7
Jun 10

you shall go to the ball, said the wild things

Do You See + FT10 comments • 518 views

AAAAAH!

At some point ages ago I tried to write a thing about comfort pop, after listening to ‘Fight For This Love’ 28674987 million times on repeat but ultimately, saying ‘some songs are quite pappily nice and occasionally necessary to avert a mental breakdown’ is nothing new. There may yet be some distance in the genre, though: I read an article awhile ago about Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ which said that in times of economic strife songs with more uniform beats chart, making the success of such a steady song a major indicator of the recession (as opposed to, y’know, the recession being a major indicator of the recession but nevermind) and I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. Equally, it’s probably not statistically unlikely that the biggest popstar to emerge out of dire times is not some miserabilist twat with a guitar moaning about having to get a real job but a great fairy godmother who calls her devotees ‘little monsters.’ And one of the biggest songs for the last 18-months has been the decades-old ‘Don’t Stop Believin” by hoary rockers Journey- not necessarily because of, since it seemed to be having a slight renaissance before it but certainly in association with a show about losers.

Glee is great. I first heard of it when one of my metal friends posted a link to the trailer that’s been around since 2008, which just contained the performance of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ from the first show and excitedly announced that it was potentially the greatest musical in cultural history and that I wanted to be in it, having mistaken the costumes for audition gear and television for, err, well; I don’t watch much. I still kind of want to be in it, although I think I’m probably even further past pretending to be sixteen than the actual cast.

The time-old formula of ‘outsiders come good through quirky creativity/self discovery/makeovers’ story is obviously nothing new and the use of a show choir for this narrative is not exactly blowing the envelope apart, in the wake of High School Musical. In fact, Glee is very like High School Musical indeed: jock boy gets into singing through revelatory and conflicted relationship with nerd girl via bribery from a teacher who plants druqks on him, to the backdrop of covered-up teen pregnancy, made-up adult pregnancy, sadism, mental illness, Beyonce and the bin.

Whoops. Glee is great, not because it is camp high theatre ridiculousness combined with the escapist emotional stunting of people barely capable of expressing themselves except through other’s lyrics, it is great because where at the end of High School Musical 3 Troy announces:
“East High is a place where teachers encouraged us to break the status quo and define ourselves as we choose. Where a jock can cook up a mean crème brulee, and a brainiac can break it down on the dance floor. It’s a place where one person, if it’s the right person, changes us all. East High is having friends we’ll keep for the rest of our lives, and that means we really are ‘all in this together’. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat!”

Glee, almost like a reply, strops-
“Don’t you get it, man? We’re all losers! Everyone in this school! Hell, everyone in this town! Out of all the kids who graduate, maybe half will go to college, and two will leave the state to do it! I’m not afraid to be called a loser because I can accept that’s what I am.”

In High School Musical, everyone is freed by their self-expression in supporting roles in the many musical performances. The beauteous love of a dull jock and a dull brainiac is played out without them even being the ones interesting enough to like creme brulee or bootyshaking and everyone, the self-aware evil of Sharpay aside, is essentially a good kid. Troy has never dumped Ryan in the bin, Gabriella isn’t secretly knocked up by Danforth and Taylor hasn’t pointed out that despite the happy multiculturalism of the cast, she hasn’t had any lead vocals. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that and indeed the surreal, ultra-bright, ultra-shininess of High School Musical is precisely its appeal: Zac Efron being emo about whether he wants to be a trillionaire or keep his friends, in broad daylight, on a golf course is never not going to be funny and the problems in the film are the less complicated, more generalised surface efforts of growing up: being yourself whilst understanding other people’s feelings and working out how not to send naked pictures of yourself to the wrong person.

In Glee, the problems are absurd. Blown all out of proportion and tangled cartoonishly, they’re more about parents than children, more about growing old than growing up. The teenage flourishes of High School Musical are sort of emptily positive, whereas Glee is almost unremittingly negative. The losers form a club and do some songs and guess what? Still losers. Still in the bin every day before and after school, still laughed at in the corridors, still freaks. They’re sociopathic, bitchy, unsympathetic freaks, too; no beautiful, misunderstood artists. They’re rubbish at dealing with things, whilst brilliant at creating complicated situations. Their actions are often mitigated by circumstances but that doesn’t make them heroic and the adults are even worse. The only redeemable character, in fact, is probably Sue Sylvester (the sadistic cheerleading coach) who at least seems to have some kind of moral compass, albeit that basically anything is “character building.”

