You've got to hand it to Lea Michelle, Matthew Morrison, and the rest of the cast of the TV show Glee — they certainly have a special talent for taking a once awesome pop song and turning it into an insufferable case of over-singing and unnecessary theatricality. The third season of the show kicks off tomorrow night, with the promised butchering of The Go-Go's' “We Got The Beat” as its first victim.
While Glee has proven to be a commercial success — with the covered artists usually receiving a sales bump — sitting through an episode is often an exercise in impending audio torture, and that's overlooking plot lines that make Saved By The Bell: The College Years seem like it was penned by Aaron Sorki). Here, then, are five once fondly-loved pop songs that the show has managed to musically mutilate.
Any Michael Jackson cover is gonna be hard pushed to surmount the King of Pop's own rendition, but Glee's bumbling take on “Thriller” — mashed up with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' “Heads Will Roll” — is a new slur on Jackson's memory. For a start, it has the cast singing over what sounds like someone hitting the “dance” preset button on a Casio keyboard preserved from the late-'80s. More more perplexingly, in the actual episode, half of the cast somehow manage to dress up in full zombie regalia and monstrous make-up in about 30 seconds of real time. Oh, and the lack of a Teen Wolf pun is also a clear failure of directorial nerve.
Oh, great, another song to soundtrack Rachel's infatuation with Finn! This time it's Brit loud-mouth Lily Allen's lilting “Smile” that gets the twee treatment, with Rachel and Finn engaging in what is meant to be some awkward flirting in the school practice room. (The full (and often bearded) band in the background have a habit of magically appearing out of nowhere for Glee songs.) But if Allen's version gets by with a confident, cocky London gal attitude — the aural equivalent of sneakers paired with a dress, if you will — Glee's take brings to mind only a spoiled rich brat (that'd be Rachel) moaning about her lot in life. And then whining a little more for good measure. Insert smiley face.
3. “I Know What Boys Like”
So cringe-inducing even proud Gleeks will attest to its awfulness. Here the show taps into its esteemed history of ham-fistedly trying to address social stereotypes, which means that it's Lauren, the overweight outsider stereotype member of the cast — as opposed to Mercedes, the large black stereotype member of the cast; or Kurt the effeminate gay member of the cast — who gets to stoney-faced sludge through “I Know What Boys Like.” The result makes even the Spice Girls' cover of a Waitresses' song, “Christmas Wrapping,” seem like the height of musical decorum. Cat sound!
2. “Empire State Of Mind”
Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys
Not just a rap tycoon who these days likes to go on metaphysical dates with his new beau, Corporate America, Jay-Z also mastered the art of crafting chart-topping pop songs years ago. His last big effort drafted in Alicia Keys and won over the mainstream with its upbeat, uplifting chorus and, er, raps that copped to owning a stash house for his drugs. Glee's performance of it, which kicked off season two of the show, could well be subtitled Why White People Should Still Not Be Allowed To Rap. Artie, the guy in glasses in a wheel chair (and now a dookie gold rope), gets to be Jay-Z first, and even seems to attempt some sort of a “Brooklyn” accent for his opening spiel; around him, the cast do their best gesticulating and rap dancing to excruciating effect. With the whole shebang taking place in a captive school playground, you've gotta ask where the trench-coat shooter was at.
1. “Like A Prayer”
Beyond the controversy about the black Jesus figure in its video, Madonna's ethereal “Like A Prayer” runs with an emotional arc that powerfully reveals itself as the song comes to a conclusion. But Glee's version is an abject lesson in how to strip any last smidgen of soul from a song. This is largely thanks to Lea Michelle, who tackles the track as if entering from stage left on Broadway, and proceeds to over-trill her way through the opening verse. (Finn then does possibly the best worst-ever attempt at singing like a hushed choir-boy for a few lines.) Forget breaking out into communal choir — all Glee's rendition does is inspire the urge to make like the show's curmudgeonly Sue Sylvester and holler, “Shut up!”