Music News

Glee surpasses Elvis on the Hot 100, signaling the death of originality

Originality is a tough sell. People tend to like the things they already like, because the idea of new is foreign and scary and seems poised to usher in a depraved era of dogs and cats living together, which would be immoral. "Can't understand it?" MF Doom once rhetorically asked. "Ban it."

That's the fundamental reason that almost all pop music is rooted in the couple of chord changes our brains can easily identify as familiar and thus absorb. Still, with the right marketing, historically we've been able to accept modest adjustment to these paradigms.

It works cyclically: The new sound is, at first, out-there and crazy, and, subsequently, rejected or ignored. Then elements of that new sound are combined with familiar sounds and toned down, and eventually that toned-down version is married to the pretty face that can sell it to the mainstream, and a new paradigm is born. These changes are like ethnicity: subtle differences, same fundamental composition. It doesn't take much unfamiliarity to scare us.

A great example of this phenomenon is Elvis Presley, who, somewhat unusually, personified it on both ends. As young Elvis, he did just that: put a handsome, polite (and let's not forget white) face on an already-existing style of music and sold it to the suburbs.

Later, he came to represent the conservative values he had originally represented a rejection of; his distaste for free love, marijuana and hippies was well known, to the extent that in 1970, he actually applied to the FBI to be an honorary narcotics officer. And get this: When the FBI wouldn't give him the badge, he went over their heads and got the badge from no less than Richard Nixon, the ultimate personification of THE MAN. To recap: Elvis asked Nixon to make him a fucking narc. He then ended his life as a Vegas sideshow, literally and metaphorically a figure of bloated excess.

So if the King of Rock and Roll, then, was neither a pioneer of rock and roll nor a very good example of the spirit of it, then let's say that his status as the King is based on sales figures: He put more singles on the Hot 100 than any other pop artist ever.

Until now.

Last week, Elvis's chart dominance was surpassed by Glee, a television show about a high-school glee club that does covers of popular songs.

Before I go on, let me just say that I actually like Glee. I think it's cute and clever, and it's a good TV show. This is not an indictment of Glee. It is, however, pretty fucking sad that a fictional glee-club cover band is now the de facto King of Rock and Roll. In fact, it pretty much represents the nadir of our culture.

If an established paradigm is essentially a rejection of the original in favor of the familiar, then a cover band is the ultimate extension of that rejection: By definition, a cover band only offers us that which we already know — particularly in the case of Glee, whose repertoire is limited to faithful versions of already chart-topping hits. As a collective society, then, our fear of the unknown has become such that a fake band that only rehashes that which we already like has become the most popular band of all time, managing in the process to make a narc appointed by Richard Nixon look like fucking Captain Beefheart and "Revolution No. 9" rolled into one.

Originality, I pronounce thee dead.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte