Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Secret of "Glee"

I know so many people hooked on "Glee," FOX's high school glee-club comedy, whether for the characters, the quirkiness, or the music. It's the show's musical chops that seem to take most viewers by surprise. More than once I've heard exclamations that the music on the show is surprisingly enjoyable, and recordings by the cast have peppered the Billboard charts. Some of the show's rearranged a capella takes on popular music are actually proving more popular with certain listeners than the originals. Some have suggested it's the novelty of the concept, which I agree with to some extent, but I have a different theory about why the show's music works so well: "Glee" uses professional singers who can actually sing.

It sounds silly at first, but consider how much of the popular music these days is provided courtesy of relative amateurs or musicians who have risen to fame based on looks or persona or other musical skills. Think of the prevalence of autotune and sound engineer-corrected recordings. Nobody likes to admit it, but being able to actually sing is fairly low on the list of requirements to be a music superstar, and it's a skill that requires a lot of time and effort and training to maintain. Britney Spears, though I'll admit she's very entertaining to watch, can not sing. Christina Aguilera can. But it's amazing how many people are unable to consciously tell the difference, or get so distracted by other elements of a song that the quality of the performance doesn't register. I think the American public is so used to mediocrity by now, even after years of Simon Cowell's kvetching, they just accept it without question.

So upon exposure to real, solid, well-trained, experienced singers, it's no wonder people tuning in to "Glee" are so pleasantly surprised. Nearly all of the music used on the show is recent, familar pop music, but a glance through the backgrounds of the cast reveals that most of them came from Broadway, not from the ranks of past or current pop singers. There's not a single "American Idol" alumni in sight, though several like Taylor Hicks and Fantasia Barrino have migrated to Broadway, and the cross-pollination potential for the FOX Network is obvious. A Broadway background is often a telling indicator of vocal training, because live musical theater requires a different skill set than pop, and the ability to deal with more challenging material is vital. Even so-so composers like Stephen Schwartz of "Wicked" will give singers far more of a workout than the most ambitious Lady Gaga songs.

Another major factor is age. I mentioned in yesterday's post on "High School Musical" that I've never heard any of the music from the franchise, but I can tell you without listening to a note that the cast of "Glee" sounds better. In fact, I'd extend that to all of the Disney Channel stars, including Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. Why? All of the Disney Channel stars are teenagers. When I first got a look at "Glee," one of the points immediately in its favor was that the singers were not actual high school aged adolescents. This may not matter much as far as acting performances, but it matters tremendously when it comes to the music. Most singers' voices do not properly develop until they hit their twenties. It's only rare flukes like Bianca Ryan, the preteen winner of the first season of "America's Got Talent," or the aforementioned Christina Aguilera, whose voices mature early and don't change much as they get older.

Some have tried to tie the show's success to "American Idol," which to be fair, was responsible for delivering "Glee" that initial audience for the premiere that got the ball rolling. However, I think of "Glee" as almost the anti-"American Idol." FOX's juggernaut talent competition is all about molding raw talent into corporate product, operating as a giant popularity contest. The best singers sometimes win, but often don't. "Glee" is about the nerds and geeks, the unpopular kids who are learning to endure with a little help from an unorthodox hobby. The show choir at the center of "Glee" is portrayed as deeply uncool at first glance. It feels ironic that the show has been such a runaway success, and the stars are going on tour and putting out albums - though I can't help but think that audiences will be getting more for their money. "American Idol" is full of amateurs. "Glee" has all the pros.

Sure, "Glee" owes its success to a lot of different factors, including luck and good timing, but it always helps when a show can exceed initial viewer expectations. I don't know what I was anticipating when I first saw the show, but it wasn't the surprisingly polished, wonderfully recontextualized numbers delivered by the "Glee" cast. It was a wonderful surprise and a perfect hook into the show's kooky little universe. Sure, it's a gimmick, but it works. And who knows? Maybe if they raise the bar for enough of these pop song performances, they might raise the bar for the real pop singers as well. The ratings for "American Idol" have been slipping this year while "Glee" has been on the rise. Coincidence? Let's hope not.

The season finale of "Glee" airs tonight.

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