren’t incredibly central to the show’s overall narrative. Sue admits she is a Madonna fan; her lifelong dream is to pay homage to Madonna, a dream she begins to realize by choreographing a Cheerios routine to “Ray of Light” – on stilts. Will overhears the girls in glee club talking about guy problems, and worries that “teenage girls feel like they have no power.” His solution, in John Fiske-ian fashion, is to assign the glee club to sing Madonna songs, to find such characteristics as “strength,” “independence,” “quality,” and “confidence” in her music and in themselves.

Other than an umbrella-theme of empowerment, though, most of the songs in this episode served very little narrative or character-building purposes that the musical numbers often do in Glee. In fact, not much happened to move the narrative along too far at all this week (aside from Will and Emma deciding to call it off and Jesse moving to McKinley High, of course). But for me, like Mary and many Antenna readers, the story of the show is mostly secondary to the musical performances and overall fun and joy those bring to each episode.

Glee cast performing "Express Yourself"

Some numbers were better than others; I really wanted to love the “Express Yourself” set, featuring all female cast members trying to prove the boys wrong in their assumption that Madonna was “only for chicks.” But the empty stage and almost move-for-move choreography from the original Madonna video just made the scene fall flat. (The costuming, with each girl in a different color silk top, reminded me of Hannah Hamad’s great new article on FlowTV about color coding femininities in media culture). Similarly, the shot-for-shot remake of “Vogue” with Jane Lynch felt a little too restrained. I mean, this is Jane Lynch. She’s funny. Let her be funny! There’s certainly something cool and respectful about a shot-for-shot remake, but I think Lynch could really have knocked this out of the park if only she had been let loose to be a little more creative.

However, the “Open Your Heart” number brought a smile to my face with the various Madonna look alikes from different eras passing through the hallway. And the “Like a Virgin” sequence, which I thought might be ruefully cheesy with three (!) different couples on the brink of intimacy, was superbly produced and ended up being one of my favorite numbers of the night. (Will’s line to Emma that “you took ownership of your body when you said you weren’t ready” was probably one of my favorite Will lines ever.) The closing “Like a Prayer” sequence gave me outright goosebumps with Lea Michele’s stunning voice, incredible solos by Amber Riley and Chris Colfer, and the unbridled energy of the gospel choir.

In the end, after she doesn’t go through with the make-over at the hands of Kurt and Mercedes, Sue declares that she’ll “just leave the constant reinvention to Madonna.” In a way, it’s Glee, too, for whom constant reinvention is key to success. Many have marveled at the success of a musical in prime time, especially one that doesn’t come up with completely new and original music. But for Glee, it’s the re-invention that’s important – it works largely because it uses songs we already know and love to sing, and constantly reworks them in a way that is at once familiar and new. This episode serves as a prime example of the fun that can come from such reinvention, including teenage boys singing “What It Feels Like for a Girl.”

Other favorite moments: Kurt and Mercedes speaking up about not getting enough solos, and Brittany’s admission that “When I pulled my hamstring, I went to a misogynist.” An excellent follow up line to last week’s insight about dolphins.

Glee cast, "Like a Prayer"


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22 Responses to “ Glee Club: “The Power of Madonna” ”

  1. Myles McNutt on April 22, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    In fact, not much happened to move the narrative along too far at all this week (aside from Will and Emma deciding to call it off and Jesse moving to McKinley High, of course)

    See, I think the problem was that there was way too much which attempted to move the narrative along – it’s one thing when the show turns over an entire hour to Madonna, but it’s another when they try to advance the plot at the same time. The result is that character motivations spring from nowhere in particular, relationships move at breakneck speed, and storylines which should have had an episode to themselves (Jesse switching schools) become lost amidst MadgeFest.

    I won’t repeat too much of my own (cranky) review of the episode, but I think “The Power of Madonna” indicates the challenge of theme weeks for Glee. If their goal is to celebrate Madonna, I don’t think they can deal with plot and narrative at the same time: it seemed like characters were being forced into the particular songs (as great as “Like a Virgin” was staging-wise, the sudden concern over losing one’s virginity came out of nowhere), and that only reminds us that this episode was more about licensing and marketing than character or story. However, if they had done a theme episode like this which didn’t try to tell stories, which very clearly started new narratives which could be tied off in a single episode and didn’t try quite so hard to fit into existing continuities, I think the fun of Madonna (whose music I enjoy) wouldn’t have felt at odds with the series’ long-term aims.

    In fact, I think the Fall sequel (which has already been confirmed) might actually work better: without the pressure to include Madonna’s biggest hits, and without the pressure to sell the hour as a singular celebration of Madonna’s work, and without the novelty of saying Madonna’s name fifteen billion times, they might actually be able to simply use Madonna’s fairly extensive and often thematically relevant music library in order to tell stories which do the show justice, something that I think “The Power of Madonna” ultimately struggled with.

