March 15th, 2011
The most problematic scene in “Original Song” had nothing to do with original songs. It was the deliberation between the judges at Regionals, as three ridiculous stereotypes joined together to tell a series of lifeless jokes with no function beyond the initial irony that Kathy Griffin would be playing a Tea Party amalgam of Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin. Any scene which functions exactly as you could imagine based on a casting announcement is what one would call a wasted opportunity, and a waste of the pretty great Loretta Devine.
However, the scene is also problematic because it’s happening outside the context of the episode. While the show often raises the specter of “How is this logistically possible” with its various performances, it often does so with a purpose: a big theatrical number is used to reflect big theatrical emotions, using the show’s loose grasp on reality as a stylistic advantage. There was no use to that deliberation scene, an indulgence and little more, but the musical numbers are more often than not “useful” in telling that week’s story. Some of the show’s best episodes, like “Duets,” are all about using musical numbers (sometimes even elaborate ones, like Kurt’s “Le Jazz Hot”) to represent the characters’ state of mind.
What fascinates me about “Original Song,” which was overall a pretty solid episode, was how transparent it was. It positioned songwriting as a way for characters to express their emotion, but their fairly impressive songwriting skills mixed with the on-the-nose characterization made the behind-the-scenes machinations painfully clear. It exposes the central irony of the big Regionals performance: as the Glee club kids take to the stage to perform original songs that communicate their feelings about love and tyrannical educators, they perform pop songs written by famous songwriters for the purpose of selling iTunes downloads.
And while that doesn’t entirely undercut the episode’s function, it does blunt the impact of an episode which was otherwise positioned as a pretty important character beat.
The problem with “Get it Right” and “Loser Like Me” is that they are not show choir versions of pop songs – they are just pop songs. They’re solid pop songs, filling their roles in an effectively generic fashion, but they do not feel as though they are actual performance pieces. While I didn’t think the Warblers were that much more impressive, and Aural Intensity was as much of a joke as one would have expected, the fact remains that nothing New Directions has done has been even close to being as impressive as Vocal Adrenaline’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in last season’s finale.
That seems an unfair barometer, perhaps, but it raises the problem with the episode’s conclusion. It suggests that what allows New Directions to win is either the judges being impressed by their songwriting abilities or some intangible charm which makes their performances more “real” than the other contenders. In both instances, I think it’s tough to take seriously given the awareness of the songs’ origins. “Get it Right” is not the song that Rachel wrote in her heartbreak, and “Loser Like Me” was not a song written by a committee of high school students being led by a choir director whose idea of songwriting class is handing out rhyming dictionaries. No, these are songs that were commissioned by the show, and songs that will likely earn the show quite a bit of money by the time the evening is out.
In some ways, “Original Song” is no different than “Duets”: instead of having characters choose songs that represent their personalities or their situation, they write songs that represent their personalities. Even if we accept that these people would actually be able to write these songs, an inherent problem emerges. While it is unclear who was responsible for the material outside of the two Regionals songs, the content was very one-dimensional in its adherence to pre-existing character traits. Santana is the mean girl, so she says mean things about Sam’s lips in “Trouty Mouth”; Puck enjoys lewd humor, so he writes a lewdly humorous song about Lauren’s “Big Ass Heart”; Mercedes is the sassy black girl, so she sings a sassy song entitled “Hell to the No.”
There are some very fun moments within these songs: the cruelty of “Trouty Mouth” goes a bit far but has a nice element of absurdity to it, Puck’s song is harmless and results in some entertaining Will reaction shots, and Mercedes’ song has both Brittany’s awesome hat (and belief that “Let’s Get it On” is about headbands) and Sam holding up his “Hell No” sign to Santana’s offer to perform a new verse to “Trouty Mouth.” And yet, whereas most musical performances in the show are designed to offer a way for characters to display real feelings (like Santana conceiving the performance of “Landslide” last week), these trifling performances were just musical representations of their stock character types. We never got a scene where Santana’s cruelty to Sam gained emotional resonance, or even a scene where Santana’s earlier suggestion that she was singing the song to Sam as a form of revenge for Brittany choosing Artie gained any further meaning. They were the episode’s sacrificial lambs, the characters who were too vain (or, perhaps, too devoid of deeper character development) to write original songs which don’t reinforce stereotypes about themselves.
They’re a necessary sacrifice, one could argue, to makes Rachel’s development more “real.” And yes, it is meaningful for Rachel as a character to tap into her emotions about Finn and Quinn’s relationship, and I thought Lea Michele did a fine job with the transformation – this is the kind of story that the whole drive for an original song was clearly leading towards, and it resonated enough to bounce back from the deliberations and send the episode off on a fine note. However, the fact that the other characters weren’t able to tap into any deep emotions of their own sets a problematic precedent. One could argue that Puck’s song is an exception, but I dislike the idea that the other members of the Glee club don’t have their own emotions that would come out during the songwriting process. Sure, everyone’s first song probably sounds like “My Headband,” but having their failures paired with Rachel’s success reinforced hierarchies which have proliferated this season as a character like Mercedes has effectively become a wallflower.
