‘Glee’ afterthoughts: sex, theatricality and homophobia

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Saw the “Glee’ concert Tuesday night, then last night we caught up with Tuesday night’s TV episode. The episode, titled “Theatricality,” really brought home a lot of what the show’s about — and what it means for the pop music experience it exploits so shamelessly and occasionally artfully. It pulled me back into the Gleek fold.

So, here are three extra post-concert thoughts …

1. A couple of parents have e-mailed me, slightly surprised that I did not mention the overt sexuality presented on stage in my review of the show. Indeed, a thought did occur during the show: How do parents discuss this kind of thing with their kids? You take little Darlene and her friends to a “family” concert, but you still get a lot of bumping and grinding on stage. How do you explain the hypocrisy? “Just because you see the kids doing that on stage doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to do it”? Parents, I do not envy your challenges in the face of modern media.

Two moments in the Glee Live! show certainly raised eyebrows. First, at the beginning of the concert, the main New Directions kids perform Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” in which “the music’s pumpin’ hard like I wish you would.” At one point, they form a daisy-chain and thrust against each other. Hi, kids! Later, Mercedes (Amber Riley) reprises “Bust Your Windows” while the Cheerios — wearing cheerleading skirts and bikini tops — writhe and dry-hump a big, black SUV. They’re the kind of moments that cast my mind back to the high school show choir I was in, circa mid-’80s, and how aghast the faces would have been if we’d suggested doing such things. I mean, it was controversial when we had the girls dressed as waitresses and singing suggestively about tips from the musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” We’ve come a long way, baby.

2. Tuesday’s “Theatricality” episode lured me back into the Gleek fold. I was wavering, suspecting that the show was merely exploiting music instead of reveling in it, especially after Rachel referred to U2’s 1991 single “One” as “classic rock.” (Jeeves! My cane, please!) But in this episode, the show choir kids face their geekdom during the course of preparing for a Lady Gaga number, in full Gagalicious costumery. Thankfully, this wasn’t an all-Gaga episode in the vein of the Madonna celebration a few weeks ago. Ms. G was simply used as the focal point for a discussion on being yourself, letting it all hang out, etc., though without the after-school special bluntness you might expect.

What was thrilling, though, was how the underlying message of “it’s OK to play dress-up” meshed with the overall purpose of music on the show. This is a TV show that uses pop songs the way a jukebox musical does, applying existing lyrics to fit the needs of the narrative. Sometimes it’s a stretch, a la “Mamma Mia!” Sometimes it’s pretty poignant (Kurt’s “Defying Gravity” was more moving in the context of this show than it is in the actual musical, “Wicked”). But there may be more to it than just writers finding suitable lyrics to further a story. I think the show hits home with so many teenagers because it uses magic realism to depict how they actually use pop music in their heads.

The phrase “soundtrack of your life” is a cliche now, but I recall clearly how the albums I clung to in high school served exactly that purpose: pouring my unleashed passions into a vessel of language I didn’t yet possess. If I could’ve broken into song with a full band backing me up — say, singing the Smiths’ “Ask” to the person I wanted to take to the dance, or belting the Chameleons’ “Soul in Isolation” from the rooftop of the school — I would have, gladly. “Glee” presents on screen the play-acting that teens wish they could harness. It’s one long dream sequence, bringing to life the moments they sing their hearts out to the mirror with a hairbrush as a microphone. Teenage emotions, you’ll recall, are a tad intense. Even if you’re literate enough to express them in words, sometimes you just … can’t. That’s where the radio comes in. The pop songs offer voice to the (at least temporarily) voiceless. When I was a teen, we operated this way by making mix tapes, handing them to the recipient gravely and instructing them to understand what these people are saying on my behalf. The “Glee” kids are past all that. They’re breaking into song right there in the hallway. They’re not singing their own words, but the function is the same. It’s kinda cool, and it’s gotta be a good thing for pop music.

3. Another thing that wouldn’t have happened when I was a teen: The speech Kurt’s dad hurls at Finn in the episode above, berating Finn’s homophobia (intentional or not). This has to be some kind of landmark for depictions of gays on TV. Why isn’t Kurt on the cover of The Advocate yet?

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