The Grain of Glee
by Karen Tongson — University of Southern California
April 05, 2010 – 00:52
Previously on Glee: New Directions returns triumphantly to the choir room after winning sectionals. The little-glee-club-that-could achieves triumph by switching up their repertoire, last minute, in the wake of cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester’s dastardly plot to leak their set list to all the other competing show choirs. As they have since the pilot episode, these bitchy but lovable losers—divas without acolytes—band together just at the moment their collective existence is most imperiled. Sharing the spoils of victory and basking in the afterglow of group success with their exiled leader, "Mr. Shue," the kids sing Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” as if to taunt the rest of us, extradiegetically, with the notion of how much our lives will suck without Glee and its gratifying songbook during the show’s winter hiatus.
Glee returns to herald us into spring next week, so this week on In Media Res, we’re revisiting our favorite moments from the first half of the show’s phenomenal run (in every sense of the word). While my co-contributors are sure to focus on various other musical numbers and scenes they’ve found both irritating and stimulating throughout Glee’s brief run thus far, I can’t help but go back to the very beginning: to the pilot episode’s closing number. This instantly iconic televisual moment is when I was convinced my life would surely suck without Glee, despite the problems and disappointments that were (and will undoubtedly continue to be) in store for the show.
As I have written elsewhere (nearly everywhere I’ve had a chance to), “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the power pop ur-text of small town and suburban dreamers searching for an anywhere but here. Critics have both credited and derided the show for yet again reviving Journey’s anthemic rock schlock. By way of kicking off this week’s posts, I want to dwell less on the song’s thematic resonance, and focus instead on its vocal transformation from the perfect vehicle for Steve Perry’s rock yawp, to a choral number thickened by background voices and the coltish melismas of melodramatic teen yearning. I want, in other words, to urge us to think about how the harmonies and "square phrasing" of choir-style vocality are transposed sonically and gesturally from rock horns to jazz hands in Glee.
Current media conversations about “the voice” have focused on digital technologies like the vocoder, autotune and other studio enhancements. What then do we make of Glee’s revaluation of vocal talent, training and prowess—of the affective force of “the grain of the voice”—through imaginaries about the analog, especially the “pure” echoes of liveness enabled by institutional architectures like choir rooms and auditoriums? Glee plays upon our nostalgia for the so-called “naked voice,” even as the show itself employs post-digital modes of mixing, distribution and dissemination (like pre-recorded versions of soundtrack songs sold on iTunes).
In many respects, Glee more closely resembles earlier forms of musical theater before the integrally plotted and sung-through formats of the “golden age of Broadway” (post-World War II), associated with the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and later on, Stephen Sondheim. Before this “golden age,” shows were thinly plotted vehicles for song catalogues by hit composers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin…even Rodgers and his other buddy Hart. I lack the space here to elaborate further on this history. I only hope that reframing Glee’s pop repertories through Broadway’s legacy—the kind of legacy that brings up questions about the racialized implications of assigning certain songs to certain voices in order to really "sell it"—might allow us to find new ways to engage the show’s historical and deeply resonant musicality, even after the age of mechanical reproduction.