    • Erin Copple Smith on April 23, 2010 at 11:19 AM

      I’m responding to Myles’ comment because it’s first, but it applies equally to Jonathan’s–I guess I just wasn’t bothered by the interference of the Madonna-centric nature of the episode into the narrative. In thinking about this, I think it’s because I simply don’t come to Glee for plot–I come for the song & dance (and seltzer in your pants, as Derek notes below–awesome reference, totally apropos!).

      Honestly, if it weren’t for the musical aspect of the show, would I really be intrigued enough by the stories to stay? Likely not. But then, this is the beauty & joy of the musical. Sometimes the songs are just in there for fun, sometimes they’re there to advance the narrative. And sometimes, in moments of transcendence, they manage to do both. I think Glee does rather well balancing all of these, and although the Madonna ep might not have been the greatest in this respect, it certainly entertained me and kept me engaged.

      • Myles McNutt on April 23, 2010 at 12:34 PM

        I’ll admit to being a different sort of Glee viewer when it comes to my desire for more focus on narrative, but I think my problem is that the show hasn’t come to the same conclusion that you or I have. I still don’t entirely know how Glee thinks of its own narrative, as each episode seems to switch back and forth between treating it as an afterthought (a slave to the music) or going quite far to depict it. “The Power of Madonna” was a fine example of this: while the show had every license to just let the music tell the story, they shoe-horned in various elements from “Wheels” in an effort to try to create a connection to what is arguably their most cohesive narrative thus far.

        Murphy is on record that “Wheels” is their “template” for the Back 9, and yet I’ve always wondered how that would work with the idea that they’re *also* doing more music, and more guest stars – “Wheels” was a stripped down episode, and trying to recapture its emotional resonance within the overloaded (sometimes in a good way) musical environment the show seems to be working towards at the same time just doesn’t mesh with me. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too, and when that cake is a gigantic cone bra I can’t help but be a little bit distracted by the whole affair even if my toes are tapping right on cue.

      • Jonathan Gray on April 23, 2010 at 12:56 PM

        to be clear, I don’t care much about plot in Glee. I’m in it for humor and wry commentary. So when the songs get meta and smart, I like it; whether there’s plot on offer or not, I don’t really mind (in fact, I usually find the plot kind of pointless).

    • Kelly Kessler on April 24, 2010 at 10:17 PM

      I actually want to give the series props for the handling of this theme week. As someone who is totally disillusioned and exasperated by the jukebox musical, I thought the Glee folks actually handled what was essentially a jukebox musical episode better than say Mamma Mia!, Good Vibrations, or All Shook Up. Each of those musicals greatly suffered from what you all are describing. They shoehorn musical numbers into some lame plot that has been formed around them. “Like a Virgin” was a fabulous use of the theme to fully engage with both character and narrative development. “Open Your Heart” was swell. Aside from moving the narrative along with such numbers, I thought that the majority of the numbers did a fine job of at least projecting character movement (if not actual plot movement). Okay, given, Vogue was just eye candy and they could have totally used Jane Lynch better there, but…

      On a completely unrelated note, I found Kurt’s performance at the basketball game particularly intriguing. His physical performance of Kurt-ness seemed totally different than it ever had to that point. He seemed to move with an overt sexuality and sense of self-assurance that I’d never seen before. It was almost as it was another person. Looking forward to see if that continues if his character finds the kind of performance outlet he seeks.

      • Lindsay H. Garrison on April 25, 2010 at 1:29 AM

        I totally agree with you on Like a Virgin and Open Your Heart, Kelly. Also – thanks for bringing up Kurt’s performance as a cheerio! I went back and watched it after reading your comment (b/c to be honest, I had kind of forgotten about that scene), and you’re right; he does seem so much more self-assured and asserts more physical space in his movements. I really enjoyed it. I, too, will be interested to see where his involvement with the cheerios goes and if he and Mercedes both find the lead roles and performances they are looking for.

  2. Jonathan Gray on April 22, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    I agree that the music should be about reinvention, but I didn’t see much of that last night.

    As you note, Lindsay, the Vogue video was utterly disappointing. I waited a whole season to hear Jane Lynch sing and this is what they gave me? How boring. With Kristina Busse’s excellent post on fanfic getting me thinking about the transformative element of fanfic, I fail to see where the transformation in that video is. And even the other numbers were either gimmicks that worked for the first few seconds (the guys singing, the women doing Express Yourself), or that seemed forced, as Myles notes above re: “Like a Virgin.”

