“Glee”: Singing for the Sublime

Adults pretending to be teenage singers, and what it has to do with 18th century rhetoric.

There’s an argument that my future husband and I keep having about our wedding. Namely, I want the ceremony and reception to be full of songs from the TV show “Glee.”

I get giddy at the thought of the wedding party entering the reception to the “Glee” rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” or the bridesmaids and I sashaying down the aisle to Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” James does not. I realize that in the spirit of ritually joining together with my lifemate, I should probably let this one go. I won’t. Instead, every time he’s made the 12-hour drive out to my home in Illinois, I choose to blast him with “Glee” remixes at full volume.

“How about ‘Teenage Dream’ for our first dance post-first-dance?” I said on his April visit. (I had already pitched “Teenage Dream” as our first-dance-as-a-married-couple song in March and gotten summarily shot down).

“NO!” he said, with the exasperated look of a man forced to watch YouTube Glee videos daily upon waking.

“Glee” is a lot like Marmite, that British, black yeast spread a former roommate of mine put on toast: You either really love it or really hate it. (This is so true that, upon loading, the Marmite website asks “Who are you?” and lets you choose between “I’m a lover” and “I’m a hater.”) I am an unabashed “Glee” lover; James is a “Glee” hater, though to be fair, he would be more blasé about the whole thing if I didn’t constantly assault him with even more “Glee” tunes.

As James puts it, he just doesn’t get the appeal of “Glee” — but I’m becoming convinced that “Glee”-loving and “Glee”-hating are not things that are learned (like with Marmite-loving or -hating), but that it has to do more with an individual’s capacity for the sublime.

I’ve been dancing around this concept of “the sublime” for about a year now. I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s what my dissertation on 18th century rhetoric and early 19th century American women’s writing is actually about, but for the life of me I can’t coherently explain why. I also am plagued by one very pesky question: What in the world is the sublime anyway?

The short answer, in rhetoric, is that it’s pleasure brought through the imagination (Thank you, Hugh Blair). In literature, we most often think of it as overwhelming, terrifying moment of beauty in nature.

To get technical, this concept of the sublime rubs up against the similar rhetorical concept of enargeia, a physical feeling brought on by the quickness or vivacity of ideas. Also, it’s worth noting that these overwhelming, terrifying moments of beauty have also been associated not necessarily with art, but with God. A good literary scholar would stop me right here and point out that the sublime, enargeia and this kind of physically-experienced “intimacy” with God from religious rhetoric are not exactly the same thing — but all three concepts exist together, overlapping at the edges: All are a psychological and physiological experience brought on through imagination. Like what happens when I watch “Glee.”

When James and I argue about “Glee” — when he says he doesn’t understand why a singing bunch of adults-pretending-to-be-teenagers is jazz-hands worthy, and I say it just makes me feel good — we’re operating in this tradition of the sublime. James, in the 18th century understanding of the body and the mind, has less “sensibility,” less physical capacity for the sublime. He’s just built that way. (He does, however, have a great capacity for enthusiasm at sporting events.)

As the arty one, I have plenty of sensibility, getting a warm, wonderful, sometimes hard feeling of the sublime in my stomach whenever a good “Glee” song comes on or whenever a moment in a poem strikes me. It’s not merely escapism, or an obsession with pop culture: In that moment, the sublime allows us to feel and know we are something better.

My academic colleagues raised an eyebrow when I told them about my “Glee”/sublime connection. My colleagues are “Glee”-lovers as well, but would rather talk about the problematic portrayal of disability or educators in the show. Those are just a few of the show’s many problems, and yet it still sucks in me and my other highly analytical friends — it points right to the power of the sublime (as well as the catchiness of “Sweet Transvestite”) and how that power is particularly heightened in song and dance.

I like to think of Kurt — the gay, non-athletic glee club member — on the football field, singing and dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” before he kicks a field goal. It’s a privately-felt sublime moment: Kurt is enjoying himself immensely, even as the other players stare at him. And although the other football players more than grumble about being eventually forced to dance to that same song, on the field in the middle of the game, being part of that sublime moment allows them to let go of their individual egos and worries to become (finally!) a decent team. It’s a testament to how strongly a private experience can be communally, and physically, felt.

When the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, founded Methodism, they wanted music to be an essential part of worship. As a rhetorician, and a “Glee” lover, this doesn’t surprise me at all. The sublime, enargeia, and religious intimacy heighten our emotional and mental state; with song, this happens at an even more heightened level. It’s part of the reason why sometimes painful moments of history, such as the Holocaust, are even more wrenching in film or song than in text. Or why country songs that you hate still make you cry.

I love “Glee” because when the New Directions glee club is performing, its members aren’t hormone-driven, frequently unreasonable teenagers, and faculty mentor Will Schuester isn’t a hormone-driven, frequently unreasonable Spanish teacher. Instead, they are performers, creating a sublime moment that comes from them and captivates the rest of us in our own private way.

When Kurt sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to his father, we’re not upset because a fictional father is in serious danger from a heart attack, but because we’re revisiting our own fear. It’s the same with the bittersweet feeling that comes from Will Schuester and the borderline-criminal Puck singing singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or the hopefulness of New Directions singing “Don’t Stop Believin” during the club’s first time at regionals: The sublime lets us all be a little closer to some kind of personal truth.

And when this access to a personal truth happens simultaneously across the nation every Thursday at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central), that in itself is a sort of overwhelming, terrifying thing of beauty.

Article © 2011 by Heather Blain