Last year, Fox did something that school administrators have been unsuccessfully trying to do for decades: it made glee club cool. In the process, it completely ruined the children of America.
Ok, that may be a tiny bit of an overstatement. I’ve got nothing against Glee itself, and I love it’s potential for delightful escapism while still taking on real teenage issues like homophobia, bullying, and teenage pregnancy.
No, this is a complaint about what the show says about work.
On it’s surface, Glee commits sins that are no worse than any other musical; the show seems to be a high school drama until the noise from high school drops away and the Gleeks bust out choreographed song and dance sequences, lipsyncing to prerecorded and heavily produced tracks.
I recognize that Glee is a musical comedy. And I know that musicals function by different rules, but real glee clubs rarely sound like that. Most professional musicians wouldn’t sound like that in those circumstances. And that’s a problem.
In a more traditional musical, the actors are generally not playing singers. In Grease, for example, the teens who dance around the stage are supposed to be typical teens who just happen to break into song. Even in musicals that are about show business like Singing in the Rain, the singers are playing professional world-class entertainers who have paid their dues and still work at it to keep on top. With Glee though, the heavily produced tracks give the impression that these teens never sing an off note.
I mentioned these criticism to a colleague of mine, who is herself a singer and actor. She noted her own frustration with how the show handles practices and rehearsals. While the teens on Glee have to navigate the pitfalls of academics, social pressures, and parental expectations, one area they rarely seem to have to work at is perfecting their art. Very often, sheet music is handed out, glanced at, and then immediately memorized. The actual work involved with pulling together a performance is glossed over.
For a show that is praised for the fact that it shows teens making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences, it’s surprising that it never shows any of its singers’ mistakes.
And no, I really am not blaming the writers or producers of Glee for ruining the youth of America. The show is a symptom rather than the cause of the disease, but it’s worth looking at the implications of such an attitude on a society.
Take another Fox show: American Idol. Each season, the show brings in the best and the worst singers to audition in front of the judges. In each one of those first episodes, there’s a singer just on the cusp whom the judges tell to go home and work on their singing or get lessons. How do these folks react to advice from professional musicians? They start crying and begging, pleading that it has always been their dream to sing and they just know they were born to do this. They insist that they have a God-given talent that the judges have somehow missed, and they get insulted that professional musicians told them to get singing lessons.
What these people don’t realize is that most of these professional musicians who give them this advice have taken singing lessons themselves. No one instinctively knows how to sing on Broadway and have the breath and vocal control to last for a string of concerts every day for months on end. Those things take work.
Yet shows like Glee keep telling us that singing is somehow a natural talent, and that’s a very bad thing because of the attitude it puts into those young singers who stand in front of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez and insist they know more about singing than two performers who have been doing it since before they were born.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a rant for the protestant work ethic. Nor do I want to deny that such a thing as aptitude exists. I just wish to point out that while psychologist like Carol Dweck and Malcolm Gladwell are writing books about the overvaluation of talent, our culture has not yet caught up to offer a more nuanced interpretation of how work comes into the equation.
What does this have to do with writing? Only everything. The Good writer, bad writer philosophy is all about not being limited by the preconceptions of talent. But in order to do that, it takes work. In some cases, it takes more work than writers are willing to put in, but if those writers don’t succeed, it’s generally not a lack of talent. Sometimes it’s that they never learned how to work, and sometimes it’s that they had this idea of the role talent plays in the equation, saw their poor results, and then believed they couldn’t do any better.