October 16, 2009
Performing with Glee
Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths... Media conglomerates often respond to these new forms of participatory culture by seeking to shut them down or reigning in their free play with cultural material. If the media industries understand the new cultural and technological environment as demanding greater audience participation within what one media analyst calls the "experience economy," they seek to tightly structure the terms by which we may interact with their intellectual property, preferring the pre-programmed activities offered by computer games or commercial Web sites, to the free-form participation represented by fan culture. The conflict between these two paradigms -- the corporate-based concept of media convergence and the grassroots-based concept of participatory culture -- will determine the long-term cultural consequences of our current moment of media in transition.

"Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture," Henry Jenkins

Henry wrote up a revised version of this essay (which appears on his website, linked above) in his Convergence Culture book, which is obviously an important read if you've never picked it up before.

But coming away from this excerpt above, I can't help but feel that the first sentence suggests a very intense feeling, given what I assume to be a more subdued general viewership that constitutes a given show's (or movie's, or band's, etc.'s) fan base. Given that the modes of "participatory culture" are pervading the contemporary media landscape almost everywhere today, I still hesitate to state outright that fans "reject the idea of a definitive version" of any kind of narrative or media. Fans certainly work inside the construct provided by the "media conglomerate" and participate by interacting with the established narrative or media form.

What these initial thoughts are really leading up to is my attempt to spout a bit about Glee.

I do not watch television, plain and simple. In fact, my TV is currently sitting unplugged in my fireplace. However, two weeks ago, my college roommate forced me to watch Glee, and I'm hooked. Thankfully it's available for free on Hulu, one day after broadcast on FOX (every Wednesday, or Thursday online).

Glee is a show about a public high school choir (glee club), but I could describe it as a more realistic High School Musical, where not all the songs are completely outrageous (at least except for that one song performed by the football team during the last 10 seconds of a crucial game). Hands down, the music is excellent -- no doubt it's the all-star cast that for the most part was gleaned from a variety of Broadway musicals. And the story's cute: a bit implausible at times, but usually the music takes my attention away from those trivialities. But the music. I can't go on enough about it. True, it's obvious that the producers overlaid the high-quality versions of the songs over the lip-syncing cast, but the music really carries the show.

Actually, I could say that the music carries the show outside of its televised frame too. Individual songs have been cropping up on iTunes, and the CD compilation is due out at the beginning of November. Of course, enough versions of the songs and clips of the shows have been appearing as TV rips on Youtube (just search "Glee" and they'll pop up). And they are certainly helping get the word out about the show. Fans too are lining up to celebrate the show outside of their living rooms. Loyal viewers are dubbing themselves "gleeks" -- an odd combination of Glee and geek.

But my interest in these fans lies in the odd space of participatory culture where they aren't actually doing anything new, per se, but they're definitely participating within the construct of the Glee narrative by recording "covers" of these songs. This isn't fan fiction, where the fan attempts a new spin on the pre-established narrative, but instead is a type of "redoing" that is both participatory but respects the original creation. In fact, I had to put quotation marks around the word cover, because they're not even really creating covers. True, there are excellent renditions like this:

But these not-really-covers have been proliferating amongst Glee fans, and the ubiquity of technology -- webcams paired with online video -- makes the production of these videos extremely simple. The videos aren't memetic (continually evolving over time, consisting of multiple iterations). Rather, they represent performances, or performative copies of the original.

So, we can take a look at this scene from the second episode (the best embeddable version is a cam capture, but you can view a higher quality clip here):

And then jump around YouTube to find these fan performances:

We could talk about how the YouTube Content ID system might be searching for this song and eventually pull these videos due to a copyright infringement, but it seems like FOX is making the smart decision to use these videos as an instance of the best possible and most reliable marketing strategy: word of mouth. Whether it's sending these videos to your friends, or singing these songs at a weekend party, Glee is receiving a lot of fan-produced attention.

This kind of unintentional marketing isn't new either. In 2006, a Japanese animated television series premiered called The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya that exploded in popularity amongst Japanese anime fans.

And by exploded, I mean seriously created an astounding impact in the Japanese otaku subculture, spurring fans to spend entire weekends dancing in the streets of Akihabara, a district in Tokyo known for its anime goods.

Why were they dancing? Well, the show's ending song boasted some interesting choreography:

And once the show caught on, fans brought the performances outside:

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) eventually went on to make the biggest impact on the anime industry since 1995/96 (when Neon Genesis Evangelion was broadcast on Japanese television).

We've even seen similar success occur in the United States with Soulja Boy and his song Crank That. Videos in the thousands appeared across YouTube of fans copying the dance in the music video (which Soulja Boy himself taught to his viewers -- watch the video here). A recent Comparative Media Studies alum, Kevin Driscoll, writes about Soulja Boy in his graduate thesis, which is available for free on the CMS website.

Perhaps choreography means big business for branding and advertisers in the near future. But I want to reiterate that these fans remain situated within the original media production. They participate, but it is entirely possible for the industry and fans to cooperate with media, rather than maintain an awkward conflict between being "co-producers" of a story. Here, fans are reading and understanding the story not by recreating situations and bending the narrative, but by reproducing the situations and scenarios in their personal lives. When Henry introduces the concept of the "experience economy" in the excerpt at the beginning of this article, he writes, "[Media industries] seek to tightly structure the terms by which we may interact with their intellectual property, preferring the pre-programmed activities offered by computer games or commercial Web sites, to the free-form participation represented by fan culture." The (negative) potential for an industry to restrict creativity by structuring the experience of its audiences seems to dictate that the best strategy is ultimately to let fans do what they want. In the past, there have been conflicts with fan appropriation (eg., limits on Star Wars fan fiction), but what I would like to emphasize is that fans can interact with a piece of media without destroying the intended narrative and actually help spread the media around through celebratory performance.



Great post, Alex. This fan response to Glee reminds me of the performative fan culture that evolved around The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though in this case, the performances happen separately from the show (on YouTube) rather than alongside it (like Rocky Horror performances in theaters). The comparison you make to fan fiction is interesting as well. It seems to me that these performances could be seen as analogous to certain kinds of fan fiction (certainly not all of it): in both the cases of Glee and Rocky Horror, fans are celebrating the intended narrative while subverting its conventions. Though Glee fans are not actually changing the original narrative, they are appropriating it, re-contextualizing it, and in some cases queering it. I totally agree that its in Fox's best interest to let fans do what they want, but I wonder why this kind of performative fan activity seen as positive WoM while some other fan fiction has been (arguably inappropriately) viewed as IP infringement? Is it because these fan productions have been "celebratory" to this point?