Monday, February 7, 2011

Glee Against The Music: Nathan Watches The Post-Superbowl Show (Part One)

It might be said, many years from now, that Glee came to stand for the last thundering death rattle of the flouted, rotting corpse that was once the American music industry, eaten from within by its own preponderance for recycling easy-listening classicist junk, forced in a last-ditch rescue effort to brand American Idol groupthink onto a nation of impressionable high schoolers, dooming them forever to repeat the mistakes of "Don't Stop Believin'"--this may all come to be true. But for now, this FOX show, despite being a relatively recent joint, has become a substantial brand on its own, with overall revenue supposedly peaking nearly a half-billion dollars. Not only that, but the show has its defenders, too, some of whom should know better. Glee is a high school musical featuring no original music--basically, it takes the song-cycle structure of an American Idol episode, adds some plot in between to explain why the characters in the show are singing a particular type of music each week, and then throws into that mixture a weird veneer of self-referential humor. The result is supposedly insane spectacle (tonight's episode must have been the most expensive hour of scripted television I've ever seen) that masquerades as an after-school special, featuring high schoolers and teachers behaving suspiciously like characters in the Reese Witherspoon movie Election.

The music, or rather show creator Ryan Murphy's opinion on Glee's role in foisting music appreciation on the sullen youths of America, was what finally drew me to the show's post-Superbowl episode after doing a good job of avoiding it for 1.5 years. The show obviously wasn't made for me, and I didn't spend much time thinking about the type of people the show would be for (now that I have seen it, of course, that's about all I can think about). At its best, Glee turns even the best of tunes into pablum; at its worst, it does Katy Perry. And since none of the high school drama was going to interest me (John Hughes films mostly piss me off, to give you an idea) watching it was never on the agenda. But here I am, having been motivated after reading about something Mr. Murphy said, in the same article I quoted above:
Then there are artists whose catalogs are off-limits. Glee’s best-known rejection: Kings of Leon, who rarely license their music. Murphy’s message to nonbelievers the Followill brothers? “F--- you, Kings of Leon,” he says, raising the volume of his monotonal interview voice ever so lightly. “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.”
[Another fun fact from that article: honorary Black Eyed Pea Slash also refuses to license his songs on Glee! Quoth the guitarist/whore: "Glee is worse than Grease, and Grease is bad enough." Wait a minute, didn't Slash and Duff KcKagan sign over the rights to the GnR name to Axl Rose back in the early 90s? And that's why Axl can go around with Buckethead and the like and call himself Guns N' Roses? Unless there are some killer Velvet Revolver dance numbers which will remain unaired...]

I was happy to see any article endeavoring to piss on KOL (as I'm sure their misguided fans call them), but my attention quickly turned to what Mr. Murphy offered in defense, honestly equating dislike of Glee with "hating on arts education." I beg to differ. In fact, I think it is perfectly appropriate to dislike Glee intensely on the grounds that it actively does a disservice to arts education. For everyone on the show, music serves one simple, grindingly capitalistic and utilitarian purpose--to provide a vehicle to celebrity. Nothing about this show has anything to do with the individual performance of music, of learning how to play instruments, of scenes where kids listen to tunes and jam with friends. All this show ever builds up to is the performance, the moment where musical catharsis transfers itself into the adulation and appreciation of an audience. People who will then be moved to start a billion dollar brand around your name. All without ever having to pick up a guitar. It's sort of sick, and it is entirely 100% accurate in showing how pop stars get ahead in America today.

Glee is not a show, I think, where music spontaneously busts out of nowhere, and in the background of a lot of shots you can see the background musician ably playing behind the handsome football jocks and comely cheerleaders (and yes, cheerful, bespectacled nerds) of the Glee club. Who are these people, and what are their stories? You don't even see them move in and out of the picture, they just sort of disappear when they're not needed. In particular, there's one bearded guy on the piano who keeps popping up everywhere. And what's the deal with the people who just stop playing their instruments sometimes, in the middle of songs? Why does one mohawked dude even bother picking up an acoustic guitar if he won't even acknowledge the other musicians?

I know, these are old man complaints. But they get at the heart of what makes Glee feel so wrong, so disappointingly appropriate for a generation raised on Facebook. Glee doesn't particularly seem to care about its characters, who constantly act is if stationed in Bizarro World, where sensible behavior is particularly frowned upon. Nor does music qua music get much respect--you never hear anyone talk about music except immediately before and after a number, and no one has any particular taste or style of music, any individual predilections at all really, that would be uniquely their specialty. It's a homogenized, Clear Channel vision of the NĂ¼ American songbook as a solution to America's Great Economic Woes, and don't even get me started on the show's take on high school cliques: it is in the football team scenes of this new episode that the true stupidity of this show really shines through. On the other hand, Jane Lynch has some funny lines. Tune in tomorrow when I break the show and its choice of musical numbers.

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