I have been thinking a lot about one episode of Glee, the Grilled Cheesus one: it sure did make me cry a lot. I’m not much of a crier when it comes to TV and movies, usually. I think I started during Kurt singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for his comatose father, and pretty much constantly through the rest (except “Papa Can You Hear Me?”). Mercedes takes Kurt to church and he feels the real love behind the words he doesn’t believe? Crying. Sue playing chess with her sister? Crying. Kurt’s apology speech to his dad, right before the end of the episode? Crying.
I’m not proud of this. But it’s true.
The thing about melodrama is, you don’t really know why you’re crying. I didn’t especially relate to the episode. My dad hasn’t had a heart attack. My mom’s still alive. I’m not religious. Still, I had a lump in my throat throughout. It’s not as simple as being about something that relates to my own life. It’s not hard to relate to the fear of losing a parent – but the difference between me watching and saying “that’s so sad” and me actually bawling is definitely in the emotional appeal of melodrama. The hackneyed story structure – with Kurt realizing how much his father (and their own sacred traditions) means to him “too late” – is classic melodrama. His emotional reaction is run through with his guilt over his moral failure to respect his dad. That element of the drama gives it a clear moral meaning.
I’m as surprised as anyone that the spirituality episode of the show was the one that made me cry. I don’t consider myself especially spiritual — but maybe that was it. I wound up talking about religion the last time I wrote about Glee as well:
Ending with “Like a Prayer” makes perfect sense. Though I’ve always maintained that it’s a song about blow jobs (“When you call my name it’s like a little prayer/ down on my knees, I wanna take you there/ In the midnight hour, I can feel your power”), I am willing to consider that it probably has other meanings. The “there” where she wants to take you, where your voice can take her: it’s wherever you want it to be. There is an obvious sexual meaning, but the juxtaposition of the sex with the gospel choir gives the whole thing a sense of a kind of religious ecstasy. On Glee, where religion when it’s mentioned at all is just another form of hypocrisy (the celibacy club, Quinn’s parents who throw her pregnant ass out in a very un-Christ-like manner), letting the choir sing is as close as we get to the sense of community and of touching the numinous that everyone can get. It’s kind of an invocation to pop. For a few minutes, it really seems like we can get there. Does it really matter that the song was first heard in a Pepsi commercial?
In his landmark The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks argues that melodrama is a post-sacred mode of storytelling, and that it illuminates a moral occult that people really long for. That book has probably been the biggest influence on my thinking about melodrama – and about culture and emotion generally. On Glee last week, it seems like they were making almost a literal attempt to deal with that sense of lack through replacing spirituality with music. Melodrama comes from melos + drama. Melos means music, and the word refers to the way that these plays (which actually started out as mute performances), would direct the audience’s emotions through music (as opposed to through dialogue that would explain what was happening, which was the way it had been done historically). Glee is not 100% melodrama, but I think the ways that it engages emotions surely is. Very little really happened beyond the initial heart attack – it was like 40 minutes of people feeling at each other. Kurt’s not religious – but that the solidity of his relationship with his father represents the closest thing to sureness that he’s ever going to have.
Anyway, so, my theory about why I cried when Mercedes took Kurt to church? I’m sad because I don’t have what’s pictured there – a stable community full of love and certainty about each other and about Jesus. It’s a reality that doesn’t exist for me – that maybe doesn’t exist at all. That’s, I think, what makes melodrama so powerful: it’s full of moments like this, moments of plenitude where there’s a strong, powerful sense of emotional clarity. This is not like real life, but that’s exactly why it’s so powerful. I’m sure the church scenes would mean something entirely different to someone who is actually religious and does sing in a church choir – maybe it would feel cheap, maybe it would be a powerful affirmation – but the effect it had on me was directly related to the effect it had on Kurt. He’s not going to start praying to Jesus, but he’s still touched that other people are so certain, and that they are sending that certain love in his direction.