Why Justin Bieber is not the Gleepocalypse
January 9th, 2011
In light of recent reports that Glee would be doing an episode based around the musical oeuvre of Justin Bieber, there was plenty of snark.
And trust me, I wanted to be right there with them.
However, I think we need to take a step back for a moment. This isn’t a show which needs to be appealing to the current trends – or, if you prefer, fads – in order to stay on the air, which means that this wouldn’t really desperate. Sure, it would be shameless, but in the context of how Glee has built previous theme” episodes I’d actually say that Bieber would be a step up – narratively. While it may not offer the deep catalogue of Madonna, or the cultural significance of a Britney Spears, the fact of the matter is that the Justin Bieber story actually goes back to the series’ very roots and says something about young people striving for greatness.
And sure, Ausiello’s initial report at the new TVLine has since been debunked by Ryan Murphy, but the initial reaction to the news says something about how we respond to Glee‘s use of particular artists, and how the definition of “Theme Episode” is constantly shifting. Yes, Bieber’s music is not the most challenging aural experience, and his life story just so happens to be heading to the big screen days before the episode featuring at least one of his songs is scheduled to air, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less effective as a storytelling device.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?
We’ve gotten to the point where product integration is, for some, an opportunity. While in some cases it rears its ugly head, stopping the storylines dead in order to extol the virtues of the Toyota Sienna, in other instances it becomes this clever bit of storytelling, a springboard on which other stories could be told. When Cougar Town got money from Diet Dr. Pepper, the show found a way to make its presence a very purposeful act from one of its characters, and used that act to define the character in a certain light and inspire a storyline based around that definition. It wasn’t genius, per se, but it sort of sits in between winking at the camera (which breaks down the fourth wall to acknowledge the economic reality and save face with the viewer) and the complete lack of effort which you’ll find in most examples. It doesn’t completely undercut the company in question, admitting that it’s all there because the suits force them to find new revenue streams, but it does use it in such a fashion which can make the viewer appreciate the effort involved in integrating it into the story in a natural fashion. You still know it’s there, but because the result was funny it all works out in the end.
I’d argue that Glee‘s musical choices, both in terms of whose music is performed and who is performing that music, are sort of the same deal. When Gwyneth Paltrow stopped by on her “I Do My Own Singing In My New Movie” tour, it sounded false on paper: it read like a promotional appearance, like guesting on Glee was becoming the equivalent to hosting Saturday Night Live (which, not coincidentally, she’s doing next week). And yet because Paltrow was charming, and because the character had some spark to her, that sort of faded: now, her intended return later this season will likely be received warmly, the context of her arrival changing from an invading Oscar-winner to a recurring guest star who acquired herself quite well the first time around. And when the show picks a song that seems like it would be invariably lame or obvious, sometimes Glee can power its way through: Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” should have been a disaster, but something about that wedding scene in “Furt” just felt really sharp, and so even my critical skepticism could be worn down.
Glee has certainly had moments where it hasn’t struck this balance, but I think that at the core of any idea there has to be a certain sentiment. What doesn’t work about Glee‘s theme episodes is that they’re theme episodes: they are promoted as singular texts towards these stars, and thus everyone talks about them, their impact need be exaggerated for comic/dramatic effect, and in the process any semblance of storytelling is entirely lost. While I think “Power of Madonna” had its moments, based mainly on the strength of Madonna’s catalogue, the plot of the episode itself is all but lost to history. The show didn’t use this apparently formative moment to offer a character a revelation, or to impart any actual change in their life (even when “Britney/Brittany” was a tremendous opportunity for Brittany as a character, an opportunity sorely wasted): instead, the theme episode’s impact was solely on the audience, a spectacle (or a dream, in the case of Britney) for them to enjoy.
In debunking this rumor, Ryan Murphy lays out some basic criteria for what a theme episode means, arguing that it is the size of the catalogue which allows an artist to rise to the level of a tribute episode. I think the notion of a theme episode is a slippery notion, which is how this whole misunderstanding started. My guess is Ausiello got his hands on a set of sides for the episode in question, saw discussion of Bieber and the performance of one of his songs, and it magically became an exclusive about a Justin Bieber theme episode. This is the same kind of treatment that we saw in an episode like “Theatricality”: while it features two Lady Gaga songs, and that song played into that episode’s theme through a speech about how Lady Gaga embodies theatricality, it was not exactly a “tribute” to that artist. It was a tribute to an idea, with KISS being used in a similar fashion in the same episode (also with two songs).
It seems like the Bieber situation won’t even reach these levels, but I really don’t see why this would be a problem. Bieber’s music may not be my or your cup of tea, but the kid’s story is perfect for this kind of situation. Look back to Rachel posting a video of herself singing in the pilot, searching for stardom by simply putting herself out into the world and taking the ridicule which followed; Bieber’s path to pop stardom might not be her desired path, but his own success with YouTube and his humble beginnings busking on the streets of Stratford, Ontario feel as if they would resonate for many of these characters.
As noted, this story – well known to Canadians who got inundated with various mass media profiles at the time of his meteoric rise – is coming to the big screen in a 3D documentary/concert film in February, just a few short days before the episode featuring one of his songs is set to air. Something about that timing takes me back to Gwyneth, and about those initial reservations, and hearing Murphy explain the context of its use – which could be constituted as a spoiler, but it’s explained here – makes it all seem a bit “on the nose.” However, as various situations have shown, Glee isn’t about what’s on paper: episodes that seem like terrible ideas end up winning you over (“Grilled Cheesus,” for example), while combinations that should work are undermined in the execution (Christmas episode, I’m looking in your direction).
I do not necessarily want a tribute episode to Justin Bieber, but I guess I don’t understand why this would be an inherent problem. His stardom would resonate with the generation depicted in the show, thus making it a believable subject to overwhelm the narrative (unlike, frankly, Madonna or even Britney Spears), and his story offers several key thematic elements which could be picked up by numerous characters. As it turns out, only one of those elements will become part of “Comeback,” but that moment hardly seems out of line for the series, or a sign that its standards have sunk to a new low.
What this does is raise questions about what those standards are. The response to Bieber suggests that his lack of musical credibility makes him an inappropriate subject for this kind of treatment, and yet Glee has done some fine things with bad music (“Run Joey Run” being a fine example) in the past, and so the idea of a slightly tongue-in-cheek, ultimately earnest take on Justin Bieber hardly feels like a departure for the show. Is it simply the fact that Bieber has become a sort of cultural pariah among those above the age of 13? That this seemed, on the surface, a desperate attempt to appeal to the younger audiences who are already watching the show in the first place based on ratings data?
I’m all for holding Glee accountable for its moments of excess which fail to land with viewers, and I think the show deserves much of the criticism it faces for its theme episodes. However, I think that we sort of have to accept that Glee operates this way, and that it’s going to draw from a diverse range of musical sources that when joined together look like they’d create a huge mess. That mess, however, occasionally evolves into an entertaining television show, and so I think the prejudging of any theme episode, or musical selection, or guest star is less than fruitful. Wait and see how the episode comes together, and then tear it apart all you want.
While we may be skeptical about Glee pulling off something of this nature, I feel compelled to quote the rather terrible subtitle to Bieber’s upcoming cinematic debut: “never say never.”