Should the show still make us feel warm inside?
If you’d asked me about the Fox TV show ‘Glee’ back in 2010, I’d probably have sworn my undying loyalty to it. Its quirky humour was endearing, and over-the-top characters memorable. Being an enthusiastic member of my school choir, however, my friends and I relished the songs the most.
‘Glee’ wrapped in 2015 and has been off the air for three years now. By taking itself too seriously, while ironically failing in many places to develop its characters or storylines meaningfully, it lost many loyal fans (including myself) along the way, and appears to have been forgotten as quickly as it rose to fame. This is a pity as its veritable song catalogue is worth revisiting even without the context of plot. Over more than a hundred episodes, the cast recorded over 765 tracks, spanning a large array of genres, time periods, and artists. It’s not the first show to feature a large music catalogue (remember the time S Club 7 had its own show?), but was credited with reviving evergreen artists and songs, as well as putting its own creative spin on arrangements.
Showrunner Ryan Murphy sought to cast actors who could identify with the “rush of starring in theatrical roles”. Hence, he turned his attention to Broadway, where he found much of the show’s original cast, including Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele and Jenna Ushkowitz. Others, like Chris Colfer and Cory Monteith, had no professional performing experience, while Dianna Agron and Kevin McHale had already pursued other musical and acting endeavours. Together, they completed the William McKinley High School’s New Directions, and would anchor the show until an influx of new cast members in the fourth season.
The cast’s cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, featured in the first episode, is almost synonymous with the show on the whole. Michele’s Broadway polish and theatrical flair, combined with Monteith’s rough yet earnest delivery, against show choir-style vocalisation by the rest of the cast, created a fresh take on the rock classic. Given that the characters were positioned from the start as the underdogs and rejects of the school, it was also apt that the show’s first full musical number was what can be deemed an underrated, unexpected choice. Song choices like these featured across all six seasons, and provided many of the series’ most confident performances.
In a way, the show’s first performance is also emblematic of the show’s musical strength: energetic, ambitious group numbers. Although ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’now pales in comparison to much stronger group numbers later in the show’s run, it charted the ambitions of Glee in a fitting way. While excellent singers on their own, the collective energy of the cast was electrifying. Be they Journey covers (‘Any Way You Want It’), Meat Loaf’s ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ in the third season, or Neil Diamond’s ‘America’ in the fifth, all were choreographed and performed with aplomb, and showcased the best of the cast’s vocals.
The show’s mash-ups also showcased the creativity of its showrunners in creating exciting, original arrangements. Most long-time ‘Glee’ fans will remember exuberant blends of ‘Halo’ and ‘Walking on Sunshine’, and ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Confessions’ in the first season. Mash-ups soon became some of the show’s most notable numbers, including one of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ with ‘Heads Will Roll’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – a quirky but catchy combination. Given that many of the songs chosen seemed highly incongruous with each other, it’s remarkable that they ended up flowing seamlessly into one another; think angsty Alanis Morrisette with gentle Carole King. The showrunners even experimented with original songs, which often could not compare with the covers, although earnest and at times self-reflexively nonsensical.
It didn’t take long for the show to realise its own commercial potential and start integrating more contemporary pop into its catalogue, in a pivot away from the throwback sound that dominated the first season. The choice of Alicia Keys’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ to open the second season’s first episode certainly made this choice clear. It became far more common to hear Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, One Direction, and the like on the show, to the extent that it felt at times the show was trying too hard to keep up with the times where it wasn’t necessary. Furthermore, given that many cast members were Broadway veterans, including de facto lead Lea Michele, their musical stylings didn’t gel well with modern pop. Yet Michele was chosen to anchor so many pop numbers, often with mixed results. Pop numbers succeeded, however, when utilising the more contemporary voices in the cast – take for example
Noah Guthrie’s chilling cover of Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’, or the voices of regulars Naya Rivera and Kevin McHale, who were more reliable choices for post-2010 songs with a more effortless finish.
The combination of contemporary and vintage music was its most effective in the middle of the show’s run, when it could straddle both without being dated or try-hard. Episodes paying homage to specific artists and musicals were also especially popular – ‘Grease’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson among others – as they tapped on both extremely familiar and more neglected material, and brought classic songs to generations of audiences. Glee’s popularity also meant that guest stars often surprised viewers with appearances – Gwyneth Paltrow revealed her singing chops to the world, Broadway veterans like Idina Menzel delivered powerful performances, and even Demi Lovato had an oft-forgotten recurring role.
The potent combination of old and new, a large variety of songs, and creative arrangements made ‘Glee’’s song catalogue incredibly diverse and listenable. Even when the show’s plot was limp, its songs carried it through to the end. For a series so reliant on quality songs, it’s a pity that the popularity of its music has faded out as quickly as its weak plots and mal-developed characters. Despite faltering near the end, there’s little doubt that ‘Glee’ was truly unique and groundbreaking in its use of music, and that its music deserves to live on.