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On Glee

[Sorry, Megan (and probably others). I know you love this show, but I just can’t get on board…]

This evening, I read a lot—perhaps too much—about these alleged dust-ups between various rockers and Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy. It started, I guess, with Kings of Leon (full disclosure: I’m such a square that I’ve never heard a Kings of Leon song, though to my credit I have heard of them), who received a verbal tongue-lashing from Murphy after turning down the opportunity to have their music featured on the show. Instead of taking it lying down, they got up in Murphy’s Twitter grille, making me wonder (not for the first time) how anybody can report on social media without laughing hysterically at the idiocy of it all.

But mine is not to reason why. Mine is to continue rambling about Slash, one of the greatest rock guitarists in the history of time, who further endeared himself to me by saying, “Glee is worse than Grease, and Grease is bad enough,” after which Murphy cattily responded, “Usually I find that people who make those comments, their careers are over; they’re uneducated and quite stupid.” Says the man who’s begging to feature his music…

Finally, the Foo Fighters weighed in on the controversy, after they, too, turned down Murphy’s request to use their music.

Maybe I’m channeling my fake rock-star persona, but Murphy’s comments incensed me, particularly his initial straw-man response to Kings of Leon’s turn-down:

“Fuck you, Kings of Leon,” Murphy told the magazine, reportedly raising his voice slightly to deliver the barbed response. “They’re self-centered assholes, and they missed the big picture. They missed that a 7-year-old kid can see someone close to their age singing a Kings of Leon song, which will maybe make them want to join a glee club or pick up a musical instrument. It’s like, OK, hate on arts education. You can make fun of Glee all you want, but at its heart, what we really do is turn kids on to music.”

First, it’s incredibly, almost comically unfair to turn the argument from “Your show sucks” into “They hate arts education!” But my issue with Glee runs deeper than that. More disclosure: I’ve seen one full episode of the show (the pilot) and a handful of moments from other episodes thanks to a marathon a few weeks ago on some cable channel or another. I wanted to see if I could get into it in any way, shape, or form, because I love musicals. Love ’em. As long as they aren’t fucking terrible.

Glee is, and 80% of that is the song choice. The other 20% is the overly processed vocals. I have no idea if anybody on the show has any actual talent, because to my ears it sounds like a machine doing all the work for them, which seems like a funny method to inspire people. I also have no idea if anyone has any talent, because the majority of the music featured on the show sucked the first time around, but to the credit of most of the original artists, at least they sang their shitty songs with something resembling real passion. A phrase I often use when discussing clinical, passionless writing is, “They know the notes, but not the music.” That literally applies here.

But that’s just me. Everyone’s free to dig Glee. I spend most of my time not thinking about it, because countless hours of intensive time in the Hole have taught me that getting riled up about things I can’t stand is a waste of everyone’s time. However, when news articles poke the hornet’s nest of my ire, I need to rant.

So let’s get back to what really made me mad: “You can make fun of Glee all you want, but at its heart, what we really do is turn kids on to music.”

When I entered high school, I was at a crossroads, and the main thing that pulled me out of a tailspin that could have led me down the path of a died-too-young drug addict was getting involved in the concert choir. Unlike most of the characters in Glee, I didn’t immediately discover hidden talent or brilliance that made me stand out in any way. I was quite terrible, in fact, and my hard-rocking ass didn’t dig the jazz and classical music The Man made us sing.

But a funny thing happened by the end of the year—I was learning the roots of all the modern music I loved, writing rock arrangements of Mozart’s Requiem mass (“Confutatis” is fucking metal!), learning more about melody and chord structure from eight-part choral arrangements than in my elaborate collection of classic-rock tab books, and coming to appreciate old-timey music more than I ever thought was possible.

More than that, we had a choral music department that treated us like athletes working our balls off in preparation of the Big Game. I never had anything resembling athletic skill (my biggest hurdle when I made show choir was learning how to dance), so I learned things I never would have otherwise learned—about teamwork, about coping with failure and loss, about working hard to accomplish something great, and about striving to not merely do something I love but to do it to the absolute best of my ability.

In my admittedly limited sampling of Glee, these are all themes I have never seen explored. They always seem to be working toward Nationals, but it’s never about them having to work hard to do great—it’s about them foiling the scheming machinations of some rival glee club. They learn and sing very little other than contemporary pop music, and I consider that a problem for a very simple reason:

Contemporary pop music is shit.

