By Elizabeth Barfoot Christian
FOX’s hit show Glee reminds me of what a music-loving Norman Lear might have developed were he producing television shows today. The edgy, envelope-pushing dramedy is making its mark on the topics of teen sexuality, teenage pregnancy, disabilities and fitting in—in ways never-before-seen on network TV.
What makes Glee different from the likes of Lear’s controversial ‘70s shows like Maude (topics included TV’s first abortion and women’s equality), All in the Family (topics included racism, bigotry, homosexuality, rape, breast cancer), and The Jeffersons (TV's first upper-middle class black couple dealt with topics of racism, suicide, gun control), along with his other shows, is that Glee is having this dialogue set to song and dance routines.
Unlike these in-your-face shows of yesteryear, Glee is using key social issues as an inroad to conquering the world of music marketing. And the results are phenomenal.
Music is often called the universal language, and Glee is proving that power as it tackles 21st century teen issues set to song, then sells you the show’s soundtracks via iTunes.
What’s so crazy about the success of Glee is that musicals and television traditionally don’t mix. Or they didn’t—until now. And now every music producer and songster in town is trying to get his tune remixed by the high schoolers in New Directions, the fictional-turned-real-life touring group from Glee. The group has taken on an eclectic choice of tunes from as far back as the 1920s and made them relevant again to a new audience—one with disposable income to burn. (According to Canadian Business magazine, Glee has the highest audience percentage with incomes more than $100,000).
The average week draws viewership of 12 million, and the first season of the show drew 19 Emmy Award nominations. Already bigger than the Beatles, Glee has had 75 hit singles in just a year and a half—outpacing Britain’s Fab Four, who had 71 from 1964 to 1996.
As of January, Glee has released nine soundtrack albums, selling five million copies. More than 13 million copies of the show’s singles have been digitally downloaded. Artists they have covered, including Madonna, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, and Queen, have also seen some of their old hits rechart on the Billboard Hot 100.
Glee went on a four-city tour of 13 live concerts last summer. One Los Angeles show sold out in 30 seconds, surprising even longtime music industry insiders. Expectations for 2011 are even greater, as the audience has only grown.
Glee has graced the cover of Rolling Stone and performed for President Obama. Dozens of websites have been created by Gleeks, the show’s loyal followers, and keep a constant update on characters, musicians who should get the Glee treatment, and merchandise offerings from ringtones to tangible products and where to buy them. Macy’s already has a Glee clothing line and plans to launch a home décor line this spring. “Glee” has become a brand unto itself.
Entertainment Weekly writer Tim Stack called “Glee” the music industry’s “biggest story of the year.” First aided by its American Idol lead-in, it’s expected to gain further ground when in February FOX airs a special episode immediately following the Super Bowl.
High school, like music, is a universal experience. And that’s key to understanding the Glee marketing phenomenon. This is one bandwagon, it seems, to which we can literally all relate. And many in both the music and television industries are happily taking that to the bank.
Elizabeth Barfoot Christian is assistant professor of journalism at Louisiana Tech University and the editor of Rock Brands: Selling Sound in a Media Saturated Culture.
Next blog: Who’s the bad guy now? Can American Idol survive without Simon and what this could mean to music sales?