Folk Heroes: The cast of Glee, documenters of modern pop history
Yesterday, Billboard magazine pointed out that the cast of Glee has passed the Beatles as the non-solo act with the most songs on the Hot 100. From its first episode in the spring of 2009 to last week's Britney Spears tribute, Glee's cast has landed on the magazine's singles chart 75 times.
The news was greeted in some circles as proof of Glee's juggernaut status, and in others as a chance to trot out evidence of the show's inferiority to the Beatles (and by extension, the inferiority of the show's audience to the Fab Four's fans), namely that its cast doesn't sing original songs. Forced to choose between breathless celebration and curmudgeonly finger-wagging, I'll take grandpa's "kids today" grumbling, if only for its hat tip towards context. But let's be clear: there are things worth applauding in this feat, modest though it may be.
1. Glee Is Saving The Music (Repackaging) Industry
When Glee launched, its lead-in was American Idol, a show that had demonstrated to Fox the willingness of its audience to purchase songs it already knew (and likely already owned) if they were performed by singers with which that audience felt even a tenuous connection. By now, Glee has far surpassed its inspiration. Three of its five CD compilations have topped the Billboard 200, and its individual songs — available for download the day after an episode airs, just like Idol — have sold 11.5 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. For Fox, Columbia Records and the people who wrote these songs, imitation is better than flattery. It's like printing money. And — you know, theoretically — more money in the industry's pockets means more money to support lesser known, riskier acts.
2. Glee Is Writing the New American Songbook
Precisely because the show is never particularly inventive in its selections or its interpretations, Glee functions as an ongoing record of the songs that mean something to its audience. Critics of the show have charged Glee with painting the show's plot in broad strokes, but that skeleton framework allows the show's producers to wrap the characters around a particular song — see "Gold Digger," "Don't Stop Believing," "Toxic" — that viewers already like.
The Glee soundtracks can look a little like Now That's What We Call Car Trip Sing-Alongs, but they're codifying, in a very real way, the songs that are a) strong enough to instill even an unsupported moment in a weak-plotted episode with emotion or excitement and b) flexible enough to sound good coming out of the mouths of mostly unremarkable singers. Which is essentially the definition of a standard. The fact that we're already familiar with the show's selections may not be the best reason to recommend the show (a little bit of unpredictability would go a long way, as would a few selections that might actually be popular with contemporary high-schoolers). But as an anthropological exercise, looking back at this show and the collections of hits it has spawned (re-spawned? ew... ) can actually help us to understand our current definition of a pop classic: tuneful, personality-driven songs with opaque morals that abet the same kind of casual, knee-jerk narcissism that makes a person want to see video of himself performing a song he loves on the internet. Nobody's comparing Glee's producers to Alan Lomax, but we shouldn't get mad at them for succeeding wildly at the goals they've set for themselves.
3. Success May Eventually Set Glee Free
Admittedly, I'm bright-siding a bit here. In the most likely scenario, Glee runs through its goodwill after another season or so, generates a couple of weak imitations and departs the pop cultural landscape with little fanfare. But we can hope things turn out differently.
Sometimes giving someone the spotlight gives them the motivation to earn it (hi, Kelly Clarkson). While we're dinging the Glee singers for not writing their tunes, care to recall how many of the Beatles early hits were covers? Shall we remove "My Bonnie," "Twist and Shout," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Matchbox," "Slow Down," "Ain't She Sweet" and "Act Naturally" from the official rolls of their top hits? These songs not only shaped the Beatles' sound, they helped attract the audience that eventually gave the band the freedom to innovate.
We need interpreters. We like watching performers. Performers need a stage. On Glee, they've got a big one. Maybe someday they'll use it to create something new, rather than something simply diverting.