Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.

Joni Mitchell

I think Joni’s probably right about some stuff here; that’s why I’m starting my discussion of Glee’s Madonna episode with a quote from a totally amazing interview that ran two days after it aired. I don’t know that it’s really popular or interesting to say, but something did change around 1980. I wasn’t there, so I don’t exactly know how people felt at Woodstock, but you get the sense that people still really felt like things could change. Things were changing, and there was nowhere to go but up: our institutions would all be remade. Then what really happened is basically every progressive movement and piece of culture either got forgotten or it got co-opted.

I’m not trying to be all boo-hoo death of the 60s here. I can’t really imagine what endless potential could have felt like because I grew up in a world where it was already foreclosed.

Madonna’s a good avatar of a lot of this stuff because of what she’s stood for. She’s a master appropriator, the face of “post-feminism,” and she’s kind of the perfect postmodern pop star in that no one really talks about her talent at singing: it’s all about her persona. (Not to say that she hasn’t produced some amazing music, but that tends to get submerged in the Madonna narrative. She reinvents herself, she makes smart choices, she positions herself.) More importantly, Madonna was one of the first people to basically say that she was going to work the system. She couldn’t sell out, because she’d already bought in. When the Beatles were in a Nike commercial, it was controversial, it was Yoko tarnishing their legacy. When Madonna was a in Pepsi commercial, it was cross-promotion. (Pepsi wound up pulling her ad after two airings because the video for the same song included burning crucifixes, but Madonna was cool with it. She did what she wanted and she got paid.)

That’s why — more than the gay icon thing, which is admittedly a huge part of all of the above, since camp is one of the most powerful weapons we have against the corporate monoculture when it’s deployed right, though you have to be careful, because it’s not immune from being packaged and sold to us — Glee devoted a whole episode to “the power of Madonna” this week. The way they frame Madonna — as an unproblematic feminist icon and force for equality — puts Glee pretty firmly in the pop as liberation camp. Not that there aren’t political positives to the whole hour. A group of seven dudes harmonizing on “What It Feels Like For A Girl” — and realizing that they are kind of responsible in little ways for making the women in their lives feel a bit smaller — is a pretty inspiring and progressive scene to have on TV. Plus the part where America was all really psyched to watch a 50-year-old lesbian reenact the “Vogue” video. Even having a real conversation about how disempowered girls feel seems crazy-progressive these days. Hearing Quinn tell Mr. Schue that women make 70 cents on the dollar, and the implied sense that there’s nothing we can do is heartbreaking.

I want to point out that I really do love Glee since I will be saying some pretty cynical things about it. I think it’s really well done. It’s a musical about high school. And feelings. Its title is even a feeling. It’s also awfully dark and cynical. At its best you get the sense that living in a small town in Middle America is really shitty and singing pop music in glee club is all these people have.

The fact that they sing already-existing pop music is the best part of the show. For me, this makes it really so much about how much we shape our emotional lives to the prepackaged content made available by “the music industry.” It feels more “real” than something like “Fame” where they mostly sang originals because we’ve all probably done the exact same thing. What teenage girl hasn’t sung something like “Take a Bow” into a hairbrush after a breakup?

They do manage to wrench some strongly felt emotion out of stuff like this:

Avril Lavigne has never been so poignant.

But, some people complain, the musical numbers don’t always feel right. Even the New York Times, on what’s maybe Glee’s most awkward scene.

With that, he tears into “(You’re) Having My Baby,” the maudlin 1974 Paul Anka love dollop, saying the words he wasn’t able to without a melody.

In the “Glee” universe, which revolves around the show choir from William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, music is a curative, a perfect problem solver. It’s not a job or an obligation or a drag in any way, even when the subject matter is heavy, music is only joy. Finn’s plan ultimately backfires — Quinn’s father, infuriated, throws her out of the house — but by the end of the episode his outburst of song has paid dividends. The couple is together, in love and, for the moment, healed.

But still, that song: lumpy, unsteady, cringe-worthy. “Glee” may love music, but often it abuses it, with performances wholly lacking grit. In each episode a handful of songs receive similar treatment: antiseptically elated, heavily doctored recordings, with no line between the truly affecting and the genuinely off-putting.

It’s not just that the songs are pre-recorded and lipsynched, unless you want to raise that complaint at virtually every movie musical shot in the last 80 years. It’s not just the autotune, though that probably doesn’t help. It’s the subtle disconnect between the “feelings” expressed in “You’re Having My Baby,” and the complex emotions of the actual situation.

This happens to Finn a lot, actually. Possibly because he’s so dumb. Just last week, Mr. Schue gets him to buck up by singing the Doors. It wasn’t really that the song expressed his feelings — it’s more that his feelings get changed by the song. The song is like a magical incantation that changes his feelings at least temporarily. I will at some point quote someone other than Adorno on my blog, but I think he has a totally germane point here, which is essentially that rather than expressing some thing we inherently feel, pop culture introduces us to things that we should be feeling: “The dream industry does not so much fabricate the dreams of the consumers as introduce the dreams of the suppliers among the people.”1

The short version of my point is that Glee is a postmodern musical. Instead of having original songs meant to be perfectly integrated expressions of the characters’ innermost feelings, the characters try (and often fail) to express their feelings using the packaged emotions available to them in pop music. Pop music even drives what they should be feeling, like with Finn, or with the way Madonna’s strong take-charge sexual ethos convinced Rachel and Emma both that they should be ready. Madonna has a positive effect too: Sue learns to love herself by reeanacting the “Vogue” video, and Kurt and Mercedes decide to step outside glee club and be the stars they are in probably the most joyous performance of the night, “Four Minutes.” So, I don’t want to be all-negative about how pop music makes us feel, because it’s really not. As much as it sells us stuff, including itself, pop music also brings us together and it can and does speak to real things we’re feeling.

Ending with “Like a Prayer” makes perfect sense. Though I’ve always maintained that it’s a song about blow jobs (“When you call my name it’s like a little prayer/ down on my knees, I wanna take you there/ In the midnight hour, I can feel your power”), I am willing to consider that it probably has other meanings. The “there” where she wants to take you, where your voice can take her: it’s wherever you want it to be. There is an obvious sexual meaning, but the juxtaposition of the sex with the gospel choir gives the whole thing a sense of a kind of religious ecstasy. On Glee, where religion when it’s mentioned at all is just another form of hypocrisy (the celibacy club, Quinn’s parents who throw her pregnant ass out in a very un-Christ-like manner), letting the choir sing is as close as we get to the sense of community and of touching the numinous that everyone can get. It’s kind of an invocation to pop. For a few minutes, it really seems like we can get there. Does it really matter that the song was first heard in a Pepsi commercial?

I really don’t have an answer to that question. If I did, I would have culture pretty much solved. At its best, like it was this week, Glee makes a strong case that pop’s ability to shape our feelings is full of positive potential: potential to make us more empathetic, stronger, more beautiful, more free. But it also ultimately limits what we can feel: as much as Madonna’s message is equality and strength, it really still does emphasize a certain kind of sexualized “strong woman” who’s okay with the system as long as she gets paid. (Like she did. This week.) This wouldn’t be a problem if there were non-commercial versions of female strength and sexuality available to us — or even if the market allowed for more alternative versions of what that could look like — but that’s not the world we live in. So celebrating the times when something progressive or even subversive breaks through the net is often the best we can do.


  1. Page 93, “The Schema of Mass Culture,” in The Culture Industry