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Mercedes (Amber Riley, right) and Santana (Naya Rivera, left) get into an argument in the Laryngitis episode of Glee.

Since the early sixties - when the concept of rock 'n' roll artistry had been linked to songwriting ability (thanks to the work of Bob Dylan and the Beatles) - bestselling albums have nearly always been collections of original material.

Not any more. The No. 1 album in both Canada and the United States for the past two weeks has been Glee, The Music, Vol. 3: Showstoppers - which features versions of U2's One, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, and the Men Without Hats oldie, Safety Dance, from the TV series' current season. And that would be the second time in six weeks that a Glee recording has dominated the charts. The Power of Madonna, which was released in late April, went to No. 1 in both Canada and the U.S. without so much as a cameo by Her Madgeness.

How 11 young actors managed to become North America's favourite cover band is not a hot topic in the music press, and indeed the phenomenon has gone largely unremarked upon outside the show's circle of fans. But make no mistake - that circle is a big one.

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The two previous Glee volumes have been fixtures on the charts since new episodes of the show began airing in mid-April; and yet another collection, the six-song Journey to Regionals, is due Tuesday, the same day the season finale airs.

Glee has also sold over seven million digital downloads of songs from the show, and one - a remake of the Journey fist-pumper Don't Stop Believin' - was a Top 20 single in the United States. Clearly, Glee, which draws roughly two million viewers a week in Canada, is more than just another TV hit.

It can't hurt that the show has usually followed American Idol in the Tuesday-night lineups. The two shows cover a lot of the same musical ground, both being long on classic-rock hits and popular show tunes. But while Idol tries to turn competition into soapy drama, Glee is all about the drama of competition.

Set in small-town Ohio, it hits all the expected notes of high-school dramedy. It pits nerds against jocks, touches on such hot-button issues as teen pregnancy and sexual identity, and champions individuality and self-expression over conformity and peer pressure.

Glee is also about winning against long odds. That's true not just in the show's choir world, where New Directions (as the Glee kids call their group) has already triumphed at Sectionals and hopes to defeat archrivals Vocal Adrenaline at Regionals, but also in the halls of McKinley High, where both the award-winning pep squad Cheerios and the football squad declared war on singing misfits.

What sets Glee apart, though, is the music.

Sometimes it simply represents the latest New Directions performance: a production number, perfectly choreographed, smartly arranged, and flawlessly sung. But more often, the music is a form of emotional amplification, giving us a glimpse inside the soul of each character, as in a Broadway musical. If you know nothing about the series, hearing Idina Menzel and Lea Michele render Lady Gaga's Poker Face hardly supplants the original. But if you hear the song as a dialogue between New Directions' Rachel and the mother who abandoned her (and who now coaches Vocal Adrenaline), lines like "She's got to love nobody" take on a new resonance.

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No wonder, then, that music from Glee is outselling offerings from the Idol franchise ( American Idol: Season 9 debuted at No. 77 on the Billboard albums chart). Where Idol encourages viewers to pick favourites, Glee - with its emphasis on vocal teamwork - asks its audience to root for a whole cast of characters. As such, much of the music on American Idol feels vaguely empty in contrast to the dramatically weighted material on Glee.

While both shows play into the ongoing revival of amateur performance in popular music, the fictional Glee also offers a more compelling model than the real-life Idol. When rock 'n' roll became a big business, a line was drawn between performers and consumers; although anyone could sing or play guitar, only the lucky few would ever become stars. That, at heart, is the concept that fuels Idol - thousands may audition, but only one will win.

Glee is about high school, not stardom, and that's an important difference of scale. High school, after all, is a pretty small pond, and the last place that most of us have the chance to be big fish. It's easier - and, in many ways, more satisfying - for most people to fantasize about wowing an assembly full of classmates than to imagine impressing Simon Cowell.

In that sense, watching the production numbers on Glee is a bit like surfing through YouTube to watch the homemade music videos posted there. When two teen girls record themselves singing an R&B cover in some suburban bedroom, it's not because they want to be chart-topping stars. It's because they want to express themselves, with the hope that somebody, somewhere, will listen and enjoy.

On Glee, the kids want to win at Regionals, but mainly they want to sing, and have their singing amount to something. There's a difference between merely wanting to win, as the Cheerios or Vocal Adrenaline do, and to succeed because you've shown something of who you are in your song.

Rock critical theory has long insisted that the greatest stars are outsiders whose experience is validated as an expression of self, as defined by singing songs they've written. A Dylan song is about Bob Dylan and his life; it's not a blank slate the way a Cole Porter tune would be. Glee, by contrast, argues that rock stars no longer "own" songs - they belong to anyone, from fictional high-schoolers on TV to those at home watching and singing along.

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Of course, the covers-oriented Idol might seem to make the same statement, until you add in the outsider element. Central to the plot of Glee is that all the kids in New Directions are misfits, and it's that dynamic that adds power to their performances. By contrast, most Idol contestants - with the notable exception of Adam Lambert - come across as conformists, happily following the rules of the music-industry machine.

Ultimately, Glee argues that music is a universal right. It doesn't belong to judges or industry executives; it's something all music lovers carry in their hearts. That's how anybody can be a star, and why viewers want the Glee kids to prevail. In that sense, the show's real drama has nothing to do with the road to Regionals, but with having the courage to ignore the naysayers - and sing.

And what music lover can't relate to that?

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