BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

For the love of Glee

Glee cast

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Choral singing has stormed the US pop charts on the back of a TV series called Glee. Now the show is being aired in Britain, and the music is in the top 10.

If you've just looked at this week's Top 10 singles don't worry, you haven't fallen asleep and woken up in 1981.

There's a simple explanation for Journey's power ballad Don't Stop Believin' sitting at number six and number seven in the chart - Glee. That's the name of a hit US TV series aired in Britain for the first time last week. Days later the "Glee effect" - as it has been dubbed by the American press - was rubbing off on the British pop charts.

The show is a fictional tale about a young teacher trying to turn a bunch of high school misfits into a show-stopping choir. In an integrated media strategy that surely points the way of things to come, after each episode was broadcast in the US last year a song from that show was released for download. And each song stormed the charts.

After the first episode was screened on E4 in the UK last week the show achieved a double whammy in the UK charts, with Don't Stop Believin' sung by the Glee Cast reaching number six and Journey's original version reaching number seven. Expect more of the same as the series builds momentum.


The show's blend of dark humour and high camp are a big part of its success, but the feel-good, serotonin-stirring songs belted out each week are also winning over even the most hardened critics.

"It blasts past any defences you might put up," said Entertainment Weekly. "Glee will not stop until it wins you over utterly."

But while glee clubs are a staple of American high school and college life, the concept is almost unknown in the UK.

Caroline Redman Lusher with a Rock Choir
Show choirs are catching on in the UK

The irony is that glee actually began in Britain, around the 1700s, according to historians. Glee clubs remained popular until Victorian times, when other styles of singing became more fashionable.

Back then "glee" referred to a specific form of unaccompanied English part song - singing with two or more voice parts, with one part carrying the melody - and were all male. This style was adopted by America's first - and now oldest - glee club, formed by students at Harvard University in 1858.

The term has evolved over the years and is now encompasses everything from Harvard's traditional 60-voice, all-male choral ensemble to the sort of high school show choirs featured in Glee.

But while they have mutated into many forms, glee clubs are still a "distinctly American tradition," says Professor Scott Tucker, director of the Cornell University Glee Club, which was founded in 1868.

'Triumph or disaster'

"Choral singing in general is incredibly vibrant in the US," he says. "The number of people singing in choirs here is surprisingly high."

One factor that could explain why this touchstone of American culture is all but unheard of in Britain is America's focus on competition. Glee isn't just about the joy of singing - many show choirs compete at national level.

The Whiffenpoof Song
Far Above Cayuga's Waters
My Cutie's Due
Dancing in the Streets
Don't Stop Believin'

"They are uniquely American," says Peter Ling, professor of American Studies at Nottingham University. "That's because American schools and colleges have always had a hugely competitive element. They like things that tap into something climatic, that could end in triumph or disaster - hopefully triumph."

The history of show choirs, such as that in Glee, is very recent. They began popping up in America in the 1970s, according to cultural historians. When competitions started being screened on Public Broadcasting Service stations they got national exposure and grew from there.

"In high school you have the football team, you have cheerleaders and you have show choir," says Jake Smith, a former member of the show choir at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, Indiana.

Glee's Kurt Hummel
The misfit image is exemplified by Kurt Hummel - a central character in Glee

But where sports players are cool and athletic, glee singers have a reputation for being a bit nerdy.

"An island of misfit kids," is how Mr Smith sums it up, although the success of the TV series is starting to change perceptions.

So could glee signal a shift in the transatlantic balance of TV's influence on pop tastes? Thanks to Simon Cowell, the US has taken the X Factor ideal to its heart. But could Glee work a similar influence on British music tastes?

Journalist John Walsh has joined a glee club in London, recently set up by a friend. It's informal and people just sing what takes their fancy. He loves it.

"It's singing by brute force rather than any real technique. You are just grabbing a tune and going for it. Forget book clubs, glee clubs are the future."


It's not a lack of interest in music holding Brits back, it's not having the same tradition of choirs, says Caroline Redman Lusher. She started Rock Choir in Farnham, Surrey, in 2005. It's one of the closest things in the UK to contemporary glee clubs and show choirs, but without the competitive edge. There are now 60 such choirs in the South East and members range from children to pensioners.

Glee club
Glee clubs used to be all male

"There are loads of community choirs in the UK but they tend to be traditional," she says. "What we do allows anyone to sing, without having to read music or know the theory behind it. There's no auditions and it's not about the best singers, it's about what we create together."

It's not a question of if they spring up in the UK, but when, says Prof Ling.

"Glee clubs are extremely exportable and kids over here have taken to other such exports, like the school prom. It's only a matter of time before we them here and they will be the all-singing-and-dancing version."

Britain, begin exercising your vocal cords now.

Glee is broadcast on Mondays on E4 at 2100 GMT.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Oxford University has a number of A Capella groups. The most successful are Out Of The Blue European Champions of A Cappella 3 times, competed at the finals of an International A Cappella competition (ICCAs) 3 times, come second in that competition twice. Their shows sell out at Edinburgh. Their singing and dancing and comedy being as good as GLEE.
Rosie, Oxford

I was a junior schoolboy in the 50s in a working class area of the West Midlands. One of the joys that I can remember was the communal singing of old patriotic songs in our music classes (Men of Harlech, Rule Brittania etc) We would belt them out at the top of our young voices and we loved it. The daily Hymn was much the same, I wasn't religious but I loved the daily singsong. At grammar school I loved nothing more than singing the descant of our school hymn at the top of my voice along with my hardened class mates. How sad is modern music lessons in school, just playing around with keyboards and headphones with not a voice to be heard. (I am a teacher of 35 years standing) I find it all so sad, I'm glad to see this one American trend, one I will welcome.
Terryd, UK

Let's face it, it had to come. After all these barren years of synthetic, formulaic, talentless, toneless, pop-droning, it was inevitable that Music would make a return one day. It's just so sad that, once again, it appears the Americans have taken something universal, neatly packaged it, and sold it back to the World at a profit. You've got to admire them. As for sticking with tradition, Ms Lusher should have been around in the late 60s when the Kodaly choir and Cor Meibion Gwalia were at the Eisteddfodds and other venues... 400 years of choral tradition. Magnificent.
Zim, London

Glee clubs are certainly a huge thing stateside, though we usually call them show choirs. Students who lived outside the district of my high school would pay extra tuition just so they could audition to be a part of our 13-time state champion show and concert choir. I think our choir was unique though, in that we were both a show choir (think Broadway) and a concert choir (singing anything from Shaker hymns to Eric Whitacre pieces, with no dancing).
Dani, Bloomington, IN, USA

I'm a teacher and we had loads of kids wanting to start up a Glee Club so we offered one and over 70 kids turn up to be in it! they love it!
JNC, Edinburgh

As a teenager, I adored singing with my school choir but then as you search through the heavily classical or incredibly religious choirs that are around, you become disheartened. On Monday I had my first session as a fully paid up member of Rock Choir and I absolutely adored it. Humour mixed with good teaching and approachable well-loved songs makes for an excellence choral experience. There's nothing quite like making a big noise with a large group of people. All the better if it's in tune.
Sarah, London

Please, kill me before this cheesy, soulless drivel catches on over here. I don't think that anyone sane could be subjected to a mob of grinning idiots murdering classic songs without wanting to go on a killing spree. Then again, the X-Factor took off, so it probably will.
Duncan, Glasgow

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