Glee as the new American Idol

Is Glee the new American Idol? Could be.  Certainly, Glee has momentum at the moment, and American Idol after a long and spectacular run in the first moments of its decline.  This image, from Google trends, shows Glee over taking American Idol some time in the last quarter…at least as a search term on line.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Glee is the new American Idol.  We may not be correct but we do at least have the opportunity for speculation that would not otherwise occur to us, and with this, we have the opportunity for an early warning.  (The Chief Culture Officer is prepared to be wrong much of the time in order to be "sighted" some of the time.)

Some things don’t seem to change at all.  Both shows seem devoted to the endless recitation of popular culture that is actually not all that popular anymore.  American Idol seems determined to ignore most of what has happened to music since the 1990s.  Glee the same.  (Readers of this blog will know that I take these to be one of several indicators that the "alternative" sensibility of the 1990s is now on the wane.  More evidence?  The decline of Parks and Recreation and Community and of NBC and the now departed Ben Silverman who used to work there.)

But there are some interesting differences.  American Idol devotes itself to intensely personal stories, as kids claw their way to the top.  It’s all terribly authentic. Some of the point of the exercise is to get to know these kids, to root for them, to watch a star being born.   Glee on the other hand is an exercise in flat out artifice.  We don’t get to know the "real" actors beneath the characters and there isn’t very much to get to know about the characters themselves.  This is musical theater, with much more emphasis on the music than the theater.  Indeed, the Glee plot is finally just a device for song and dance delivery. There is some dramatic continuity, some dramatic tension, but its exists for the purposes of cheap sentiment more than character development.  

Indeed, Glee appears designed for modularity.  We can break kids out for song and dance purposes and we can drop celebrities in.  I noticed today that show co-creator Ryan Murphy is suggesting that Susan Boyle appear as a lunch lady.  And with this the possibilities are endless.  Wayne Newton as the janitor can’t be far away.  Just so long as you are recognizable and can burst into song.  And this really is artifice.  Now every actor and character is just a place keeper, a pretext for the infusion of more music.

At their best, the 1990s were a time of unstinting authenticity.  I remember an editor of an alternative music magazine telling me that he couldn’t get photos of the bands he was covering because the bands insisted that a photo would demand that they "pose" and that was precisely the sort of falsehood their music was designed to refuse.  

Pose?   In the era of Glee, it’s "where would you like me?  And what expression should I wear?"  It’s not about authenticity.  It’s about being as emotionally compliant as necessary. Stardom is so precious a capital, we will pay anything for it.  We will endure TMZ coverage and much, much worse.  

By this reckoning, and it’s only a reckoning, American culture is now governed by the rules of musical theater, where kids live for the "one big break," and make any compromise necessary to get there.  This takes us several light years away from the sensibility that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s.  Chrystal Bowersox has something of this sensibility, and her victory, if that’s what happens on American Idol, may be last hurrah.  

References

Stack, Tim.  2010.  Susan Boyle to play McKinley High Lunch Lady.  Entertainment Weekly. May 19.  here.

6 thoughts on “Glee as the new American Idol”

  1. Grant,

    An interesting contrast to the artificiality of Idol or Glee or is authenticity of Janelle Monae. What makes it most interesting is that her unique style is expressed in a hyper-stylized artificiality. On her new album she takes on the identity of an android from the future.

    On one level it might seem like a comparison between Monae and Lady Gaga would make sense, but the two seem worlds apart to me. Gaga’s stage persona, really her whole persona seems calculated and created solely to position her in pop culture. One gets the feeling that Gaga would start playing the ukelele and dress like a Hasidic Jew if that would keep her on the top of the charts (not unlike Madonna).

    Monae’s persona is completely different – just as much as transformation as Gaga, yet so unique and so uniquely her that no one else could inhabit her “space.”

    So, back to your point, Grant, Monae is certainly a long way from the Seattle scene. Her authenticity is the descendent of Ziggy Stardust, early Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads.

  2. The way I see the difference between American Idol and Glee is the difference between “real” and “fake.”

    Ostensibly, AI is a reality show. There are real stakes for real people. Glee is a camp experience, through and through.

    I see a new emergence of camp understanding in popular culture. American Idol is schmaltzy, and the reality TV genre has been taken to such extremes (especially the competition subgenre, e.g. Fear Factor, Rock of Love, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila), that it’s tough to maintain a “real” facade anymore.

    But Glee bypasses that by reveling in its camp sensibility. Is it ridiculous that Puck and Mercedes would be even remotely interested in each other? Yes. Do I care? No. Because the premise of the show defies any rational consideration. It doesn’t take itself seriously, so the viewer can’t either.

  3. Is Treme the Glee for adults? On the authenticity issue, the “live-ness” of the music in Treme certainly makes it feel so.

  4. Hi Grant-thanks for the great insight. I was thinking the same thing, especially after a dentist visit 2 wks ago.

    My dentist is a tech geek who has all the latest stuff, including big flat panel tv’s and internet access in every patient space. His assistant is a funny, insightful pop culture freak. It’s not your typical dentist’s office.

    The 3 of us talk technology, action movies, and the latest manga, but this visit was different. My dentist started RAVING about Glee! and when I told him and his assistant I’d never seen the show, they instantly started pulling up Glee videos on Youtube, playing them on the huge flat panel HDTV, and turning the volume WAY up. We spent nearly 30 minutes watching videos. Both of them were really excited about this show.

    While the videos played, I started thinking that Glee must hit some cultural sweetspot at just the right time–just like American Idol did back in the day. But lately, most of the AI PR I’d heard was negative-the thrill was gone. Then it hit me: this phenomenon is the “perfect storm” of technology, culture, and media.

    AI and Glee both celebrate pop culture through old songs with Febreezed moldy lyrics. Guitar Hero and Rock Band perform the same function for gaming. I think its a trend brought about by the music industry’s need to promote their highly profitable back catalogs. All the brick-n-mortar record stores are defunct, so AI, Glee, Rock Band, etc. are logical alternative paths. However I think there’s something else–the cultural component IS hitting some nerve that wasn’t there previously, which made me wonder if all the new media and tech gadgets overkill makes our culture nostalgic for the “simpler” times of cassette tape mixes and “albums”.

    And speaking of nostalgia- ah, the 1990s-how much I miss the authenticity! I can’t wait for that to come back into style.

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