    Compare to Kurt singing “Defying Gravity,” which actually aimed to repurpose the song in interesting ways, and I’m grumbling. I started this show hating the music but liking the script. I came around on some of the songs because I liked how they played with the script well. But more episodes like this, and I’ll quickly be back in the music-hater camp. To be clear, I thought the ep was pretty fun. Some great lines. But the music went back to being a distraction for me.

    • Kristina Busse on April 23, 2010 at 5:07 PM

      Jonathan, you may have seen my twitters on it, but I was really frustrated with the non-ironic repetition of what had always been problematic modes of appropriation to begin with.

      “Vogue” came under a lot of criticism when Madonna first appropriated black and latino gay subculture, and erasing/replicating that complex history of appropriation with a feel-good simplistic feminism doesn’t help much. Throughout, I felt reminded of David Kociemba’s brilliant IMR piece on Glee and disability, “Proud Mary”: Glee’s Very Special Sham Disability Pride Anthem. The attempt to address an issue and yet failing even as the problem is acknowledged and then having it be done with is happening here as well, I think.

      Cue the final number. I adore “Like a Prayer” to pieces, but it’s a problematic video to begin with. Bringing in a black gospel choir may hark back to the original and may create another feel-good moment, but in the end it replicates Madonna’s original problems without being able to complicate, resolve, or even just adding an ironic spin.

      • Jonathan Gray on April 23, 2010 at 5:11 PM

        so, yes, to summarize, for re-appropriation and transformation of Vogue: Luminosity 10, Glee 0 😉

  3. Derek Kompare on April 22, 2010 at 1:49 PM

    This always seemed like a risky episode narratively, but with a massive upside for them in terms of ratings and attention. I share Myles’ concerns about such theme weeks overriding narrative.

    Then again, I’ve already put my cards on the table: I’m all about the moment and the affect in this show, and the narrative is just the vehicle that moves between these moments. I’m willing to be pulled back in if things get interesting, but for now I’m OK enjoying “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

    If you’re unfamiliar with that last reference, here you go:

    • Mary Beltran on April 22, 2010 at 7:52 PM

      Great recap, Lindsay! Your point about the centrality of reinvention to Glee and especially to this episode is well taken. I have to wonder at how various audience segments maybe have felt hailed by the music this week, however; are teenagers as in to Madonna as the episode would seem to imply? I also found this week troubling with respect to the easy-fix, feminist empowerment injection with which Madonna music was equated (though as always I was won over by the musical numbers and sheer Glee-ness of it all, but I felt a bit dirty for that this week). And what of the series constructing Santana and Brittany as major sluts? Very strange.

      • Lindsay H. Garrison on April 22, 2010 at 11:46 PM

        Thanks Mary. Yes, I too find it interesting how, after talking with so many people about it (both online and in person), it seems to be split down not only a generational divide but a gender divide as well. Most women I’ve spoken too loved the episode, and most men, it seems, found it lacking. In terms of what this means, I’m not sure, but I think it certainly demonstrates the ways in which the show hails viewers quite differently based on their own experiences and expectations of Madonna AND Glee.

        And yes, I also felt a little guilty in reveling in the joy of the Glee-ful musical numbers while the feminist empowerment felt a little shallow. In the notes I took while watching the show, I wrote “messages of teen girl empowerment, but are any of the girls really finding power in this episode?”

        Again, I find myself really conflicted about just enjoying the spectacle of the performance numbers, while also feeling guilty about the fact that those numbers also gloss over inherent problems of satirizing stereotypical notions of gender/race/ability: at once bringing into question those constructions and upholding them.

        • Erin Copple Smith on April 23, 2010 at 11:13 AM

          I dunno, Lindsay. I mean…I’m not sure there were any huge revelations of female power in the ep, but it definitely supported the usual tropes of women taking charge of their bodies/sexuality. We have Santana using her feminine wiles (ahem…) to seduce Finn, we have Emma taking control of her sexuality (as Will gives her credit for, as you note above) and Rachel does the same with Jesse, Mercedes (with Kurt) stands up for herself as deserving of more solos…

          It’s not particularly inventive or astounding, perhaps, but I do think the narratives are there.

          • Myles McNutt on April 23, 2010 at 12:54 PM

            I think there’s a point, though, where the parallels become too thin – for example, while I’d argue that Santana/Emma/Rachel’s storylines you list are sort of nicely solidified in the “Like a Virgin” number, but Sue’s motivations are sort of just chucked around without much meaning, and Mercedes and Kurt’s decision to join the Cheerios lacks the same sort of introspection.

            I think the show just needs to stick to telling a few good storylines well when it comes to these themes, rather than trying to extend them to every single character and weakening the impact (especially with Mercedes and Kurt) for some of them.

