Ed and I watched every episode of Glee. We remained loyal throughout its wild upswings and downturns in popularity and storytelling. Being of a generation that grew up with few television shows of a musical nature to turn to, and even fewer or none that regularly explored LGBT themes, we greatly appreciated how Glee tilled new territory on both fronts. Glee may have wrong-footed itself more than once as a soap opera, yet nothing bothered me as much as Mrs. Shue’s fake pregnancy early in the first season, so every plot twist after that I would take with the requisite grains of salt; and by the last season Glee basically directly and cheekily told its audience to do the same.
So even if the storyline could be a hot mess, Glee succeeded by getting so much so wonderfully, movingly right when it came to diversity and music. Glee picked up the LGBT TV baton from Ellen and Will and Grace and ran with it, dealing with stories of coming out, sexuality, gay marriage and transgender characters in ways that kept pushing the envelope, and ultimately mainstreamed those stories for the rest of the TV landscape (that 200 strong transgender chorus singing “I Know Where I’ve Been” during one of the last episodes was a testament to how Glee remained on the vanguard of LGBT issues on TV for its time).
And Glee was also consistently strong in its musical performances, featuring a diverse cast of powerhouse talents performing a diverse program of popular music. Glee’s musical selections would reach back to the golden age of musicals through to today’s most recent pop hits. Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Jazz, Pop, Hip-Hop, Rock, all were created equally according to Glee, perhaps homogenized a bit by dint of being arranged and performed by the same general group of people, but mostly celebrated as a wide field of musical expression. In doing so Glee helped unify and democratize the landscape of pop music that had recently become more balkanized in media outlets. “The young kids” would be introduced to some of the classics or songs in genres they normally avoided, while “old fogies” like me would get their first introduction to some of the latest pop culture hits, sometimes within not just the same episode but within the same musical number. Occasionally Glee managed to cover a new song even before it reached its greatest popularity, perhaps contributing to its assent up the pop charts through the exposure.
So to show my appreciation of Glee I thought it would be fun to highlight five musical numbers from the show that I not only personally enjoyed but also are representative as a group of what made Glee such an enjoyable place to tune into. I quickly realized that limiting the number to five would force me to leave out many tracks I would sorely wish to include. So a sequel (or two) to this post is probably likely in my future…
But here goes, Five Reasons to be Glee-ful:
- TEENAGE DREAM
This song was Darren Chris’ introduction to Glee, and the beginning of “Klaine”, the shorthand for the relationship between his and Chris Colfer’s characters Blaine and Kurt. A cover of one of Katy Perry’s many #1 hits, it was also the first time the all-male a capella group The Warblers were featured on the show. The performance was so successful that Teenage Dream would be Glee’s highest selling track and the only Glee recording to crack the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 at a time when Glee recordings were regularly charting the week after airing on TV. But in addition to being one of Glee’s most popularly successful performances, it is just simply a great arrangement, arguably more stirring and interesting than the Katy Perry original. And I get a kick out of Darren Chris warbling: “You think I’m pretty without any make-up on”.
“Don’t Stop Believing” is the performance that introduced the Glee kids to the world and became a touchstone for the show. It highlights the hallmarks of the quintessential Glee performance, the individual voices coming together as an ensemble full of the joy of singing and music and life. But my personal favorite example of that quintessential Glee performance, especially in the first season, is their mattress bouncing, high flying cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”. I was never a big fan of the original, perhaps because I held a grudge that it kept Nena’s “99 Luftballons” from hitting #1 on American Top 40 back in the day. Nonetheless it’s hard to resist the song’s hook, and I am tickled by its transfer from Keyboard to vocal “bah bah bahs” as well as Amber Riley out-wailing any electric guitar. Plus the over the top somersaulting back-flipping mattress commercial performance is one of Glee’s most exuberantly happy performances. I’m also amused by this comment YouTube: “This is the biggest crime ever done to Van Halen”. I think Van Halen will survive.
- I LOVE NEW YORK / NEW YORK, NEW YORK
I had to include at least one mash-up, the melding of two or more songs in one musical number. Glee didn’t originate the mash-up but certainly popularized it greatly. These Glee mash-ups created thematically and musically fascinating new ways to hear and appreciate well-known songs. A couple were awkward, but more than not these musical hybrids spoke dramatically and musically in a powerful way to an episode’s theme or storyline. One of my favorite examples is the Big Apple appreciation mash-up of Madonna’s brash techno track “I Love New York” and Leonard Bernstein’s musical classic “New York, New York”. It’s an extreme example of Glee reaching out to disparate eras and styles all in one performance. Moreover the two songs don’t trade off but literally musically overlap, practically rewriting each other in the process. It could have been a train wreck, but instead it is hugely successful and fun.
- HOW WILL I KNOW
One reason I know I will need to do a sequel to this post is because I have not been able to highlight the individual cast members enough, particularly the ones with the strongest voices. Four of them (Lea Michele, Amber Riley, Chris Colfer and Naya Rivera) are featured in this rendition of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”, recorded as part of the tribute episode to Houston after her passing. What had originally been a bubbly 1980’s pop confection here becomes a beautifully rendered a capella memorial, both soaring and elegiac. Glee often loved pulling out all the stops and going over the top, but Glee could also be exceptionally good at going quiet or spare and letting the vocals speak (or sing) for themselves. This is one of those times and perhaps the time Glee did it best.
- GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN
How to write about Cory Monteith and his death and do it justice in the context of this short Glee appreciation? I don’t think it’s possible. But you can’t talk about Glee without talking about the decency and goodness and average Joe charm (within a cast of so many preternaturally gifted individuals) Cory not only brought to the production as a person (by all accounts) but also centrally represented within the world of Glee as the Quarterback who joined the Glee Club. Monteith’s passing forced the show Glee and its writers and cast to confront a horrible tragedy and they managed to deal with it with grace and sensitivity both publicly and on the show, for real and fictionally, which must have been monumentally difficult. I still get sad thinking about him. My favorite performance of his is this gender and mood switching version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun (evidently pioneered in its arrangement by Greg Laswell):