Few things scream pop culture like “Glee” – the Fox television show that just finished its second season. Set in a fictional Ohio high school, the show is essentially a mash up of Le Boheme, High School Musical, Fame, Grease, Happy Days, Saved By The Bell, Flashdance and Bring it On set to a K-Tel greatest hits 8 Track. The story is as old as Tristen and Isolde and its Elizabethan redux Romeo and Juliet: outcasts driven by a passion for the arts are marginalized by society and this exclusion fusions a collective that will not only conquer the culture, but will become culture itself. Add to this a never ending search for meaning, love, and a good dance number and you have the makings of some pretty demographically hot TV property. From a monetary standpoint, Glee has become the poster child for mass market penetration: rebooting pop songs with new voices (cover songs always work) and virtually tapping into the immediacy of this ‘new song’ by making the song available immediately on iTunes, the show has found a way to sell at multiple angles and thereby ensuring a media presence absolutely unparalleled in current television (as I write this 3 Glee collections sit in the top 10 albums on iTunes). Yet to dismiss the series as merely a money making scheme conjured up to feed the nostalgia needs of 40-somethings (most of the music trends toward the Gen X era… guess someone figured out we still have purchasing power and weren’t slackers after all…) is to miss a more profound hunger that Glee is meeting, albeit in a pop mode which means that it is never complete and always needing to be recast.
It is the hunger for anthems and ballads.
Rock music and its cousin pop music primarily fall into two distinct categories: the Anthem and the Ballad. Anthems are the rallying cry of the 75, 000 person stadium concert pumping fists in the air while standing close enough to the speakers so that our ears bleed like stigmata. This is usually the lead single for the album and its track listing is often second or third – this is the “are you with us or against us?” track. This is the “We Will Rock You”, “We are the Champions“, “Born in the USA“, “We’re Not Going to Take it Anymore”, “Baba O’Riley” [fill in the blank]. It is the music that grabs us by the shirt and shakes us like a dog tearing into a T-Bone steak after not eating for days. This is the soundtrack to the commuter on the highway fist pumping the roof of their Prius, the iPod jogger speeding up the hill, the base thumping of the Honda at the stoplight. Anthems speak about movement, of getting out of here, ending the nonsense job and taking a risk for a change. In short, Anthems are bigger than we will ever be and we want to be part of something that big. Ballads on the other hand are essentially the song of the heartbreak and remind us just how fragile we really are: this is the simple Casio tone keyboard of Yaz’s “Only You“, the pining piano and synth of Howard Jones’ “No One is to Blame“, the Sinead O’Connor cover of Prince’s “No One Compares to You” or Michael Stipe’s ode to agnosticism in REM’s “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.” Somewhere between the Anthem and the Ballad is where many of us find ourselves – reaching for the confident booming volume and backbeat of the Anthem and the painful quiet of the Ballad. Yet while this is true for millions (see what the top singles are from week to week and the sales figures don’t lie) is not often acknowledged openly. In places of work, in our homes, in (yes) our churches – life is to be lived in control, measured, under wraps, and it is to be very, very predictable. Basically, while we secretly listen to Anthems and Ballads in our cars, our iPods, and on our computers like the one you are reading this blog at this very moment… life is lived from moment of Muzak to another. Devoid of passion, not risking surprises or unbridled emotions, millions fain a life in front of others that is merely a whisper of the Anthems and Ballads that are the soundtrack of the true, original story.
But Glee gets it and turns it up so we can’t avoid it…
Lesson from all this?
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey is more than an old recycled pop song for the Gleeks… it is actually truth in ways Steve Perry probably had NO idea it would be. To admit not only liking but loving that song and its Glee version is tantamount to cultural suicide in some erudite circles (try suggesting a Journey sing-a-long at a university faculty meeting… see how THAT goes!) But the hunger for more than this plain life of Muzak continues on… and so will shows like Glee.
Doubting Thomas? Feel like you can just be the cynic and deploy all your well phrased post-structuralist firepower on all this and remain unscathed?
Enjoy the Journey-themed finale then and let me know what you think – click here, turn up the volume, and get ready to hope beyond Muzak