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The New Number for Sectionals: Song Choice in “Glee”

November 23, 2010

Those glee kids are never happy, are they? I mean, when you join a song-and-dance club, you’ve got to be anticipating some classic Broadway and a few crowd-pleasing rock-and-pop hits here and there. It’s a given, isn’t it? Well, the William McKinley High students seem to have been a bit fuzzy on what to expect. Last night’s episode of Glee, entitled The Substitute, was hardly the first to touch on the yearning of the teens to sing something modern. There have been complaints of too much ‘70s pop way back in the second episode of Season One. And it’s glee club teacher Will Schuester who ends up with the blame. Last night, the students lamented that they couldn’t remember the last time they’d sung something that wasn’t from the ‘80s.

Well, New Directions, you should probably be blaming yourselves for that predicament.

Since when did this need modernisation?

The Substitute culminated in a (horrid, in my opinion) mash-up of the timeless Singin’ in the Rain with Rihanna’s Umbrella. It’s not that these songs could never work together (Jamie Cullum is proof of that), but the method Glee chose was awkward: the whimsy of the musical is shoved, reluctantly, in between pounding bass and droning vocal refrain. I think it’s safe to say that my soul was crushed by the rendition, and it got me thinking.  Why does Will feel he has to take something iconic (and that he loves) and make it modern?  Why can’t the glee club respect the classic for what it is?  And seriously: where did all this ‘we never sing any new songs’ lament come from?

When Will handed out the sheet music to the classic, the club was non-receptive after enjoying the hip influence of substitute teacher Holly. So in order to please his club, Will asked Holly to help him “modernise” the song: resulting in the introduction of Ms Rihanna.  This all came about because of the glee club’s dismay at never being allowed to sing music that spoke to them. The main evidence of their argument seemed to lie on the apparent fact that Will only wanted them to sing Journey (which, admittedly, has some humorous ring of truth after their Regionals performance in Season One). It was all Will’s fault, they reasoned. He never listened to their modern song selections. But a little bit of number crunching suggests that the club has a slightly unsubstantiated hypothesis…

Proof (and graphs!) after the break.

They Say Maths and Music Go Together…

I scanned back through the list of songs Glee has performed up until The Substitute, making note of any song performed by New Directions, and noting the year of its release. Note that I say “perform” – I am referring exclusively to songs the club rehearses (with the intent of public performance) or actually performs on the show. I’m excluding personal numbers, weekly assignments and dream sequences (including the vague group numbers that often conclude episodes, such as Keep Holding On), as they do not have a direct effect on the club-as-a-whole’s purpose to entertain at school events and compete in championships.

The list of performance songs is below. Yes, the 2000s are dwarfed in comparison to the cumulative archaic songs, but when the songs are divided by who chose the music, an interesting trend is noted. (For any song that was not explicitly chosen by New Directions members, I have given deference to the song being Will’s choice – he is the choir-master, after all.)

And a graph! 

So it’s pretty obvious that the most recent decade trumps each prior decade in terms of the sheer number of performances – but this is far from the most interesting aspect. Of the four songs plucked from the Stone Age of the 1960’s, three of the songs are picked by the glee club. Even the majority of 1980’s songs (the group’s favourite decade to pick on) were decided on by the glee club.

Your own fault.

When taken as a whole, the “old songs” are, however, dominated by Will’s choices – but it’s a close call. 42% of these historic numbers were chosen by the members of New Directions. For them to putting all the blame on Will is uncalled for. Sick of Journey? Well, you shouldn’t have kicked off the trend: Don’t Stop Believin’ was chosen by the club as their way of convincing Will not to quit teaching!

[[Fun aside: Only six musical theatre numbers have been considered performance material. Although in most cases, they’re relatively old musicals, the singling out of show-tune excess is a significant misjudgment – particularly when considering that only one of these numbers (Don’t Rain on My Parade) actually made it to the point of public performance, and most of the New Directions didn’t even have to participate in the piece.]]

The burden of fuddy-duddy ‘80s-rock-lover is not solely the teacher’s burden. Particularly when you consider that he is also responsible for most of the modern performances, too. For all their whining, you’d think New Directions had been threatened with expulsion should they dare to mention a modern artist, much less sing their music. Yet, of all the modern songs performed by the club, only a third were the direct choice of the club.

Musical Hypocrite.

Yes, that’s right. Will is responsible for choosing over half of the modern numbers. So not only is the club blithely ignoring their own significant contribution to their oldies repetoire, they also fail to notice how much Will encourages the club to bust out some recent Top 10 Hits. How much more does he have to do to convince them that he’s down with performances of their generation’s music? Would he need to mash-up I Am the Very Model of a Modern-Major General with Sexy Back to convince them? Or would they just go back to bemoaning that they don’t get to sing anything relevant to them the next week, despite how often they resort to the classics to express their personal strife? A House is Not a Home, anyone?

Those fickle teenagers.

Scapegoat Will: Not Quite

This is a battle Shue just won’t be able to win. The kids continue to wipe their fingerprints off their own 20th Century song choices and plant the evidence in Will’s back-pocket. And they must strain their little larynxes so much when they sing some trendy modern music that they forget who transcribed their sheet music in the first place.

But Will isn’t entirely the victim here. Although he does approve of modern numbers (a third of his song choices originate in the Noughties), he undoubtedly tries too hard to be relevant, and perhaps this very fact is what negates his efforts in the minds of his students. For most of the classics, the spirit remains intact. Le Freak is campy, Somebody to Love is empowering, the Proud Mary wheelchair number has the frenzy of Tina Turner’s cover but with a clever twist.

Forced Will is Forced.

But when it comes to the recent songs, Will’s attempt to implement modernity come off as forced. Toxic (while actually an extremely novel arrangement of the song, and Fosse-esque performance is ingenious) becomes awkward due to his decision to perform with the club.  When Crazy in Love and Umbrella are mashed-up with iconic musical numbers, the result is embarassing, taking leaps and bounds over the line that separates clever and try-hard.

Will might share the club’s desires to be cutting-edge, but he often doesn’t manage to let the kids fully enjoy the modern works in their own right. This may be cause for the kids’ frustration, but their failure to articulate that he doesn’t let them do their music the way they want to do their music is part of the reason their angst has continued – and will continue. And this still doesn’t make up for their own contributions to the archaic songlist.

Well, it seems we’ll just have to suffer through Will’s vain attempts to prove how hip-and-with-it he is and convince the glee club that recent music has a place in their set list. Yet at this rate, by this time, next year, we’ll have seen Der Hölle Rache / Hot N Cold:

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart!
(You’re hot then you’re cold!)



So, is my over-zealous analysis accurate (namely, did I omit any significant performance songs)?  Is Will doing more than his club gives him credit for, or is he still failing to give them what they want?  Have I been doing too much university work of late to the point of analysing Glee in an Excel graph?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2010 8:05 PM

    That was astounding.

  2. Laura permalink
    February 9, 2011 7:48 PM

    Well, part of that is true. But to be fair, sure, there are more songs from the 00’s than any other decade. The point is the amount of songs that are not from that decade, which is a substantial amount. Also, 3 quarters of Will’s song choices are before the 00’s.
    I reckon if one was attempting to find a way to display a graph to prove the kids were right, they could also come up with a fairly persuading graph. I do agree that the kids were overreacting a bit, however.

    • February 10, 2011 4:18 PM

      Fair point. Howver, if you crunch the numbers precisely, 61% of Will’s choices are 20th Century. This is LESS than the club, for whom 73% of their song choices come from before the oo’s. There is a bias towards older songs, undoubtedly, but the club is still more guilty of choosing archaic music than Will in this regard.

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