Glee: the music at the center of a multi-platform story
by Ana Vasile, published on 21.06.2011
Glee is a TV series that was aired for the first time by Fox in 2009: a musical comedy about the life of a group of talented teenagers, looking for celebrity. Using a multi-platform system, punctuated by the intelligent use of storytelling and music, the series draws a committed audience.
TV: two seasons of the series aired by Fox, with 42-minute episodes
Events: Glee Live tour in 2010 and 2011 in the US and Canada
Videogames: two karaoke style videogames for the Wii and Nintendo
iPhone, iPad and iTouch Application: a karaoke application produced by Smule
Musical editions: five compilations “Glee: The music” volume 1 to 5 and two special editions: “Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers” and “Glee: The Music, The Power Of Madonna”, edited by Columbia Records.
In our case study about the music industry, we tried to highlight the advantages that this economy could draw from transmedia principles. One of the reasons of Glee’s dazzling success is, among others things, the original use of music as an integral part of the narrative construction.
This series has become a pop culture sensation. Criticized by parents and adored by its young adult audience, its universe is defined as inventive and full of energy.
In 2010 the show received a Golden Globe award for Best Comedy or Musical TV Series. It also received two EMMYawards: one for best actress and another for best director.
For the final episode of the second season, on May 24th 2011, Glee had an audience of 12 million spectators! The anecdote is that Fox had programmed the third season even before the end of the first one in 2010.
If we go by transmedia’s definition, the different supports that work together in the multiplatform system must each bring new and complementary perspectives to the universe and the story. As we’ll see later, the different bricks of the Glee system don’t particularly enrich the main narrative, but rather represent different entry points into the musical universe of the series.
Narrative arcs punctuated by music
Glee is a very special series, especially through its narrative construction. A main narrative arc presents the evolution of a group of wild teenagers who is trying, with the help of a few professors, to become famous with their college choir.
The music represents an original way of enriching the narration: strong emotional moments are told through song, the music highlights the key moments of the story. For example, a mystery is played out in a song in one episode, in another, the resolution is revealed through a music video.
The characters interpret hundreds of familiar tunes with talent. Simon Pulman, transmedia producer and creator of the blog Transmythology.com, pointed out, in his analysis of the series, this enrichment of classic audiovisual narration with musical storytelling.
An approach that brings a third layer of signification for the audience of Glee is the internalization of the music interpreted by the key characters of the series.
Ryan Murphy, the series’ creator, declared that the music is an integral part of the script’s development: “Each episode has a main theme, just after writing the story, I’ll choose the songs that will help me move ahead”.
The songs chosen already have an established success. For example, the first season used covers of different genres: Country (Carrie Underwoodwith her hit “Last Name”), Hip-hop (“Gold Digger” by Kanye West), Pop (“Take a Bow” by Rihanna), show tunes (“Maybe This Time” from Cabaret) and rock classics (Queen’s “Somebody to Love”).
The creators take musical storytelling further by inventing mash-ups (a mix of several songs): the best sales of the Glee 2010 season were mash-ups between the Bon Jovi song “It’s my life” and Usher’s “Confessions Part II”, and the one between Beyonce’s song “Halo” and “Walking on Sunshine” from Katrina and the Waves.
Glee excels in music sales
Since May 2010, more than 4 million Glee songs have been downloaded on the Internet. The first CD edited under this brand entered directly in the 4th position of Billboard’s Top 200. The second volume began in third position. Both albums received the “Gold” certification from theAmerican Music Industry Association for selling more than 500 000 units each.
With a multi generational target, this series manages to touch college students, captivated by the choir’s adventures, but also their parents, drawn in by the musical references of their youth.
The online communication strategy is targeted to the main audience: young people between 13 and 25 years old. On the Internet, Glee is everywhere: on their official website, on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Hulu…
The official website seems targeted at teenagers, with videogames, quizzes, behind the scenes and bonuses (an application that gives advice to organize a Glee party at home, a virtual photo booth), catch up episodes and VOD are available only in the US.
A little over 14 million fans have liked the page of the series where they can enter contests, respond to polls or watch videos from the series. Each character has his own Facebook and Twitter profile. For example the character of Rachel Berry communicates every day with her 479 759 fans and 152 767 fans by telling them anecdotes about her daily life.
Youtube and Hulu are used as content distribution platforms while the forums created by fans circulate information on behind the scenes gossip and organize contests, sponsored by Fox.
The iPhone application
Built by Smule for iPhone, iPad and iTouch, Glee Karaoke plays on the spectators’ thirst for celebrity. Everyone can become a star and enter the Glee musical universe.
The players have to sing to move ahead in the circuit through missions. The application promises to slightly adjust the voice of the player to give them the illusion that they’re a pop star and go up in the daily tops.
It’s a real music epidemic that is taking over the planet: with Glee Gobe, players can share their songs with their friends on Facebook, Twitter or through email. You can find more information about the application here.
A similar type of game is offered on the Wii. Two versions of Glee Karaoke Revolution have been distributed. Even though these videogames don’t bring much evolution from a narrative point of view, they represent other entry points into the series’ musical storytelling. The games have the advantage of being a good way of getting players to have fun being the stars, while integrating themselves fully into the universe of the series.
A participation culture
It’s not at all surprising that many wikis and forums have been created by fans on the Internet and it’s quite interesting to see how Fox manages this growing community. This group has its own name: they’re the Gleeks. A badge that gives them a feeling of belonging to a community with a strong identity.
Performe with Glee
Consumers are encouraged by Fox to create content. Gleeks record themselves singing, replay their favorite scenes from the series and organize and events under the Glee name (for example the London Gleeks Club ).
Partnership with Chevrolet
Glee’s online communication becomes a source of revenue through its partnership with the Chevrolet brand: an online game mixes the DNA of the brand and of the series. The partnership goes further: during the series’ second season launch, the car brand was present on the red carpet alongside the actors. A presence that can be felt as intrusive since the brand can’t justify its role in the narration. It’s not product placement as much as sponsorship. For the music video filmed with Glee for the Superbowl 2011, the brand integrates the shoot of the commercial into the story of the series.
Glee: transmedia or not?
At first glance, the elements of Glee’s multi-platform system seem to be simple derived products: none of them really enriches the evolution of the series’ narrative. But by pushing the reflection further, this system holds some of the characteristics that we could assimilate to transmedia mechanics, like the circulation of audiences or the implementation of a participation culture.
Transmedia purists will never accept these derived products as extensions of a transmedia universe without their narrative value but Simon Pullman andAnne Laroque qualify Glee as such for its creative use of musical storytelling.
Pieces of the story told through songs go beyond the TV screen and take on meaning. They are listened to, covered, reinterpreted by hundreds of fans, until they become a sort of unifying element for this community of Gleeks.
Although I have no doubt that music can carry feelings and become an integral part of a story, I find it difficult to accept that that these extensions, which are devoid of narrative value, such as the redistribution of a music video on several platforms, can truly be enriching factors of a narrative universe, allowing for a transmedia qualification. What about you? How do you see Glee’s multi-platform system? You can give your opinion here or in the comments on