The characters, every single one of them, are useless under stress: a wife’s response to her husband’s refusal to leave his teaching job for a higher-paid position is to fake a pregnancy, a teenager’s response to falling pregnant by the wrong man is to tell her virgin boyfriend it’s his, a bullied but precocious girl’s response to taunts is to be more obnoxious, a man whose marriage is on the verge of breakdown enters a pseudo-relationship with a mentally ill woman behind his pregnant wife’s back, a woman who acted as a surrogate mother sixteen years previously traces her teenage daughter by paying a student to be her boyfriend, other people encroach on Sue Sylvester’s screen time.

There are no easy answers or even right-but-difficult answers to most of the things in Glee, with the exception of the fact that Puck should maybe really stop throwing people in the bin but worse than that, there are no happy endings. There are no circumstances under which any of this is going to come magically right and the best that can be hoped for is probably a temporary reprieve. A recent episode about dreams, distractingly featuring the guy who plays Dougie Howser from not-sure-how-this-is-supposed-to-be-funny rival show How I Met Your Mother, had a happy ending as a disabled boy accepted that he would probably never walk. Hoorah! Big smiles everyone!

And yet: big smiles everyone! Outrageous pantomime! A thousand elephants, if the principle will sign them off! If you’re desperate and you know it and you’re not really sure what to do about it, manically sing and dance until you scare everyone into realising you really do have a mental illness! Exhibit your various problems like fresh laundry on the stage fittings but do it smiling with every last shred of mental breakdown in your body! WALKING ON SUNSHINE IS A DRUGS ANTHEM NOW, OK?

This is why Glee is great. The use of ‘Don’t Stop Believin” was always genius but in the context of a show so obviously heading to hell in a handbasket faster than even real life sometimes can, such a massive, overblown anthem is inevitably a bit of an emotional ambush but then ‘DO YOU SEE’ is the whole point (and counter-point) of show choir. The overblown cartoonishness of the show exactly matches the overblown cartoonishness of the song (street light! people! living just to fiiind emoootion!) and lyrically, it does a good job of turning desperate times into something not necessarily too romanticised: paying anything to roll the dice just one last time. And kind of don’t take it too seriously because if you think about the odds, you’ll actually cry, so it doesn’t matter how cheesy the sentiment, on and on and on and on and.

As an Official Young Person, I don’t really know the context of the original Journey release and part of me is a bit loathe to look it up because I think its nebulous (to me) history is partly why I like its association now: it was and probably has been for some time the sort of thing that is played “ironically” at student discos. Actual point of irony: now try and get a graduate job and see how long it is until you’re blubbing madly whilst something at the back of your head thinks ‘actually the train would probably be about 11:30 and you’d have to change at Reading.’ You pack of fvcking freaks.

I’ve pretty much come out of the recession ok: although I graduated with a lot of debt in 2008 and haven’t had a “proper” job (whatever one of those is) since, I have mostly been employed for at least the last year now and although I’ve had to move house seven times, I know people who are still trapped in their parents’ houses on the dole and even further down the debt-spiral than me. That said, I lost my job at the start of this year; my employers were a large, London-centric independent book chain with a fairly abysmal HR record that they may or may not have since sorted out and I was very angry with them for a whole number of reasons but I love bookselling and I was very upset about it. Beyond heartbroken but still quite wedded to the work itself, I spent my last two weeks (after realising I was certainly gone) wandering around singing ‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga to myself and going slightly bonkers with combination self-hate and employer-loathing. I don’t wanna be friends! And I certainly don’t want to apply for any future positions, even if we’re theoretically parting on good terms, although if you ask me of course I’ll be back in a second; you and me could write a bad romance. The sort of low-to-extreme-level mania that takes over retail staff at Christmas anyway aside, I very much doubt I was the only person to misappropriate the lyrics to be about a destructive relationship not necessarily related to the titular romance.

There’s something warm about Lady Gaga. From the electro-softness of ‘Just Dance,’ which is about getting absolutely off your tits and then quite upset, to the flirty waves of ‘Alejandro,’ there’s a friendliness to her and indeed a steadiness of the beat in a lot of her songs that makes them reassuring. For all the blood and nudity and fire-spurting tits, ‘Bad Romance’ is essentially an audiohug and her Monster’s Ball the cavalcade of losers that we all are. Cartoonish freaks! Mania! Dresses made of bubbles! The world has gone mad and I don’t see why I should wear trousers anymore!

Which is why she gets such affectionate devotion from her fans, of all kinds. We are all little monsters, have all borrowed too much or given too little or both or something more complex and dark and even beneath our non-lace-tampon-covered exteriors everyone is a massive freak. Moreso than if we were covered in lace tampons: at least that’s got all the distinctive marks of nature’s warning signs for ‘batshit and dangerous.’

