I’ve starting watching the TV show Glee with my girlfriend recently. The first few times I saw it, it came with a kind of mix of fascination and revulsion. The impossibly well produced and polished sound that came from the characters mouths whenever they opened their mouths to sing really bothered me. I couldn’t help but laugh at the synthesizers, drum machines, and orchestras which sprang up out of nowhere to accompany them, apparently produced by a single guitarist or pianist. This kind of critique is rarely suffered gladly by my girlfriend, and so I sat quietly for the next few episodes.
As the glee club trudged towards sectionals, and vocal spectacles piled up one atop another, my feeling towards the show gradually started to chang. I realized that attacking the music on the show for not being portrayed accurately or authentically was more or less completely insane. Rather, it seems that the artificiality of the singing, dancing, and performances on the show is more or less the entire point.
Music often comes to us as a kind of suspension of the everyday, opening towards the fantastic. If nothing else, the near ubiquitous use of music in religious ritual around the world attests to this. However, the music that we get in Glee’s over the top productions is even more otherworldly, even further from ordinary experience than even the most sublime religious music. Whereas much music comes to as a kind of spectacle of human achievement, the music on Glee seems almost completely inhuman. The processed, sound of the voice, alongside the completely unwavering track causes the world of the glee club to switch constantly between everyday high school life and the heights of performance. What’s more, I think what makes it work is the very thing that bothered me at the beginning. The performances are presented with a completely straight face, never admitting that they’ve driven a gap between reality and fantasy.
Thinking of this more and more, it seems to me like we might be able to draw a relatively straight line between this kind of aesthetic and the lovely writers often called “magical realists.” Think of the opening of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, in which the two main characters engage in an extended conversation while falling to earth after a mid-air plane explosion. One swims through the air nonchalantly, while the other stands upright, “arms by his sides…a bowler hat on his head.” Here, too, the impossible is presented as straightforward fact, a sign that the characters of the novel inhabit a world not quite like our own.
Anyway, keeping this in mind has allowed me to enjoy Glee much more than otherwise possible, and perhaps with some effort may allow you to do the same.