A few weeks ago, I gave up on Glee. I was tired of the insanely inconsistent characterizations and the preachy, condescending, After-School Specialness of it all. By the time Karofsky was brought back just in time to Not Die and Be Cured of His Sadness, and the LUDICROUS marriage storyline, and then Quinn’s Driving While Intexticated mess, I threw up my hands. When this show debuted it was irreverent and comically unrealistic, playing with all the heightened emotions usually present in musicals. The heightened reality has to exist in a musical, because it’s the only way you reach the part where you burst into song. It’s the only way the leap isn’t too far to jump.
Now, Glee has descended into a set of characters whose motivations swivel to the beat of the next solo number. I can’t hang in there forever. Quinn’s car crash was my final straw.
Then this happened.
I don’t care who you are or how you feel about Glee, that is glorious. And just like that, I’m back in, because I can put up with (read: do my nails or eat dinner during) the meshuggana of the plot if it means I get to see exciting rearrangements and new renditions of awesome songs. (The Whitney song above is a new arrangement. There is an existing rendition of Whitney doing this a cappella, but that’s just an isolation of her vocal track from the real record. This is a four-voiced piece, arranged that way.)
Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Smash since it debuted, and like I noted in other articles, I think it’s been doing fairly well for a new show. The characterizations don’t change, even if the general audience cares way less about the fate of a Broadway musical and Baronness von Huston than the producers seem to think they do. The plot’s fast and tight, and makes up for some pitiful acting (Julia’s son – wow).
Yet every time they are not singing a new Broadway song, or making me laugh with their deep understanding (if sometimes willfully ignorant – no way any Broadway chorus girl gets let out onto the street in her costume!) of theatrical bitchiness, I tune out. I am trying to remember one cover of theirs that I ran to iTunes to download. I can’t.
This is what Smash is deeply failing to understand about how, why and when Glee became so dang outrageously popular: sticking Katharine McPhee’s admittedly beautiful vocals on a cover doesn’t an iTunes hit make. A copycat rendition of “Call Me” or even the really cool rendition of “Rumor Has It” that was in episode four doesn’t send me flying to iTunes. Do you know what does? THIS:
This is what Smash isn’t doing quite right, yet. We need reimaginings, we need new arrangements, we need WOW numbers or, quite frankly, I’m heading over to listen to the real thing. That “Rumor Has It” number out of Smash paled next to Adele. The one that mixed “Someone Like You” with “Rumor Has It” is one of Glee‘s top hits.
Take that Whitney video. That is what you do to a Whitney song to make it something that complements the original. When I listen to Smash‘s music, I only listen to “History is Made at Night” fourteen times in a row (and all for that fabulous lift at the line, “Someday they’ll write lots of books / About our fame and glory / But if all their reports / Are just movies and sports / They’ll be missing the whole story!”), and sometimes, sometimes, “Let Me Be Your Star.”
It feels as though Smash is trying hard to have both worlds – the new numbers and Broadway things, into which they pour all kinds of choreography and personality – and the iTunes downloads of milquetoast covers of popular songs. That Florence and the Machine track, I can listen to by Florence and the Machine. Whereas Glee‘s rendition of “We Are Young” was different for its layered choral parts, the ways the choruses got added to and built upon by the presence of ten or so voices: I can listen to that alongside the one by fun. and still be satisfied musically.
Now, whenever Smash goes into a popular song, I shift in my seat, roll my eyes, and wait for it to be over, like popcorn advertisements in a movie theater. I’m still willing to suffer Glee if it means I’ll get the kinds of musical interpretations that make my iPod exciting for the next week. I can’t say that I’m going to be rushing to relive Smash‘s superior plot structure. To be fair, it has gotten a lot right with this new musical genre. But if the show wants to excite and inspire, and get to the top of the iTunes charts the way that Glee deservedly does week after week, it needs to approach the way it does these numbers once more. With feeling.