Two weeks ago on “Glee,” Mercedes posed the question some viewers may have been wondering since the beginning of the series: how come she never gets to be the star? Further, and perhaps more importantly, why is she the only African-American principal on the show?
The glee club, on the show and in the American psyche, is not for the cool kids. It operates instead as the home for a diverse group of outcasts, a place where the ostracized find comfort and burst into song. Inspiration and empowerment can come from anywhere, from Fleetwood Mac to “West Side Story,” from Ke$ha to Van Halen. But the absence of black stars is all the more conspicuous given how important African-American musical traditions have been to the development of the music sung by Rachel and the gang.
African-Americans’ contribution to popular music is definitive: the bluesmen of the segregated south and the innovative jazz players of Harlem nightclubs eventually helped spawn rock ‘n’ roll and almost everything today’s Top 40 offers: disco’s floaty percussion and chemical tones, and hip-hop’s infectious hooks and creative sampling. “Glee” invokes this history not only when the New Directions cover Lionel Richie, but also Lady Gaga.
Critics once charged that the Motown machine whitewashed black R & B by stripping it of its “black” characteristics to appeal to white audiences, so soul and funk were considered “authentic” for reintroducing these elements. But this reductionist understanding obscures the true spectrum of African-American experiences as expressed through music. That’s why making Mercedes the sole voice for what’s actually a wide range of black emotion and aspiration, even history, is so problematic. We need more black singers to better represent this variety of perspectives.
Given “Glee’s” largely diverse cast and song catalog, the show’s writers seem to recognize that musical genres need not be firmly delineated. The very categorization of music according to conventional Billboard labels perpetuates musical stereotypes, and what “Glee” does, laudably, is posit that we’ve reached a point where these categories don’t matter anymore. To stick with the traditional is to fetishize a particular version of the black musical experience, and “Glee” tries to avoid this by having white kids rap Jay-Z lyrics, and guys sing The Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
But ultimately, “Glee” wants to have it both ways, because Mercedes is either relegated to backup vocals or to a performative “black” role: she sings Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul. Or throws a Jennifer-Hudson-in-”Dreamgirls”-style fit with “And I Am Telling You.” Or vandalizes cars in “Bust Your Windows.” When she takes on the daring role of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” transvestite, the performance is canceled and an audience never sees her shine. Her closing number for the benefit meets a similar fate. We know she’s got the voice to hold her own against Rachel, but so far, the series won’t reward her with popular validation. She’s back in the 1960s, demanding recognition from a public reluctant to listen.
In light of “Glee’s” optimistic nods to a 21st century-America free from prejudice based on race, sexual orientation, and disability status, it’s surprising that there aren’t more black performers on the show, especially because black music serves as the foundation for much of what is sung. Black voices have abundantly contributed to the diverse narrative of America, even when society at times chooses not to hear them – so surely “Glee” can feature some black stars singing Frank Sinatra.