The third season of Glee is underway, and while its first two episodes have contained an interesting mix of incoherent narrative and Broadway, there’s also been the occasional glimpse of self-reflection. As American Idol continues to draw in viewers to watch amateurs competing at a chance at stardom, and The X Factor adds yet another reality TV show to the aspiring star list, Glee is closing in on its own version of reality. Its lead characters are aging out of the bubble of high school, and starting to look towards their own future as potential musical stars. And who are they competing with for their dreams? None other than a few new faces pulled from Glee’s own reality TV show, The Glee Project. It’s an opportunity to consider musical fame in the age of YouTube, but Glee hasn’t yet risen to its own challenge.
The formula of Glee that has played out over the first two seasons has been predictable: a group of misfits (who also happen to be exceptionally talented by any standard) strive for recognition on the national scene by trying to win the show choir competition. In the meantime, we are invited to admire their perseverance towards their dreams of stardom even as their classmates pelt them with slushies and throw them in dumpsters. The model fits nicely with our celebration of the underdog, and the amateur–even as these aspiring stars are in reality played by very successful professionals who have in many cases been training their entire lives.
Only a few moments in the past two seasons have considered what happens next to a show choir national champion, though the Glee club coach—former champion turned Spanish teacher—offers a small taste. One of the best episodes to date features Neil Patrick Harris as another recovering high school champion whose dreams of musical theatre were shattered in the face of reality. When Neil Patrick Harris’s character auditions for a community theatre production of Les Miserables and is only offered the role of townsperson, it seems laughable, but mostly because we already know Harris’s talent and resume. Today, plenty of talented people still turn to community theatre as an outlet for their passions, acknowledging that those same joys are unlikely to turn into a career.
But the Internet means that every aspiring star, every potential child prodigy, every group at a school performance has the glimmer of hope for something bigger—for the stars of Internet fame to align for them so that they can find their moment. MySpace is still filled with the shattered reams of would-be musical stars, friending one another in a search for validation, and YouTube is home to endless karaoke iterations seeking “likes.” Take Greyson Chance, the 12-year-old boy who sang Lady Gaga so well at a school assembly that it landed him a record deal after the YouTube video went viral:
Even some stars of Glee already found their way to fame thanks to Internet popularity. Consider the original YouTube sensation featuring Darren Criss—the Starkid production, “A Very Potter Musical,” in which Darren played Harry Potter long before he took the role of Kurt’s boyfriend Blaine:
Or Charice, a guest star from last season, whose voice didn’t win her the “Little Big Star” competition she entered as a child—but the videos of her performance brought her international attention:
Even Charice’s Glee character, Summer, is more net savvy than the show’s leads, offering to bring her Twitter followers to the Glee fundraiser event.This is the world of competitive stardom, and it means that the truly talented high schooler in a Glee club can hope for discovery at any moment. It’s this ultracompetitive world—with far more talented hopefuls than fulfilled dreams—that Glee has been mostly ignoring until now (aside from a quick dismissal where one couple considered a sex tape on the Internet as a quick path to stardom). But given how entrenched the show is in the products of this karaoke-stardom, all or nothing medium of fleeting fame, Glee cannot avoid considering the very models that support it.
The characters are growing up, and the idea of their future cannot be addressed without defining what success might mean in an era where all the world is truly a stage, and the Internet its broadcast tower. It’s only fitting, then, that the first reality-tv show import Glee Project winner appeared in the Season 3 premiere of Glee. She did so at the front of a group of aspiring musical theatre stars who have been working intently towards their dream of attending a prestigious school in New York. Their collective performance sent the stars of Glee’s New Directions in a spiral of self doubt as they first faced that competition. And the Glee Project cast itself serves as a reminder of how many talented hopefuls didn’t make it to that number:
In The Muppet Movie, Kermit led a group of assorted companions to immediate fame in Hollywood, signing the “standard rich-and-famous contract.” That’s a tough sell for the future of the entire group of Glee misfits, but at the same time, what other ending could be considered happy for the hyper-focused leads with their eyes on Broadway? The show—rather like arts education in this country—is stumbling, trying to remind us that the arts are about much more than fame and success, but not always convincing us that they know where they should be heading. It’s hard for Glee to make much of a case for arts education (an underlying theme of the season) when its own characters can’t seem to see beyond flashing lights.