Glee: camp, fun, won’t change the world

Finally a high school show that makes a song-and-dance out of Big Issues with sarcasm and lightheartedness.

David Bowden

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Notepads out, cultural critics. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ did not end global poverty and inequality; ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ did not free Nelson Mandela; Elvis Presley (or Little Richard) did not invent teenage sex; David Bowie putting on a bit of slap and prancing around on stage did not achieve gay equality; the radical left did not collapse in the UK because The Clash split up. When real political gains were made, that was achieved through mass political activity and organisation; when they weren’t, that was because of none of those things were about.

Okay? Are we all clear? Good, so please, TV execs, don’t commission any more self-congratulatory shows where pop music takes the credit for changing the world. Yes, pop music is one of the glorious pleasures of the modern world, alongside other mass-produced goods that enrich our lives, from the automobile to junk food. It offers a wide range of tightly packaged human emotion; it can make you laugh, cheer, cry or dance, and it can put you in the mood for love in as little as three minutes. But pop music doesn’t change the world. Its profundity, where it exists, lies in its perfect encapsulation of the superficial and instant gratification (both perfectly reasonable territories to explore). When it’s bad, it’s wretched; when it’s good, majestic.

Once we accept all this it becomes much easier to understand the popularity of Glee, the American hit show, currently showing on Channel 4 in the UK. Glee is the hottest property in showbiz right now. The show follows a high school glee club – a sort of amateur performing arts group, made up of various oddballs and outcasts – as they make their way through a national competition and, inevitably, grow as performers and people. It’s like The Breakfast Club with songs or High School Musical for slightly older kids.

At one point America’s Billboard 100 was occupied by 25 of the show’s songs: the most from any single source since Beatlemania hit the States in 1964. Even Gordon Brown claims to be a fan. Perhaps the show’s messages of tolerance (even for bigots) and being true to your ideals no matter what, along with its championing of the oddball outcast, struck a chord with the Clunking Fist.

In fact, the show’s broad appeal is fairly obvious. By having souped-up karaoke renditions of well-loved hits (a recent episode was devoted entirely to Madonna songs) sung by a cast of good-looking American teenagers, Glee neatly manages to snaffle both the t(w)eenage market and the ever-growing demographic of so-called kidults. Throw in its message of diversity and inclusiveness (everyone – gay or straight, wheelchair-bound or star jock – can be in the glee club) and multiply it with jazz hands, and you have the makings of a sure-fire hit.

But while it is easy to be cynical about the formula, it is nearly impossible not to be charmed by Glee. There’s no denying that it is cleverly written: for all its sugary schmaltz, it is interspersed with moments of witty, sarcastic humour and gentle absurdity. One of the show’s stars is the embittered cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester who is given a string of classy one-liners (‘Yes we cane’, she says in defence of corporal punishment). In being unafraid to take pot-shots at various idiosyncrasies of US culture – from abstinence societies (whose president gets knocked up) to hyper regulation of speech codes – while also being unafraid to mock its own genre conventions, the show’s writers have clearly learned from that other great US export, The Simpsons.

More importantly, however, Glee also manages to keep its heart. Where other teen hits, such as The O.C. or 90210, drift into self-referential and arch soullessness, and the likes of The Hills and Jersey Shore continue to mine the depths of ‘reality’ television, Glee is not frightened of dreaming of other things and offering a bit of magic. Realism gets ditched in favour of elaborate song-and-dance numbers while we’re never asked to dwell on the unlikelihood of every deadbeat loser suddenly discovering a talent for performance.

Even better, it takes this spirit of joyful camp abandon into the calling card of a teen-themed drama: The Issues. Where other dramas dwell on and draw out the stereotypes of teen life – remember how many teeth-grindingly serious series of Dawson’s Creek it took for Joey to lose her virginity? And then how many teeth-grindingly earnest series it took her to get over it? – Glee tends to take them up and spit them out with all the gravity of a sugared-up toddler. Gay teen with a macho, sports-mad father? It has them tearfully accepting each other in the space of an episode. Losing your virginity to someone who may not be The One? Dealt with in the space of a song. Being bullied? Your real friends will Stand By You.

It’s difficult to imagine a UK show aimed at teenagers displaying such joie de vivre. British teen soap Hollyoaks seems to be one long advert for helplines for viewers who might be affected by the issues raised by the programme. ITV’s homegrown equivalent to Glee, Britannia High, had the enthusiastic message of diversity, but lacked humour. Skins continues its depiction of the fevered dream of a paranoiac self-loathing thirtysomething: one where all teenagers are lithe, perennially on drugs and have lots of top-quality sex, while everyone over 21 is past it, deranged and totally screwed up.

In Glee the grown-ups’ lives – strewn with divorce, neuroses and disappointment – can be just as messy as the kids’, but at least there’s an assumption that with experience comes wisdom while, conversely, adult engagement with youth offers renewal and rejuvenation.

Watching Glee, you are inevitably reminded of the expression ‘bubblegum pop’ and the way in which it encapsulates the instant (and instantly disposable) pleasures offered by consumer society. At a time when pessimism and cynicism is the default setting of contemporary culture, Glee’s jazz-hand enthusiasm is almost revolutionary.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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