The Grain of Glee

Curator's Note

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.


 I appreciate Professor Tongson's note on Glee.  By locating Glee in the era of "plotted vehicles for song catalogues," she moves us beyond the tired quest for the authentic in the notion of "liveness" most recently bequeathed to us in the U.S. by the baby boomer ideology of the rock revolution.  In this context we might also consider how notions of race are functionally limited to "white" "black" and "jewish" in the show, despite the nod to an Asian character or two (as they are in the history of musical theater).  At the same time the "graininess" of the individual voices which sell the songs seems to be racialized in the show.  Race is both erased by the ideology of resonance and ghettoized into the stereotypes of the 1930's in the United States.

You and Lucas Hildebrand hit the nail on the head with this show: We Want to Believe. I watch sequences like this one and I'm just charmed by the courage of its sincerity and idealism. I watch the series finale and Rachel's about to enter the auditorium... well, of course it's going to end with a standing ovation. It's impossible for a star NOT to be born! And, somehow, it's still thrilling. And how can you not smile when Rachel says, "Well, there is one thing that I've been working on since I was four."? And to follow up their triumph with three judges who could care less? Priceless.

 Even its much-maligned melodrama hits me at times. Unlike the ironies and gore elsewhere on the dial, this series doesn't look at big emotions as something to be ashamed of representing. (See this David Foster Wallace's essay on the importance of sincerity in combatting the corrosive effect of TV irony for why this matters:

And how can you not want to believe in the pluckiest underdog of all plucky underdogs, the TV musical? Glee brings that genre back from the dead: Cop Rock and Fame were its last incarnations in the US. It's so rare that there's not even an entry for the television musical on wikipedia.

That's what makes its flaws so enraging, to me at least. Its wit all too often serves to deflect enough criticism to get back to its obsession with the love trials of the "white" and attractive. It's impossible to escape the fact that this is corporate culture, a dream factory. After all, this show revives corporate music from the dead to represent a genuine expression of feelings rather than generating new songs. It makes obvious errors. "Lurchingly shifts in tone" is exactly right. The writers emphasize how the club needs three songs in sectionals... and only shows them perform two. And resorting to TWO Very Special Episodes in the first 13 is not a good sign for the longevity of this series. Nothing disappoints quite so badly as someone you think should know better.

Amongst other things, Glee is a reminder that however much academic discourse denies and denigrates it, emotion plays a role in the critical analysis of culture.

"As I have written elsewhere (nearly everywhere I’ve had a chance to)," If you have links, I'd love to read what you've written elsewhere on it...

 Thank you to Karen for kicking off GLEE week with such a smart framing, one that doesn't just relish the joyousness and pleasure of not-stopping-believing, but returns us to the complexities of the voice and all that we want from it. The invocation of Barthes' "grain of the voice" is certainly a helpful one here-- the grain leads us back to the body and as other folks above have noted, GLEE's songs lose their meaning without their attached body politics. But Barthes said that the grain of the voice was a "double posture" in that it produced two things, both music and language. Part of what I love about GLEE is that as a show based in voices-in-song, it doesn't just produce music, but language as well, language which at times might rehash old ways of thinking about difference and diversity, but at others gives us new ways to talk about the social and political pleasures of pop salvation.

Ellen--Thanks for your comment, and for laying out the stakes about racialized voices so clearly in a way that was elusive to me. Must be some residual Barthesian confusion about capturing "the grain of the voice" through "predicative" and evasive language.

David--My reflections on "Don't Stop Believin'" have appeared in publications that aren't available on line for now, but I can send you a PDF if you're interested. Also, I discuss the song viz. Lynne Chan's art star persona JJ Chinois in the second chapter to my forthcoming book Relocations with NYU Press.

Thanks for reminding us about the televisual precedents for Glee's musical-inspired form. Except for the wildly successful Buffy musical episode, it seems most TV/musical crossovers after the 70s struggled to take flight unless the show itself was situated in an arts millieu. Perhaps that attests to some discomfort among contemporary TV viewers about following a sung-through format that doesn't have an established motivation for bursting into song. But I do "feel" what you're saying about the alternateing emotions that can adhere to an object like Glee, especially your final comments about the spectres of belief and feeling itself in critical labor.

Josh--I love your gesture back to (or back and forth between) music and language in Barthes, and the conversations that necessarily emerge when we are faced with, and moved by, music to reasses as well as to feel. Glee has spawned some crucial new conversations about music, race, "talent," sexuality and disability in the public sphere, and I look forward to us continuing these conversations throughout the week.

I'd love the pdf. I'm thinking about using this series as a last class for an intro to media history course, and that would be very helpful indeed...

...another way to phrase David's response to both Karen & Lucas H's sentiments.

To echo my fellow writers for this week, thanks Karen for kicking us off in the right directions -- in thinking about "institutional architectures like choir rooms and auditoriums," the "vocal transformation" of fist-pumping rock anthems, and situating GLEE-as-television-musical within a longer tradition of musical theater.

I myself "feel" this certain nostalgia for the suburban training grounds (choir room & auditorium) that GLEE shows us week after week, as spaces where one, quite literally, finds her voice. For, after a certain age, where does one find such spaces for outright singing (besides, as I write about, at karaoke bars, at concerts, or the yearly and obligatory religious event)? As Donald Liebenson mentions in today's Los Angeles Times article, part of the success of GLEE (versus other attempts at television musicals) is that it sets the proper time and place for singing to occur -- choir room, preparing for sectionals, and, yes even, high school. At the same time, the show kicks up nostalgia in a way that former nerds, geeks, losers (a demo that I would include myself in) "don't look back in anger" at awkward high school moments like Slurpee dousings or crushes gone awry but, instead, watch the show with 20/20 visions of life after 18. For this reason (and, again, because I do want to believe), somehow I forgive the show's sloppy treatment of minoritarian politics -- maybe because many of my own high school teachers thought of me as the "Other Asian"; or maybe because, just like its characters, I look forward to how it will mature over the next few seasons.

Likewise, the "vocal transformation" of Journey's epic hit does not only travel from point A (Steve Perry) to point B (GLEE cast) for me but also gets circuited through Journey's new lead singer, Arnel Pineda. "Found" through a fan's Youtube video recording of Pineda performing with his cover band, The Zoo, the Filipino singer's intimate knowledge of an American rock & roll archive signals a "vestige" of U.S. empire, one that remains invisible in this nation's imaginary. The effects of this invisibility are especially palpable in the violent reaction from Journey fans when he joined the group in 2008 (see Karen's post awhile back on our blog, Oh! Industry, for more on this). Interestingly enough, Perry fans still designate the former front man as "The Voice" and Pineda as a mere copy of the original (which, of course, can never be replaced).

Finally, Karen's nod to earlier forms of musical theater does force me to stop and ponder vaudeville, as a stage for stock characters and melodramatic plotlines that still provided freaks, geeks, and various sundry others a place to make a living.




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