Who knew the second decade of the 21st century would be one of the golden ages for music on TV? Seems so retro.
You don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to understand the allure of an “American Idol” and its many “reality” TV imitators. Americans, especially in tough times, love to watch someone they can relate to get discovered and make it big, relying on their previously anonymous talent. These shows are aspirational, reinforcing our belief that there are diamonds in the rough among us just waiting to catch their break.
And then there’s “Glee”, the non-reality musical phenomenon on TV. It may not feature real folks getting their 15 minutes, but the hugely successful Fox high school drama is an aspirational show in its own way. The aspiration is not about musical genius or accomplishment (though plenty of talent is featured); it’s about how we get along in public spaces, about wanting to close the gap between the lip service paid to ideals like diversity and assimilation and everyday reality. “Glee” is a safe haven for social cohesion.
The reason millions of us can’t resist tuning into “Glee” week in and week out is because the fictional McKinley High in Lima, Ohio, is a stand-in for what we think our public high school should have been, and for what we believe our schools might yet become: a place where kids from diverse backgrounds come together, united by a common purpose.
Lest Rachel (the show’s diva, played by Lea Michele, for those of you not in the loop) burst in here with a cheekily upbeat number, I should hasten to add that McKinley is no paradise, and the show captures plenty of the anxiety associated with high school. The travails of Kurt, the openly gay character who is forced to transfer to another school because of hazing, only to return and be selected Prom Queen, is wrenching in ways that are all too realistic.
And yet Kurt joins cheerleaders, football players, nerds and a paraplegic, among others, in the school’s New Directions glee club. In real life, in a real high school where glee clubs are inhabited mostly by real “gleeks,” these kids would have nothing in common. But on the show, these archetypes of the high school social scene come together each week to sing and dance their way through the throes of teenage angst. Kurt may be a prime target for bullies in the school’s hallways, but in the rehearsal room he morphs into a kickass countertenor with range in all five octaves. That earns him the respect and support of all present, including the singers who’d otherwise fit the bully demographic. It’s in that room and in the music that Kurt finds his solace, as do fellow singers like Quinn, the lovely cheerleader dealing with a pregnancy, and Mercedes, the overweight girl who tries convincing herself (until the prom comes along) that she’s fine without a boy.
But rest assured, “Glee” is self-knowingly fantastical. Just when you think the show might be getting too weighted down by “issues,” full orchestras or lavish sets with sparking pyrotechnics magically appear to back up a number showcasing the inordinately talented cast. But the most absurb element of the show is the diversity in the group of kids – in terms of background, race, interests, sexual orientation, class, you name it – that are fused together into one endeavor. The students have their share of intramural drama, but one of the more endearing aspects of the show (again, something we can all aspire to) is the raptured, delighted attention they offer each other when they are not performing. Even competing groups on “Glee” prove supportive, doting audiences.
The archetypes on “Glee” include the football star (two, in fact), a paraplegic, a fashionista, a Jewish daughter of two dads wrestling with a lot of anxiety (and talent), a trio of cheerleaders, two token nerdy Asians, and an African-American girl who also does gospel choir on Sundays – and the billing seems to expand with each season to capture every conceivable high school demographic. They aren’t all best friends – let’s not get carried away – but they are all definitely on the same team.
It’s been five years since I graduated from my slightly uppity, overachieving magnet school, Troy High in Fullerton, which didn’t exactly set the bar for student body diversity. The types represented in “Glee” exceed the range of kids we had at Troy. We Warriors (I suppose “Trojans” would have been redundant) were majority Asian, mostly overworked, under-rested cubs borne of Amy Chua-like Tiger Mothers. Still, we had our share of jocks, band geeks, nerds (many of those, with subcultures aplenty), punks, burnouts, “plastics,” and a whole host of other secondary school princes and pariahs, all jostling for position on the social totem pole (or actively avoiding it as much as possible). But at no time at Troy did all these cultures come together as McKinley’s more far-flung demographics coalesce around music.
Being one of those aforementioned under-rested types mentioned earlier, I found myself participating in my fair share of school activities: the basketball team, the school paper, student government. I got along well with most of my classmates, but I found that few students overlapped from group to group. Class presidents didn’t write, athletes didn’t sing, and the only journalists who went to football games were the ones that had to cover them. It wasn’t until college, when I joined a fraternity – a supposedly elitist, self-selecting institution – that I found myself in a group that was both diverse and accepting. Go figure.
Troy had a lot to offer, but the sheer exuberance of those kids on “Glee” is simply fictional. At best, high school is an awkward experience for everyone, a life of zits, sexual tension and cliques. At worst, of course, high school can be traumatizing.
Only in retrospect can we embrace the unease and bathe it in amused nostalgia, hence the culture’s fascination with high school tales both humorous and serious: The Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Rushmore, Clueless, and so on. High school never ends with us driving off into the clouds with our summertime sweethearts after jitterbugging around the festival grounds (that’s a Grease reference, for those reading from my generation). High school years can leave teenagers alienated and alone, but they also never fully leave you. So “Glee” takes us back, not to wallow in all that was off about those years, but to offer a redemptive version of high school – at least in the confines of Mr. Schuester’s practice room. It’s what high school, and all our communities, should be about.
That’s why so many of us will continue to tune in – next week, Nationals! – to see this hodge-podge of characters belt out classics like Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and contemporary hits like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” To my mind, “Glee” answers the proverbial “Can’t we all just get along?” question with a sonorous rendition of one of the songs it has so masterfully made its own: “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Jay de la Torre is Program and Media Coordinator at Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo courtesy of acousticgirl.