I don’t say that as a crank or a pompous musician or anything else. It’s not an opinion. It is a fact. If you can listen to Top-40 radio for more than an hour without killing yourself, you’re either a sociopath or a quadriplegic (no insult to the latter group—it’s just way harder to kill yourself with limited mobility; you end up like the guy in Johnny Got His Gun, blinking out “Kill me before I hear another fucking Taylor Swift song”).

And it’s not to say there is no good contemporary music (Fitz and the motherfuckin’ Tantrums!)—but what’s good doesn’t end up on Glee, and the show refuses to dip back into a catalog of legitimate pop classics—Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin. Hell, I’d even take Rodgers and fucking Hammerstein, and anyone who knows my disdain for The Sound of Music will understand the sacrifice I’m making for the sake of not having to fucking watch white people gyrate as they warble out an anemic “Empire State of Mind.”

Even with the shitty music, I’d appreciate Glee much more if it dared to suggest some people suck ass the first time they try something. Some people need to work their asses off to achieve the same result as someone with natural ability, and some people choose to work their asses off to improve on their natural ability. It’s not all about smiles and sunshine, but the reward of hard work, sacrifice, and passion far outweigh the difficulties inherent in challenging oneself to improve.

I don’t say that solely because it reflects my own experience far more than anything I’ve seen in the alien cartoon high school world of Glee. I say that because, for my money, the best way to show the merits of arts education is to show the effort expended and the results achieved. In everything I’ve seen of Glee (which, admittedly, is probably not enough for me to judge one way or the other, but that’s not going to stop me—I’m a person on the Internet!), the glee club is magically great at everything. They only need to overcome obstacles external to the club—they’re going to cut the funding! the rival glee club is going to bribe a nationals judge! none of the other students care about music or the arts!—instead of obstacles within the glee club itself. The tenors are flat, the choreography looks like something from Corky St. Clair, the timing on the layered harmonies is an incredible challenge. And then, in the end, they pull together, rally, and kick ass! And, to boot, they can show how much more poetic and insightful Jazz Age lyrics were than the shit today, and how much more emotionally evocative classical choral pieces are.

Or they could just do another Britney Spears episode. Her catalog is pretty extensive.

Fuck… I guess anyone who’s going to call Slash washed-up doesn’t deserve help with his brilliantly Auto-Tuned show. Maybe I’m wrong, and the rest of the world is right. About Glee and how great current pop music is. And maybe Eat, Pray, Love didn’t suck…

But I’d rather live in my own little alternate universe than one in which any of that is true.

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  • Well, while I agree with you and Slash as far as “Glee” goes, I’m afraid Slash lost a lot of his remaining credibility when he appeared with the Black Eyed Peas at the Super Bowl.

    That said, I’ve tried to watch this show and it always gets under my skin in such unpleasant ways within ten minutes of turning it on that I can’t make it through an entire episode. Leaving aside the fact that Ryan Murphy has deluded himself into believing that an attack on his show is an attack on arts education, it’s just a shitty example of a genre that I’m not too fond of in the first place. While I don’t generally care for musicals, I can see what makes them appealing to the people who do: catchy songs, good (in the case of Gene Kelly, amazing) choreography, and simple, uplifting stories. I have nothing against these traits, they just don’t do for me what they do for fans of musicals. But from what I’ve seen of “Glee”, it fails at these basic components.

    I hate to be mean since I know so many people love the show, but it’s just bad TV. I feel like we’re in a new golden age of television and there are plenty of better viewing options to “Glee”. That’s why it kills me to see people waste their time with it and embolden Murphy to make such asinine comments.

    Matt Wedge 9 years ago Reply Link

    • I’m a big fan of musicals, but obviously I’m in total agreement with your analysis.

      It’s going to drive me nuts all day because I can’t remember who wrote it, but in high school, I read a really great deconstruction of the musical genre. It broke down musical numbers themselves into a half-dozen archetypes, and the basic premise is along the lines of John Ford’s comment that a good film “contains three great scenes and no bad ones.” It argued that the film needs to feature at least one example of each archetype in order to succeed dramatically, and made a pretty compelling case for that.

      In what I’ve seen of Glee, 90% of the musical numbers fall under the archetype the article characterized as “energy”–in other words, a number that’s purely about bouncing around exuberantly. The show occasionally tries to force some plot-related reason for the musical number to occur, but in the grand deconstruction of what makes a musical great, that’s just not enough.

      Holy hell, I wish I could find that article.

      D. B. Bates 9 years ago Reply Link

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