For a show that often doesn’t bother with character development, this episode was filled with it, which makes these characters’ lack of development (and other characters’ complete lack of participation in the songwriting process) that much more concerning. The death of Pavaratti, for example, leads Kurt to a performance of “Blackbird” that makes Blaine “see him for the first time.” It’s a quick (perhaps too quick) entry into an actual relationship for the two characters, perhaps because even Ryan Murphy forgot why it was that they weren’t in a relationship yet. And yet, we buy it because Kurt’s performance of “Blackbird” was pretty emotional (well-rendered by Chris Colfer, if hampered by the fact that no one could sing that clearly while crying), and because we’ve seen enough of the characters’ interactions to accept this particular catalyst. Considering how clearly Blaine was injected into the series in order to offer Kurt a viable love interest, that their coupling would come off feeling a bit perfunctory is hardly a surprise.
And yet, there was one moment which gave me pause, and ties into my larger concern in regards to characterization in the episode. As Kurt buries Pavaratti in their final scene, Blaine asks matter-of-factly whether this reminds Kurt of his mother’s funeral. It’s an emotional line, or rather it’s meant to be one – in practice, with the high camera angle obscuring the characters themselves, its function is to remind the audience that Kurt buried his mother rather than to confirm the source of Kurt’s emotion. It doesn’t let us see the emotion develop, it states its existence so that it can cheaply tap into the meaning therein.
While Murphy is not known for elegance, it was a moment that stood out for me, especially in regards to the early scenes with Quinn. Her sudden desire to become prom queen bugged me last week (when it seemed as though it was her primary reason for being in a relationship with Finn), but here the opening voiceover was enormously reductive. We’re not actually given any reason for her to want to be prom queen: while there is a suggestion in the collection of tiaras that her mother may have been involved in pageants, they could have at least given us something outside of a character regression back to the villainous social climber in season one. Quinn is more interesting in her confrontation with Rachel, but it still feels as though the character is being turned back into a villain to suit the show’s whims. There needs to be a reason she wants a tiara beyond what I can only presume is an injection of Squirrel DNA, and its absence made her voiceover that much more painful: it wasn’t even an issue of telling instead of showing, it was an example of plainly stating a character motivation without even bothering to give it a sense of internal logic.
Instead, it has external logic: it gives the show a villain, a catalyst for Rachel’s big songwriting triumph, and even the promises of a Prom/Nationals convergence at season’s end. The show is usually full of these machinations, so it’s not as if their inherent existence is itself a problem. Rather, the problem is when those machinations don’t serve a purpose towards improving the show in other ways, towards providing a satisfying moment of comedy or a particular bit of character development. Perhaps we can forgive them for hiring Dr. Luke to pen a pop anthem and passing it off as though the kids and Will wrote it together, because the end result is peppy and reinforces the bond which keeps New Directions together. And yet, we can’t forgive Murphy for the deliberation scene, a legitimately painful exercise in the same kind of pandering that Devine’s character criticizes Aural Intensity for.
And, if Murphy isn’t careful, we’re going to start feeling the same way about the other machinations as well.
- This is actually the first competition episode not helmed by Brad Falchuk, who seems to have a lighter load this season. Not sure if there was a noticeable difference from past episodes of this kind, except that Falchuk’s skill in making schmaltz more tenable was missed.
- What fascinates me about the deliberation scenes is that they were something we all complained about the first time around, and yet were retained note for note: same lame extratextual chyrons (although gababout got a laugh), same disconnect from show itself, same broad humor. The show is filled with Murphy insisting on repeating patterns that have been proven ineffective, but this seems a particularly glaring example.
- I’d actually never heard “Candles” before, but did anyone else find the high harmony distracting? Impressive, certainly, but it seemed not to mesh with the song (which sits somewhere in between Criss’ low and Colfer’s high), and when they did the key change I was all “Was that somehow not high enough for you?”
- Blaine’s “I’m tired of the Warblers being all about me” and his desire to not even bother holding auditions, seemed to fit comfortably into the Saint Blaine category – all a bit too romantic for apparently struggles with relationships, no?
- As for Sue, I thought there were some clever bits intermingled with ridiculousness – the punch at the end made the character’s generic rage that much more generic, but I sort of loved when she was actually throwing sticks at Mercedes. It was wonderfully absurd, instead of painfully overdone.
- Fascinating decision to have each character’s songs mark them in a particular fashion – Santana’s is cruel, Mercedes’ is sassy, Puck’s is Rockabilly. Tina stuck playing backup to Santana.
- Final note: at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies over the weekend, a conference presenter actually mentioned the 3 Glees theory. The fact that this wasn’t me is honestly shocking.