“The Power of Madonna”
April 20th, 2010
Glee, as a series, requires the audience to believe in the power of positivity on a regular basis: regardless of the problems that face New Directions as they chart their new directions, there is a sense of hope and perseverance which lifts them from their somewhat sad existence in rural Ohio towards stardom in whatever form it may arrive. The series’ shameless positivity is one of its most distinctive qualities, an outlook which keeps the show from seeming too critical of its characters and their differences, and while I have some concerns with how that positivity is occasionally used to sort of gloss over its investigations of diversity I think it’s part of the show that should ultimately be celebrated.
However, if I have come to believe in the power of Glee’s positivity, I don’t necessarily think I feel the same about the power of Madonna, or “The Power of Madonna” as an episode of the show entirely predicated on the idea that the ubiquitous singer is somehow a stand-in for all of the values the show represents. Beneath the mountains of hype surrounding this particular episode, you realize that just about everything is taken for granted in an effort to bow down at the altar of Madge: characters rush into decisions for the sake of lyrical connection, allegiances change for the sake of demonstrating the power of Madonna’s message, and not once does a single character other than men behaving driven by sexism actually stop and question whether or not we’re willing to buy the outright idol worship on display in the episode.
Taken as individual scenes, the use of Madonna’s music indicates the quality of her contribution to popular music over the past quarter century; taken as an entire episode where none of those sequences were given the necessary development to create anything even close to real character development, “The Power of Madonna” both reveals Glee’s most fundamental problems and indicates that the show has every intention of pretending those problems don’t exist simply because they know that it will scream “You Must Love Me.”
And, well…I guess I’m “Frozen.” [Okay, seriously, that's it for Madonna song title puns, the rest of the review will be pun-free. I'm "Sorry" about-DAMNIT.]
You could probably make a pretty compelling argument that my response to this episode is the result of the hype surrounding it, and that if it had used songs from various different artists instead of just Madonna I probably would have just swept the problems under the rug and enjoyed the musical numbers. However, there are two reasons why I think this isn’t possible or advisable. First and foremost, it’s impossible to separate Glee from its hype; the iTunes singles and album releases are unquestionably part of the show’s universe, extending and in some cases adding new layers to character and universe. To ignore them is to suggest that in the internet age these sorts of paratexts have no influence on how we read the text, and that would be what I’d like to call a big fat lie.
However, more importantly, this wasn’t just an episode featuring Madonna songs: it was an episode where Madonna was actually blasting through the loudspeakers into McKinley High School, and the episode where characters said the word Madonna more than I think anyone has ever said Madonna’s actual name in the past twenty-five years. There was not a single second of this episode which felt disconnected from the intense promotion, because it wasn’t just that Madonna was part of the episode: rather, she was its purpose, and that’s pretty difficult to ignore as a viewer.
And yes, at the end of the day I have a pretty big issue with this sort of message, mostly because it didn’t actually change how the show tells stories. The show always rushes into things, but it often does so in ways which feel justified due to the sense that high school students are impulsive, and musicals are about following through on your impulses through emotional outbursts of song, and so we can make a connection between Finn’s jealousy or Rachel’s uncertainty with the words that they’re singing and the rushed character decisions which will drive the conflict of the episode in question. However, this time around what drove these developments was not music in general but rather Madonna’s music, and it lent everything an air of inauthenticity which the show can’t Madonna its way out of.
“Like a Virgin” was unquestionably the most well-designed of the various numbers: feeling like something out of an actual musical (which doesn’t happen that often on Glee), we see Rachel, Finn and Emma confronting the loss of their virginity (to Jesse, Santana and Will, respectively) through a sextet of sorts which we eventually learn was all a dream sequence. Now, if you had presented this number to be entirely independent of this episode, I would call it one of the show’s best: however, I would also have presumed that the show would have spent some time on the question of losing one’s virginity as opposed to introducing it what seemed like minutes before. I’m used to the show rushing storylines, and there are times when the musical number which results from that sells it (“Endless Love” is a fine example of this), but I couldn’t ignore the thought that virginity only became an issue because Madonna had a hit single called “Like a Virgin,” and that this storyline only exists because the show wanted to do a Madonna show, as opposed to the Madonna show existing because they wanted to tell this storyline.
If the show wants to celebrate Madonna, which is logical since numbers like “Borderline/Open Your Heart” and “Like a Prayer” were enjoyable and infectious in a way which made me appreciate her music more, then I think that’s fine; however, I think that using those Madonna songs in order to address fairly important questions of character and plot in the series ended up creating two irreconcilable narratives. Rather than seeming like the celebration of Madonna was revealing something about these characters, it seems like characters starting acting in a certain way to justify the celebration of Madonna, and the result was that any plot development the episode tried to implement – like Jesse switching schools to be with Rachel, or Emma and Will seemingly working out most of the relationship barriers that were just established last week – lacks any connection with the show beneath the hype.
My negative response to this episode is, yes, in spite of enjoying most of the musical numbers, so you could make the argument that I’m “watching it wrong” or something silly like that. However, I can’t help but feel that this didn’t create any new problems for the show so much as it threw into sharp relief my pre-existing concerns. The show always rushes into storylines, and it often forces character development to fit a particular song or a particular storyline without really leading up to or following through on the developments. And while last week’s “Hell-o” used a fairly open theme which nicely fit into the wide range of storylines ongoing at the time, the sense of media hype and paratextual influence on this week’s episode made it seem as if the show were bending to the will of the producers rather than evolving in any way. If they want to do special “theme” episodes like this, it needs to feel like less of an international event, or at the very least it needs to be operate as a standalone episode which doesn’t try so hard to mould pre-existing storylines into the music of Madonna rather than the other way around.
In order to enjoy Glee, there’s a lot of problems that you need to look past, but there have been episodes which have come together so well thematically that you ignore certain concerns to recognize the achievement being made. However, while I’d count “Wheels” as one of those episodes, and “The Power of Madonna” picked up on a couple of threads from that episode (Sue’s sister with Down’s Syndrome, Becky on the Cheerios, Tina and Artie’s relationship), it didn’t capture any of the heart or the emotional resonance of that episode. While Ryan Murphy is on record as suggesting that “Wheels” was the show’s template for the Back 9, I was hopeful that he meant that the show would try to capture what was actually engaging about that episode, as opposed to just transplanting the themes/narratives from that episode into the same rushed, inorganic plotting that plagued parts of the opening thirteen episodes.
Right before Glee, American Idol did a week of “Inspirational Songs,” and almost all of the competitors suffered from the same problem: while they were singing a song with the potential to be inspirational, the actual performances weren’t inspirational in the least, which completely defeats the purpose. With Glee, I don’t think that the purpose is entirely lost: music is a powerful tool, and Glee’s usual positivity was present in that final performance of “Like a Prayer.” However, I worry that the show is settling for the appearance of inspiration rather than actually trying to be inspirational, and that it will continue to settle for character actions which don’t evolve into character development or narrative threads with the potential for interesting ramifications but which are never followed through on. I may have accepted that the power of Glee is capable of overcoming some of these obstacles, but once I got past the catchy melodies all I found in “The Power of Madonna” was a stark reminder that all the Vogueing in the world can’t hide Glee’s problems.
- Yes, I went an entire review without mentioning Sue Sylvester’s infamous “Vogue” video. While I think it’s very clever, and certainly an interesting text in and of itself, it had no impact on the episode’s narrative whatsoever – we didn’t get to see how the Glee club responded to it, Sue’s post-video return to her old look was rushed and made too convenient, and I didn’t buy that she’d be open to making it in the first place considering how vilified she was in the premiere. As a viral video, it’s a lot of fun; as part of the episode, it was extraneous and only worsened the sense that this episode was being produced rather than happening within this universe.
- Speaking of which: the random people in Madonna outfits during the “Borderline/Open Your Heart” mashup bugged me, mainly because I saw costumes from songs I thought should have been included (like “Don’t Tell Me”).
- While there were a few hints here or there, like Mercedes and Kurt both expressing their displeasure with Jesse joining the club, which led to their decision to moonlight with the Cheerios, I think it’s problematic that we never really got to see the characters making that decision. There are times when the show’s supporting characters don’t have any sense of agency, and it’s growing problematic that we see more of the thought process of Santana and Brittany than we do characters like Artie, Kurt or Mercedes (especially considering their minority status).
- I think we’re at the point where Brittany is going to get the best line in every single episode, which has the potential to jump the shark but for now continues to make me laugh.