More than that, though, because ‘music is the only thing that makes me feel like I fit in, man’ is rockist bullshit, Gaga carries this off by essentially being very approachable and likeable. Yes, she dresses weirdly but so did your primary school music teacher and the inevitable scale up from ‘strange Pink Floyd-related cardigan’ to ‘lobster on head’ is just the magnification of the global stage or something but there’s something very uncommon and very significant about a popstar who is liked by children, who as I was discussing with Sukrat last week can jump up and down to her songs as though they were things out of Lazy Town, as much as by the adults wearing fetish gear at her concerts. Which might be a chameleon adaptability imposed rapidly after seeing the way people reacted to her, rather than any plan or instinct but if it is then it’s an extraordinarily good disguise.

I don’t want to be sentimentalist about this because I’m really not. There is nothing beautifully romantic about everyone I know being scared of losing their jobs. And saying everyone is too stressed to deal with anything more complex than steady beats, reassuring voices and concepts as elaborate as ‘being on a boat’ is not a ringing endorsement of the state of music/the world. On the other hand, I often get the feeling that in music critical circles, ‘escapist’ music is generally held to be that of outsiders. Challenging, strange sounds theoretically incomprehensible to those on the safe “inside” of pop.

Which is obviously utter rubbish in a world where Octopus’ garden has been kicking around for forty years or so. The need for and importance of escapism in music doesn’t preclude the mainstream or the majority of the population, as several trillion studies have no-doubt proved. I sort of want to make some slightly snotty comments about indie at this point but frankly that war is no longer mine and in any case, that’s not what I’m really writing about.

I’m willing to concede that I may be showing some form of youthful naiivete by finding this a novelty or alternatively projecting madly in a way that no one else agrees with but on the whole I think songs that can have a wide-base appeal (and in fact at least 3/4 of music as a whole) generally express or can be appropriated to express something along the lines of these emotions:
1. Wanting to snog someone who won’t snog you (anymore?)
2. How awesome snogging someone you want to snog and who wants to snog you is
3. Not really wanting to snog someone anymore because they are a bit of a terrible human being but still being rather upset about having snogged them in the past and conflicted about snogging in general
4. Dancing
These are the sort of thing everyone feels. It’s sort of interesting that, instead of songs potentially about going completely barking mad being appropriated for first dances at weddings, songs about bad relationships are now co-optable as being about the General State Of Things.

Perhaps this is me being a little introspective, as it is Sukrat’s birthday and thus the joy of a piratical perspective on the universe (which is to say, that of the punk who feels no need to spend that long faffing around with their hair) but I am greatly cheered by the seemingly popular ‘hurrah’ as we all plunge into chaos. From Glee’s grim determination to the manga-heroine kindnesses of Lady Gaga, to Nicky Minaj’s silly voices and Young Money’s collective slurrings (and both those last two feel tacked on but I am running out of time and other people have written far more competently about them in this regard) there seems to be a renewed sense of …if not ‘fun’ then something gleefully, almost demonically silly and self-aware, after a decade of frontage.

Hurrah to that, I say. As the aforementioned Lord Sukrat often says, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’

Comments

  1. 1
    Kat but logged out innit on 7 Jun 2010 #

    Hurray someone has summed up Glee properly at last!

  2. 2
    swanstep on 8 Jun 2010 #

    Interesting. I’ll have to think about the Glee and Gaga ideas expressed here a bit more to know whether I agree with any of it. I have two ideas of my own in the vicinity that *seem* a little different, but maybe they’re at bottom the same:
    (i) Yep, in recessions/depressions people run to cheap comfort-/escape- (including more sex always – poor person’s pleasure! – but also more tv and youtube etc. at home). The big films of the worst year of the great depression were things like the original King Kong and musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 with great songs like ‘We’re in the money’ and ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ (track down their clips on youtube – they are amazing). it’s not too hard to map latest trends on to all that.
    (ii) I dare say that contemporary western societies have recently become incredibly diverse and niche-cast and somewhat lacking in shared experiences etc – a general running down of shared social understandings and common social capital. I detect in myself a willingness to join common social/cultural causes right now, to in small ways reknit a shared culture, and I don’t think i’m alone in feeling this. I like the communal aspect of being a glee-watcher and a gaga-appreciator. I like the fact that different generations seem to be able to relate to the material and its spirit (regardless of whether the mechanism is agreement that everyone is a loser – I actually tend to think that that point’s a sideshow). Anyhow, I’d predict, for example, that the upcoming World Cup is going to be *huge* because sports and talk about sports can bind communities together, create social capital too.

