Glee Review/Recap Season 4 Episode 9 ‘Swan Song’: The Music Is What Matters

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For a story titled Swan Song, Glee’s Episode 9 was more about beginnings than endings.

Rachel wins big in a NYADA competition and firmly establishes herself as a star (sorry, Carmen — an “artist”) in the making. Kurt gets a second chance, pours his soul into it and now he, too, is a NYADA newbie. (See ya, Vogue!) And Brittany and Sam embark on a sudden (and woefully abrupt) romance.

But yes, there was an ending — the surprisingly harsh and, in many ways, preposterous kicking to the curb of National Champion New Directions after their Sectionals loss due to Marley’s fainting and a rapid-fire decision to eliminate them before they’d even had a moment to retake the stage. (How heartless was that?) Then we got even more harsh heartlessness from Sue, who’s forgotten all about the glee clubbers rallying to her side when her sister died and now ruthlessly claims and chews up their choir room in the meanest way possible.

But in the end we learned that New Directions isn’t over. Far from it. The end of this story about new beginnings brought the great Crowded House hit Don’t Dream It’s Over, which the survivors sang soulfully in a lovely snowy reunion, signaling that they’ll find some way to stay together, because glee club isn’t just about competition (a regimen which would get old, anyway, in the show’s fourth season). Rather, as Finn said, glee club is about the love of music.

And he could have been speaking of the series itself.

I’ve always felt this way. I’ve always embraced Glee most for putting meaningful music on network TV, week after week.

As it’s done so, I’ve been amazed by the sheer volume of  the hundreds (!) of beautifully produced songs by Adam Anders. I’ve respected those songs’ 40 million downloads — enough to make the Glee cast sales superstars. I’ve adored if not revered the many superb singers in the cast. I’ve appreciated that Glee often even improves on songs’ original versions.  I’ve also admired Glee’s occasional original songs, its reinterpretations of old ones and the creative ways its “mashed up” two songs to make them one.

Ultimately, I have recognized and embraced the reality — this is not my opinion, since the show itself just stated it — that Glee is essentially about one thing: the love of music. Obsess over individual characters and subplots all you want, but it’s the music that matters most.

That’s why I sigh when so many fans fixate on loving certain characters — while hating others — as if that’s what Glee intends to be, and that’s what it’s all about. They choose sides. They pick one “ship” over another. They take offense when their favorites seem slighted by screen time — in an enormous ensemble cast! And they rant when things don’t go their romantic way in a cheeky, darkly comic and fictional universe where anything goes.

In short, they lose sight of the big picture — and here it is:

Yes, there have been musical scripted TV shows before. Fame comes to mind. But Glee is still the first true ongoing musical fantasy of its kind on network television — ever.  Smash (and to some degree Nashville) is now trying it, too, but Glee remains a bold first step in the style of a traditional movie musical where, yes, erupting into song often is organic to a plot about  a choir– just as it was in The Sound of Music — but where music also is a fanciful, note-perfect element injected anywhere, at any time, to drive a story with the entertainment values and emotional power of song.

That’s why Finn, urged by Rachel, was right to say glee is about the love of the music, because it’s also an essential truth about the series itself.  He was right to say that, not only for the little Ohio glee club we’ve grown to love, but for the ongoing TV series which created them and which, in a big-picture perspective, deserves our greater love.

It’s the love of music itself that matters most.

And speaking of music, after a recent string of strong rock and pop songs, this show’s set list showed how eclectic Glee can be, focusing largely on Broadway numbers or old standards like Somethin’ Stupid, a duet for Frank Sinatra and daughter Nancy back in the ’60s. (Cute song, but it felt as arbitrary and tacked-on as the new “Bram” romance — where did that come from?)

But then we got a number that really popped: another great Kander and Ebb classic — and Chicago’s signature song — All That Jazz, performed in a Bob Fosse-inspired dance-off — and sing-off — between Rachel and Cassandra.

Since seeing the footage in advance, I’ve noted on Twitter — and been retweeted several times — that this number basically hid Rachel’s (Lea’s) limitations as a dancer, while Kate Hudson was great. And in the end Rachel herself acknowledged this, declaring with admirable self-awareness that she wasn’t as good of a dancer as Cassandra — but then declaring with equal self-awareness, in so many words, that’s she’s the best damn singer on the planet, and that is her ticket to stardom.

She then proved that with her two NYADA winter showcase numbers, starting with another full-bore attack on a song done by idol Barbra Streisand, Being Good Isn’t Good Enough. Its lyrics not only fit, but it showed again that this girl can out-sing the Broadway diva of all Broadway divas, right here, right now, and I don’t care what Streisand loyalists say. Bring it on — I’m still waiting for People. Next!

But the encore, while lovely, was odd. O Holy Night (first recorded back in Season 2 for the first Christmas CD) was beautifully sung, but this was a Jewish girl choosing to sing about Christ as savior. I’m not saying she can’t or she shouldn’t, but I’m wondering why, among thousands of song choices, this one was made.

Kurt’s surprise Being Alive audition was emotional and nicely delivered, but thank God it was compressed from the interminable studio track, which recalls Rose’s Turn for rambling, old-fashioned, self-indulgent grandstanding.

Look, I love the character, and I love Chris Colfer. But this sort of staid material, for him, is a snoozer, for me. I agree with Rachel: His best moment was for the slowed-tempo, almost mournful spin on the Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand while his father was  in a coma. Now that was a performance.

Beyond the songs, I was floored by how much Glee broke down the proverbial fourth wall between performers and audience, as when Brittany obliquely referenced the real-world Brittana fans who are sure to be incensed about her romance with Sam, but then said with a shrug, “Love is love,” as if that should explain and justify it all. And you know what? It does. (And to those who took outraged offense at this shift by a bisexual character who’s had 100 times more male lovers than female, ease up.)

Another case was when Rachel — already patterned so much after Lea Michele — spoke of how she’s not a traditional beauty, which Lea often has said, but defiantly stepped up as the great singer-performer she knows she is, just as Lea does, time after time.

I also loved Whoopi Goldberg’s Carmen in this show — so stern and commanding, yet also quick to offer support when  due. Indeed, she’s gone from calling Rachel’s work “nice” after a show-stopper awhile back to calling it “wonderful” in Swan Song, then quickly amending that to “superb.” When “nice” is high praise and then you get “superb,” you’re in clover.

It was even good to see Brad the piano player finally get some dialogue — while doing a fine job of delivering it. (And Teri returns next week — talk about ghosts of Christmas past!)

Yet as often occurs, the story still had sticky moments.

Why hasn’t Kitty been called on the carpet about being the one who truly caused ND’s Sectionals meltdown by pushing Marley toward bulimia? And where were Sugar and Unique at the end?

On the other hand, I loved the wacky ways that dispersing glee clubbers insinuated themselves into other clubs, especially Joe’s ecumenical paint-gun group.

Overall, this 75th Glee episode was hardly its best, but it was a very good one. And no matter what I or anyone else says about it, Swan Song laid out Glee’s purpose, its meaning, its raison d’etre, more than any other Glee episode since the pilot.

Glee, in its heart of hearts, is about the love of music.

And thank God for that.

— Bruce Westbrook

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