With Glee’s third season over, I’ve been thinking about all the things I love about the show. Sure, it has no shortage of flaws: the thin, often nonsensical plotline (is Principal Figgins going to threaten to disband the glee club yet again in the upcoming season if New Directions doesn’t win a competition?); the agonizing overuse of auto-tune; and the often schizophrenic way the characters make decisions and form relationships. But I’m less interested in any of that than in the way the show positively affects my vocal students.
To give you a brief introduction, I am willing to teach almost anything students throw at me—I’ve worked with opera singers and metalheads alike—but unsurprisingly, this turns out primarily to be current radio hits. To be clear, I have nothing against radio hits. I am not one of those teachers who laments that students fail to appreciate the greats, like Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli. I genuinely enjoy most of the music my students bring in. A few years ago, I watched Taylor Swift change from pretty dress to pretty dress in her “Our Song” music video with the same childhood delight I used to feel when buying new wardrobes for my Barbie dolls. And I have to admit, I would belt along with Miley Cyrus like one of my preteen students about how I “st-st-stuttered when you asked me what I’m thinkin’ ‘bout.” Remember that gem?
But even with my fondness for candy-coated pop music, a little variety in my teaching day is not unwelcome. And that’s where Glee comes in. More than anything else about it, I appreciate the way the show re-popularizes music that my students would have never been exposed to—really good music, like the soundtracks from West Side Story, Funny Girl, and Cabaret, and classics like “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and Frank Sinatra’s “The Lady is a Tramp.”
The first time I became aware that the show was propelling a shift in musical taste was a couple of years ago, when one of my most talented students showed up for her lesson with sheet music for “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” This alone would not have been remarkable, because the girl had good taste in music anyway, but what got me was that it was a song I had tried to give her a few months before that she had rejected. Even though I knew it would suit her voice perfectly, she thought it was outdated. When she brought the song in after watching Lea Michele belt it out on Glee, (as what the show mistakenly referred to as her “ballad,” but I won’t get into that) she had no recollection that I had ever tried to teach it to her.
This was only the first example of the phenomenon. One by one, my students came in with sheet music from songs spanning numerous genres and eras, many of which I had previously tried to teach but which had been refused by my students. It was difficult for me to understand, at first. After all, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” hasn’t changed that much in its transition from Barbara Streisand to Lea Michele. Everything, from the instrumental background to Lea’s over-pronunciation of consonants and flawless (at least after auto-tuning) mixed voice, is strikingly similar to Streisand’s version. So why, after being introduced to both versions, did they uncompromisingly dismiss the Streisand version and herald the Lea Michele version as their new favorite song? It’s not the songs that are different. It’s not really the performances that are different, nor the age of the singer in the clips (Streisand was even younger than Lea Michele is now when she originated the role of Fanny Brice). It certainly isn’t how much more fun Lea Michele seemed to be having: Streisand exudes joy throughout Funny Girl.
The answer, I believe, is simple. The music on Glee is their music, the their referring to my students and anyone else who has a love of current popular music. It doesn’t matter how many Barbara Streisand clips I show them or how many times I try to shove Kander and Ebb down their throats. Barbara Streisand music is not their music. Streisand was my parents’ music, just as Alanis Morissette and Linda Eder were my music, and just as Katy Perry and, thankfully, Lea Michele are my students’ music. The same songs are sung largely in the same way by singers of a more current generation in a more current style of dress. It is not a mind-blowing revelation, but Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of Glee, whose love of a wide breadth of music is apparent, were the first ones of this generation to imbue older songs and less popular genres with the mass appeal necessary to get kids enthusiastic about them.
Now I watch Glee each week with rapt attention, eagerly awaiting the next batch of songs that will surely be requested. Travis, my husband, is getting tired of listening to me exclaim during the show how excited I am that this or that musical will become a teaching option that week. Last week, a student who had previously only been willing to sing pop music from the past year announced that her favorite music is now the West Side Story soundtrack and that she wants to go through the entire repertoire of Maria songs with me.
Glee does what most public schools, not to mention what I often fail to do: introduce students to music they have not been previously exposed to in a way that is exciting to them. This is why I love the show, even with its imperfections. Don’t get me wrong. It would be nice if some of the plotlines showed evidence that the writers had at least seen the show once or twice before writing the new episode. And I would prefer if the show would cut down on the use of auto-tune so that the high notes in “Defying Gravity” could bear some resemblance to the sound of an actual human voice. But sometimes, sometimes I even love the sugary auto-tuned way these unfamiliar genres are introduced, because if that type of sound inspires kids to request Frank Sinatra music, then I am for it.