      • Kyra Glass on April 22, 2010 at 11:46 PM

        I love Lindsays thoughts on the episode and I share with Mary some ambivalence about the feminist pretensions of the episode. However, rather than constructing Brittany and Santana as major sluts I felt like this episode, in combination with last weeks episode, emphasized the performativity and strategicness underlying their engagements with men. It wasn’t that Santana desired Finn, in fact desire never seems to motivate Brittany and Santana so much as social expectations and the strategic use of their sexuality for multiple purposes, rarely sexual satisfaction. In a way this fit very well with the Madonna theme, which is, or at least should be, very much about performance and the construction of sexual and gender display. On a purely technical level, I was blown away by the stilt number, it was one of the most amazing bits of choreography I have seen yet on the show.

        • Derek Kompare on April 23, 2010 at 9:37 AM

          Re the stilts: Yeah, wow! That’s what I’m talking about! 🙂

          • Erin Copple Smith on April 23, 2010 at 11:14 AM

            Seriously. Stilts = awesome. That alone might give it a pass, in my mind…

            • Derek Kompare on April 24, 2010 at 1:54 PM

              I asked my wife, “is this a thing now, stilts?” and I guess it must be. Even if not, it was still spectacular!

        • Kelly Kessler on April 24, 2010 at 10:09 PM

          Just wanted to chime in to, well, agree re: Brittany and Santana. When I try to step back from my gut reactions to these characters (with whom we are supposed to be continuously irritated), I have to reconsider that reaction. Do we think of them as being positioned as slutty because they are framed as teen girls who are fully engaged in their own sexualities (whether through their forwardness with Finn, sexting with Puck, or what seems to have been implied earlier in the season the possible sexual relationship they have with each other)? In the case of Santana and Finn, that was unquestionably about power rather than sex. She was basically following directions (as she tends to do). Does her awareness of and engagement with her own sexuality make her slutty?

  4. Hannah Hamad on April 24, 2010 at 3:32 AM

    Lindsay, this is fascinating. I have not seen this episode yet but my interest has been piqued to the nth degree by reading your great piece, and thanks for the heads up on what appears to be yet another intriguing example of contemporary media culture’s propensity to code femininities by colour. I can’t wait to see this…

  5. Sharon Ross on April 25, 2010 at 9:44 PM

    So loving catching up on all this chit chat! I’ll leave the plot proper alone as I think others have noted the flwas in the ep with regards to motivation and depth of story being overwhelmed by the music…

    Except to note that this is, (ironically? cause I don’t think Murphy designed it this way), precisely what the appeal of Madonna was in the 1980s. Her songs, at the time, invoked a sense of female empowerment for certainly this 80s teen girl (I have the pictures of me dressed like her to prove it), and I still will break out in song and dance when I hear the oldies and remember “fondly” a time when all I could manage in terms of a feminist mindset was letting Madonna music speak to a burgeoning sexuality and vague pissiness about gender issues that I couldn’t quite out my finger on. (I’d love to hear from any gay 80s men what their memories are of Madge and how this episode did or did not tap into them.)

    If we think of Glee as speaking to teens, then the shallowness of the episode, the missed opportunities for character development, the randomness of the songs–well, that’s just spot on, right? How many of us can think back to music from a period in our teen years and simply feel the emotive pull of the lyrics and melody–and not much else? What I’m curious about is how it played with today’s teens, who live in a very different gendered/sexually oriented world…did they read this as trite or retro or cool or what?

    I’m also adding as a side note: what does it mean that I stayed home tonight from going to see Kick Ass because the idea of female empowerment meaning a 12 year old girl saying the c-word (not a prude, but not sure what’s appropriate language on the boards!) and beating the crap out of people just disturbed me too much.

    So, if we’re now in a “Kick Ass” world of female empowerment for pre-teens, where does that leave the moms/aunts of those pre-teens who “just want to have fun…like a virgin?” (tee hee–couldn’t resist!)

    • Kelly Kessler on April 25, 2010 at 9:54 PM

      Just a brief note:
      A) I’ve seen the Madonna pics of Ross and they are TOTALLY worth it.

      B) I don’t know so much about teens, but my undergrads were over the moon about the Madonna episode. I have never, however, really heard them say anything about plot. They seem, instead, caught up in the spectacle (as many of the folks here are).

      On a related note, in response to my SCMS piece on musical tropes in non-musical narrative television an individual (whose name I can’t recall) suggested that these moments (along with musical numbers in Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, etc.) speak to teens as the YouTube generation. Those moments are so pluck-out-able that viewers are encouraged to find pleasure in the repetition of those isolated moments. (Hulu seems to encourage this response with their at-times pre-posting of musical numbers as decontextualized videos.)