    In sum, broadly up-music and cultural phenomena is what one should predict will rule in down periods (whereas at the height of booms you’ll get Radioheads and so on telling you ‘not so fast…’), and this particular down-period is coming after possibly the most intense fragmentation of a society ever, hence the push back to resynthesize a shared/mainstream culture, to will related phenomena into existence is unusually intense.

  3. 3
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jun 2010 #

    Last night’s ep could hardly have been better tailor to support yr thesis, mogZ0R! (esp. the loser stuff…)*

    One thing I kind of like formally — which is unusual in series which have a narrative arc, less so eg in sit coms — is the sense that all the characters reset to their default character-state for the start of each ep, even if the overall narrative moves on: “no hugs no learning” was the seinfeld motto, tho glee does in fact do hugs…

    i think it’s the source of the slight sense of clunkiness, the show out of kilter with itself — when what it’s actually out of kilter with is the viewer’s assumption of evolving continuity

    *in the ABSOLUTELY FUCKING AWFUL doc on show choirs that came after, there was a bunch of promo stuff for glee with the gleesters doing the little finger-thumb L-sign on their foreheads: this too is a symbol for “loser” isn’t it? (or does it mean something else here i haven’t twigged…)

  4. 4
    unlogged mog on 8 Jun 2010 #

    It does mean ‘loser’ yes. The show is, to me, absolutely about losers.

    I do like the character-resetting. It fits with the set-piece style of the narrative. I also really like the emergence of the ever-present but previously covert Evil Schuster. The thing that really works about the character-resettings is that there is a sense that each character attempts to start everything with a clean slate, then these creeping problems come back.

    That doc really was terrible wasn’t it?

    Swanstep- I hadn’t thought of the sex thing; I suppose a lot of what Lady Gaga does is sort of cheap entertainment in the sense that dressing up (in her ridiculous manner, rather than in the sense of swanking yourself up for a night out) is the sort of thing children do with stuff they already have in the house and then there’s the sexy under/overtone for adults. I’m not sure that sentence makes any sense but err, yes.

  5. 5
    unlogged mog on 8 Jun 2010 #

    Elsewhere it’s been reported that Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are in to Glee. ‘I love musicals’ sa Wayne.

    In a sense there is nothing that is not a show choir.

  6. 6
    swanstep on 9 Jun 2010 #

    The Glee finale…. includes a by-the-numbers version of To Sir, with Love. But that’s fine. The underlying song is so unbelievably strong, and it hasn’t (at least where I’ve been) ever been overplayed the way some other ’60s milestones have been…. so it was great to hear. I immediately got on Popular to see what score Tom gave the original record, and see what he had to say…. and to my surprise it’s not here! Looking on wiki apparently it was never even a single in the UK, rather it was just a B-side of Let’s pretend (which got to #11).

    How very odd! It was from a UK film that was a *massive* hit in the UK and most everywhere else. One would have thought that the single would have at least been re-released after it spent over a month at #1 in the US (and in fact going on to be the top-seller of the whole year in the US according to wiki). But no… Anyhow, blimey, what a song. I wonder whether Glee’s version will see any chart action, and whether maybe just maybe the original will take off now/finally as a download single.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 9 Jun 2010 #

    the finale also gives viewers another chance to ‘reappraise’ Journey’s music – interesting to compare it with Queen’s Bo Rhap. There’s more reflection on winning and losing and a reminder that ‘there’s no place like home’

  8. 8
    unlogged mog on 9 Jun 2010 #

    I am, undeniably, looking forward to the finale A LOT: overblown shrieking rock hilarity is almost always relevant to my interests. I don’t know how far behind myself and Sukrat are, since we’re watching it as it’s shown on E4 but it must be coming up fairly soon. It sort of interests me that I genuinely don’t know if they’ll win or lose to Vocal Adrenaline, where normally in a series like this it would be forewritten that they’d have to win to have something to do next season. It almost feels like they’d have written themselves OUT of a next season if they do go through! (although I’m sure they haven’t)

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Jun 2010 #

    I believe the finale is on monday — when I shall be partaking of the rock stylings of MS JOAN JETT courtesy meg’s and carsmile’s awesome bday present. But it is repeated on Wed or Thur IF YOU CAN STAND THE WAIT.

  10. 10
    unlogged mog on 9 Jun 2010 #

    O NOES! I am sure I will live, I’ve got the last twenty years of television to catch up on in any case. Plus Joan Jett is always a valid excuse for anything.

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