‘Idol’ music juggernaut beaten on charts

In its first season, Glee has surpassed American Idol as the most buzzed-about music show on TV. It’s also selling more music than its Fox lead-in, which just ended its ninth season. The four Glee albums that have been released to date (three full-length albums and The Power Of Madonna EP) have sold a combined total of 1,795,000 copies. The studio albums by the top four contestants on Idol last season (Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey and Allison Iraheta) have sold 1,194,000 copies.

Glee is also out front in terms of individual song downloads. Songs from the four Glee albums have sold a combined total of 5,534,000 copies. Songs from those four Idol contestants’ albums have sold 3,996,000 copies.

But that not why I’m turning into a Gleek. I have a growing respect for the range of music that is spotlighted on the show. It would have been easy for the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, to stick to chart-topping pop songs from the past few decades, but he and album co-producer Adam Anders and music supervisor PJ Bloom also work in fairly obscure songs that weren’t top 40 hits; and old songs which are unknown to the majority of his target audience.

The music on the show runs the gamut stylistically from “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “Thong Song.” Murphy clearly loves music, all kinds of music, and he’s using the show to expose 12 million people a week to some of his favorites. Murphy’s “something for everybody” sensibility echoes the approach that made Ed Sullivan’s CBS variety show a Sunday night institution from 1948 to 1971. Sullivan presented everyone from the Beatles and the Supremes to Broadway performers singing a song from their latest show. (In fact, many of the artists whose songs are covered on Glee memorably performed on the Sullivan stage.)

The broad range of music on Glee was apparent from the pilot episode, which aired on May 19, 2009. The songs in the pilot included recent pop hits (Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”),  an all-time R&B classic (Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”), a camp-fire sing-along (John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane”), critically panned arena rock (songs by Journey and REO Speedwagon); disco-era guilty pleasures (two songs by KC And The Sunshine Band), a famous movie musical romp (“You’re The One That I Want”) and show tunes from Guys And Dolls, Oliver, Chicago and Les Miserables.

Subsequent episodes haven’t packed in quite that much music, but if anything they have expanded the stylistic range, adding country (Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name”), funk (Parliament’s “Tear The Roof Off The Sucker”) and alternative rock (Beck’s “Loser”).

Murphy has said that what he looks for in songs is a theatrical quality. But he defines the word in the broadest sense. This week’s episode, titled “Theatricality,” featured the title song from Barbra Streisand’s 1968 movie “Funny Girl” as well as songs by Kiss and Lady Gaga. Not many people would see a common bond between those three acts.

I’m most impressed that Murphy reaches all the way back to the ‘20s and ‘30s for material. Even people in the music industry often regard anything that was released prior to Elvis Presley’s breakthrough in 1956 as ancient history. But Murphy has found room for such old songs as “When You’re Smiling,” which Louis Armstrong helped to popularize in 1929; “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” a smash for bandleader Wayne King in 1931; “The Lady Is A Tramp,” introduced in the 1937 Broadway show Babes In Arms; and “Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing),” which “King of Swing” Benny Goodman immortalized in 1938.

Murphy is doing what our schools are failing to do-teach kids the history of American popular music. And he’s doing it in an entertaining way.

Murphy doesn’t just stick to the hits. He has featured a number of songs that didn’t crack the top 40 on the Hot 100, including Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” Jill Scott’s “Hate On Me,” Celine Dion’s “Taking Chances” and Lily Allen’s “Smile.”

Boosted by “The Power Of Madonna” episode, Madonna is the most covered artist in the first season of Glee. Ten of her songs have been performed on the show. Journey is in second place. By the time the season ends, four of the band’s songs will have been performed. By season’s end, Dionne Warwick, Barbra Streisand, Queen and Beyonce will have been represented three times.

You can see how Murphy’s mind works in some of the medleys that have been performed on the show. He puts songs together that I bet nobody has thought of coupling before. The most unlikely pairing joins The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap’s “Young Girl.” The Police are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the winners of five Grammys. Puckett & the Union Gap are generally seen as lightweight purveyors of kitschy pop. But to Murphy, the common thread in the songs’ storylines mattered more than the acts’ hipness quotient.

Other unlikely medleys performed on the show include Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and Usher’s “Confessions Part II”; Beyonce’s “Halo” and Katrina & The Waves’ “Walking On Sunshine”; and the title song from the rock musical Hair, popularized by The Cowsills, and “Crazy In Love” by Beyonce featuring Jay-Z.

Glee is the great equalizer. A recent episode, “Laryngitis,” featured a cover of U2’s “One,” a signature song by the most acclaimed band to emerge since the 1960s. The episode also featured a cover of soap opera hunk Rick Springfield’s 1981 smash “Jessie’s Girl.” Springfield had had a healthy run of pop hits in the ‘80s, but he doesn’t have a fraction of the credibility of a U2. But when the numbers came in last week, the cast’s version of “Jessie’s Girl” outsold “One” more than two to one.

Murphy is clearly having fun in his job. All six songs that were featured in the episode “Hell-O” featured the word “hello” (or just “hell”) in their titles-the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You,” the All-American Rejects’ “Gives You Hell,” Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Neil Diamond’s “Hello Again,” AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” and The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye.”

Likewise, the “Dream” episode featured four “Dream” songs, ranging from Aerosmith’s “Dream On” to “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables. “Home” featured both the Burt Bacharach/Hal David gem “A House Is Not A Home” and “Home” from The Wiz. “Mattress” featured two songs, released 71 years apart, titled “Smile”: Lily Allen’s from her 2007 debut album and Charlie Chaplin’s standard from his 1936 film Modern Times.

The five best-selling individual song downloads in Glee history to date are the cast’s versions of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” (which has sold 769,000 digital copies as of this week), Queen’s “Somebody To Love” (271,000), “Defying Gravity” from Wicked (269,000), “Halo”/”Walking On Sunshine” (261,000) and “It’s My Life”/”Confessions Part II” (258,000).

The cast’s versions of “Don’t Stop Believin” and “Somebody To Love” both made the top 10 on the Hot Digital Songs chart, as have the cast’s versions of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”

Tony winners Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel have performed on the show. The show also gave a platform to the versatile Neil Patrick Harris and to Olivia Newton-John, who backed Jane Lynch on a version of her 1981 smash “Physical.”

A six-song EP, Glee: The Music, Journey To Regionals, will be released on June 8, the date of the Season 1 finale. A Glee Christmas album is due later this year. The cast’s version of Wham!’s 1985 holiday hit “Last Christmas” has sold 112,000 copies.

Posted in American Idol, Entertainment.


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