Nas laid a rose on the grave of hip hop six years ago. But “most intellectuals will only half listen,” he predicted.
What about the death of camp?
On Tuesday night, with the return of Glee, we will find out if heroine Quinn Fabray’s car accident was fatal. And we will also discover the fate of the show’s camp aesthetic, which has driven this now-fading song and dance for almost three years. ( Glee has lost close to a quarter of its audience this season, according to The Wrap, a ratings-focused entertainment blog.)
Quinn, the head cheerleader, straight, blond and beautiful glee-club member and Yale-bound honours student, is clearly named after Nanette Fabray, the musical-theatre actress who, in her youth, worked with Bette Davis and danced with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, and who, in her decline and older age, was a ghoulish addition to the manic American pop tragedy One Day at a Time.
Glee’s creators and writers, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, love this sort of semiotic code work: The show, simultaneously, makes clear and obscure references to largely queer iconography as a way of destabilizing the word glee itself.
And so Quinn, this dream girl, has been Glee’s target since the show’s inception. Standing in direct opposition to the abnormals or freaks or whatever term pop culture now uses to throw shade at those who do not fit in, her hokey perfection (something like the head cheerleader in Grease) has been derogated through various plots. She was a pregnant teen ditched by her quarterback boyfriend, she has had a psychotic break, dyed her hair and smoked behind the bleachers, all before reforming and returning to her gilded perfection – in time to get T-boned by a speeding truck.
Meanwhile, perfectly hideous girls like the obese, cruel wrestler Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fink) have been feted for their fabulousness in this Fantasia high school where at least one hot boy seeks out girls who are large and in charge.
This turnaround – where the norm is derided, its antithesis applauded – made the show enormously popular for a while, riding a wave of anti-bullying public service ads set to unapologetic Gaga anthems like Born This Way.
But suddenly, the ratings started to slide. And, as if responding to the fair-weather TV audience, the show, in the episode before the spring hiatus, had Quinn get in a car and, after answering a series of hectoring texts from her former nemesis, crash.
Before the accident, Quinn had repented, and even joined a Bible club: She had been punished enough, it seemed. Like Glee itself, she, too, has been a beloved mixture of opposing components: In her case, the hybrid of a bland blonde in the manner of Betty Cooper and an exciting Carroll Baker/Baby Doll tease.
Quinn’s possible death, then, one can argue, feels a little like the death of the show’s campy spirit itself.
Not that it hasn’t tried to fight back from the brink: As ratings slid, two teen boys kissed and had sex; two teen girls fell in love, and Karofsky, a hulking football player, started cruising gay bars on the down low (his near-suicide after being viciously outed, was the prelude to Quinn’s accident). The show’s bullying of Karofsky, incidentally, was treated with care, but felt scripted from Dan Savage’s It Gets Better program at a time when caring about abused and self-harming teens, like Glee and its premise, is, at least according to the plunging ratings, already passé.
One wonders how these genuinely dramatic, pure-hearted subplots fit into a show that always seems to be winking, and revealing its cheerful loathing of tacky America, vulgar middle-of-the-road sensibilities and tasteless, drab Midwesterners?
It has worked because the show is a hybrid, a new kind of show – or an old one, depending on your perspective. Hideous 1970s sitcoms like One Day at a Time could juggle perfectly a perverse and intrusive visit from Schneider, the janitor, while Mom confronted turning 40 by speaking theatrically into a mirror in an empty, darkened room.
Life itself, after all, can be so quickly beautiful or terrible: Quinn’s crash reminds us of how life – and art – can suddenly accelerate to their deepest possible meaning. “Because of its tremendous solemnity,” Soren Kierkegaard said, “death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances.”
Are the creators of Glee possibly then, through Quinn, asserting the very essence of their show with extreme violence because of its increasingly poor reception?
Whether she ends up dead or alive, Quinn’s accident reveals Glee to be a show about the failure of love amid the triumph of cynicism: It signifies, transparently, that she/camp made a flighty error, and we/the truck just tore her up.