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Gleefully Finding Your Voice

What's the deal with Glee? And no, this is not the beginning of a Seinfeld-ian riff. I'm genuinely interested. I love the show and have had the cast albums on repeat recently. But I can't quite fathom why it's so popular with people who aren't me and my friends--namely dorky, drama-club hairbrush singers. I mean, we were always going to love it--but, somehow, a lot of other folks are singing right along with us. So, what's the deal with Glee?

While I'm not a professor of cultural studies, I'm all alone on this thing, so here goes: I think the success of Glee stems from the merging of two disparate, yet intertwined, cultural trends. First, there's what I'm going to call the American Idol factor. Secondly, and just as important, is the Great Geeking Out.

First, the AI factor. The hugely popular singing competition has spawned many imitators and has also revived an appreciation for really, really cheesy singing. Before AI, it was rather hard to imagine that whole families--grandma, parents, and little Billie and Susie--would sit around the TV two nights a week to watch a bunch of squeaky-clean 20-somethings sing the hits of the BeeGees. AI made music fun again--and pretty much everyone came along for the ride. The message was clear: Americans like watching (fairly) good singers sing fun songs. It was only a matter of time before someone realized that if a reality show about a bunch of 20-somethings singing pop hits could make for a colossal hit, why not a scripted show about a bunch of 20-something high schoolers singing pop hits?

The Great Geeking Out is the other cultural trend that makes now the perfect time for Glee. Clearly, my own appellation for it makes it rather self-explanatory, but let's draw it out a bit, shall we? Over the past ten years or so, it's become cool to be a geek--it's been the rise of the outsider. Arguably, this started with the popularization of the internets, but it doesn't really matter where it started--what matters is where it is now. Now it's not uncommon to know people who openly and proudly admit being geeks: theater geeks, political geeks, music geeks, sci-fi geeks, comic book geeks. There's even the charming name "Gleeks" for Glee geeks. When I was in high school--let's just say things were different.

And that's the beauty of Glee--and the secret behind it's success. The format is stolen from AI and traditional musicals, but the spirit is outsider geek all the way. In fact, the show makes a point of showing us again and again how uncool and even reviled its protagonists are--and we identify with them. We are the geeks--we are the outsiders. And then, they sing--and we are them. We are talented and wonderful and brilliant and special--and we're happy.

P.S.--Not familiar with the music? Consider these:

Two outcasts share a dream

The girls and the boys do competing mash-ups

And the song that started it all

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