My grandparents took me to a Broadway production of the musical Big River when I was five, or maybe seven, maybe nine—I don’t remember. They’d introduce me, at various times during my childhood and adolescence when I’d fly from Memphis to visit them in New Jersey, to many places and events that I classify, in retrospect, as culturo-educational experiences: the Finger Lakes and its locks, the Met, award-winning restaurants, a Maria Callas retrospective. And by culturo-educational, I mean “no fun.” I was no aesthete—my bedroom walls and ceiling were literally covered with sports memorabilia, Star Wars posters, Sunday comic strips, novelty hats, World Wrestling Federation stickers, and a “Dukes of Hazzard” press photo signed by Enos.
In my late twenties and early thirties, I’ve watched art house films and attended countless L’Abri lectures and studied mid-century dÃ©cor and learned the art of literary nonfiction, but the majority of my interests has followed the trajectory of my childhood bedroom more than my grandparents’ day trips. Like John McPhee, whose adult essays and books can be directly linked to his childhood interests, most of what I enjoy now is directly related to what I enjoyed as a child. Which is why I was as surprised as anyone when I bought tickets earlier this year to see the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, In the Heights.
The spirit of my now-deceased grandparents didn’t urge me to do this. In fact, true to the trajectory of my childhood, I was motivated by the plebeian. I decided to go to a musical because I liked the television show Glee. I began watching Glee partly because of the cultural buzz it was generating and partly because my best friend was so excited about it. I kept watching, and still watch, primarily for the music—I, Jeremy Clive Huggins, like the music of Glee. And I don’t know why.
I’m not sure what’s gotten into me. But I’ve been attempting, for a while now, to figure it out. Some tentative, perhaps oversimplified, conclusions:
Nerds, freaks, geeks, social outcasts—choose your term—might not be the new jock, but they’re definitely not the old nerds, freaks, geeks, and social outcasts. It’s no longer cool to admit that you were the captain of the football team or the homecoming queen—might as well say that you’re Microsoft or BP. Thank you John Hughes, Joss Whedon, Judd Apatow, and all the rest.
I might be off here, but it seems more and more that cultural phenomena don’t gain cult status as much as they’re intentionally produced to appear culty. Which mitigates, of course, the legitimate culty-ness of it all. Still, though, I like to feel that I’m in on a secret, that I’m part of something spurned by the pretty and the popular. Glee club is the blog to American Idol’s corporate news source. Glee, by its music, can play to cult status without sacrificing the show’s mainstream appeal, which is necessary for survival.
A good brand appeals first to passion. One of the best ways to incite someone’s passion is to endorse his preferences. One of the best ways to endorse someone’s preference is to make it part of your repertoire. Enter the cover song. This is part of the marketing genius of Glee. By incorporating song covers, they can appeal to any demographic they want without being unfaithful to the narrative. Count me among those, from Broadway enthusiasts to Madonna fans to 80’s soft rock lovers, who tune in each week not primarily to find out how the characters are developing but to see if one of my favourite bands or songs is going to get some love. One episode can appeal to both the teenager who grew up with High School Musical and the 40-year-old who still owns a 45 of Van Halen’s Jump. The next episode wins the approval of both me, who appreciates Men Without Hats and Young MC, and my Neil Diamond-loving mom. This will be the first scripted show for which we share a passion.
Here’s the thing about most cover songs. They’re fun, but you’re probably not going to listen to them any more than you listen to the original. In my case, while I thoroughly enjoyed the Glee cast’s covers of Vanilla Ice, Journey, Nelly, Billy Idol, Bill Withers, Cyndi Lauper, and Beck, I probably won’t listen to those versions any more than I’ve listened to the originals in the last ten years. Covers aren’t made for long-term consumption. Short-term, though, they make for an enjoyable experience.
The right cover can trigger pleasant emotions rooted in the past that I’d long forgotten. I like that experience. But it’s temporary: it’s nostalgia, which I define loosely as remembering the good parts. Were I to try to hold on to that triggered emotion for too long, I’d be accused of living in the past. So, in this sense, any given cover song can provide a shot of pleasant recollection, can be comfort food for the ears. And as the friend who introduced me to Glee so wisely said, “Hearing covers [can be] as entertaining to us as it must have been for the Greeks to hear a poet recite something they’d all heard before.”
Some of the covers, though, are of songs that I never particularly enjoyed—Paul Anka and Odia Coates’s “(You’re) Having My Baby” and The All-American Rejects’s “Give You Hell.” But I really enjoyed the choir version. Forgive the theologian in me for stretching here, but there’s something in me that responds in joy to the artful recreation of a cultural artifact that was previously unsatisfying or tired. In other words, some cover songs are, to my mind, tiny pledges of the future redemption of all things.
My favourite Glee songs are those performed by the entire choir, rather than one or two singers. Of all of the wonderful music experiences I’ve had, none beats the first (and second and third) time I heard the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir sing “Tell Somebody.” The first minute and a half sounds like a traditional gospel song performed by members of a choir. But you can feel the voices building, and at around the 1:40 mark, the entire choir lets loose—vocally, and in unison—its conviction. I’ve listened to that song at least 50 times, and I get goosebumps every single time that crescendo emanates from my speakers.
There’s something about a community of voices, singing with conviction and in harmony, that moves me deeply. I can explain it neither theoretically nor aesthetically, but it’s no less true for that. Come to think of it, if you, like I, ever think about what music in the new heavens and earth will be like, I’m willing to bet that most of us don’t picture a singer-songwriter, as wonderful as she can be, sitting solo with a guitar. We think of a mass of voices rising, joyfully, in unison. One person puts on a performance; forty people deliver passion.
As far as I can tell to this point, these are the main reasons I like the music of Glee. I don’t know how long I’ll keep watching the show, but I do know that as long as the show continues producing songs, I’ll check iTunes each week to sample the episode’s music, and if there’s a cover of a song that interests me or a song featuring the entire choir, I’m buying. I doubt that this makes me any more cultured or educated than I am, but it sure is fun, and the child in me responds to that gleefully.