Pop culture icon-wannabes know they’ve truly made it when they guest on The Simpsons, and many of the best Simpsons episodes revolve around musicians and singers. Over the years almost every music genre has been well represented by a Who’s Who from international entertainment: Sting, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Tony Bennett, Barry White, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bette Midler. Johnny Cash, U2, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Britney Spears, Kid Rock, The Who, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Green Day, Dixie Chicks, Plácido Domingo, Ludacris, and 50 Cent, among others. In this episode, broadcast Sunday, 26 September, Flight of the Conchords and Glee provide the soundtrack to Lisa’s life.
The Simpsons has become more than entertainment; it confers elite pop culture status to those included in the series’ documentation of the important people, trends, and touchstones of our times. In years to come, cultural anthropologists could learn much about turn-of-the-21st-century America from the evolving litany of Simpson cultural references and themes. While quintessentially American, The Simpsons reflects a globalism well beyond the grasp of its Springfield-centric characters (with, of course, the exception of exceptional Lisa).
For the 22nd season opener, Matt Groening and collaborators chose to immortalize recent pop culture TV phenomenon Glee, another Fox success story that garnered 19 Emmy nominations after its first season. Glee is doing its best to provide a diversity-friendly TV zone that glorifies music (not just musicals) and the right for everyone’s voice to be heard. By skewering this optimistic celebration of artists and arts education, The Simpsons reflects the current lack of support for many arts education programs and current and future artists. It offers a flip side to Glee’s empowerment by showing what happens when artists are discouraged rather than nurtured.
“Elementary School Musical”, an obvious reference to the “High School Musical” series of Disney tween films, features Glee cast members Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, and Amber Riley. Just like the characters these actors play on their own Fox show, the animated characters sing and dance through life, this time at a performing arts camp. There they encourage Lisa to follow her musical muse toward a new life. Lisa quickly soaks up the opening number’s “Good Vibrations”, which conveniently revises the lyrics to promote arts education.
The more influential musicians in this episode, however, are Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. For such a Glee-hyped episode, the cast members have surprisingly little to do. Conchords-as-camp-counselors more effectively convince Lisa that an artist’s life is devoted to embracing creativity and personal expression. By week’s end, Lisa contentedly sighs, “I finally found the place where I belong.” Marge immediately pops into the picture. “Your week’s up! Time to go home.” With this line, The Simpsons neatly bursts Glee’s bubbly premise that the arts are the lifeblood of society, and freedom to be oneself is a guaranteed human right. Real life quickly intrudes on Lisa’s illusion of what it means to be an artist.
Dissatisfied with her life outside of arts camp, Lisa runs away to the Big City (Sprooklyn) in order to pursue her musical dream and gain acceptance from the culturally-diverse world beyond Springfield. The Big City is more like the Big Bad, however, and Lisa learns that having the courage to be herself—more practically, to survive as an artist—requires a lot more than a well-choreographed musical number. It also requires perseverance and sacrifice. A shocked Lisa discovers that her former camp counselors are starving artists surviving on the sandwiches they drop at the sub shop where they work. The singers admit the dark reality that “Artists are the least important people in the world.” They implore Lisa to “Remember us for our exaggerations, not our reality.” Nevertheless, the duo makes sure she sees a giant poster celebrating future-famous musician Lisa Simpson as she happily returns to her safe, if culturally stunted home.
Lisa’s rude awakening to the discrepancies between “art” and “real life” is juxtaposed against the episode’s other story line, which illustrates the often unfair relationship between talent and fame. The episode also promotes Krusty to Nobel Peace Prize winner, a ruse that gets him to Europe and lands him in the World Court. When Bart searches YouTube for evidence that Krusty has provided a positive cultural contribution, he only finds plenty of video to convict the clown of being everything but a good influence. Krusty gains fame, as well as notoriety, while cynically making a very good living off his questionable talent. The dedicated and truly talented artists, whether impressionable, starstruck campers or impoverished singers, exist on the fringes.
The Simpsons presents a depressingly real state of arts in the US while still permitting Lisa the hope that someday, in a far-off future, she might grow up to realize her dream. It won’t be given to her, however, and if she isn’t going to become as disillusioned as her past-prime band director, she will have to show more fortitude than she did on her first trip to Sprooklyn.
The choice of Glee cast members as this season’s first guests is interesting, especially given their much-advertised but limited role. The episode nonetheless provides a way for Fox to cross-publicize its newer hit while keeping The Simpsons relevant to a target audience younger than its original fans. Both Lisa and the glee clubbers aren’t the most popular kids in school, but these outsiders are the protagonists.
Glee often softens the angst of teenagers’ (and sometimes adults’) identity crises and encourages social acceptance of everyone, no matter one’s religion, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation. Sprooklyn squelches individualism and Otherness. Nevertheless, The Simpsons manages to sneak in a social message of its own—Glee’s promotion of diversity and the arts is valid, even if it seems overly optimistic; being artistic should be cause for celebration, not derision or worse. Lisa’s experience warns viewers not to Gleefully confuse the often-happy message of a popular TV series with real-world difficulties in achieving the dream of becoming a professional artist, much less gaining social equality and acceptance.
Through Fox’s connection of two of its strongest shows, it emphasizes a pro-arts message from two very different perspectives. The Simpsons may have poked fun at Glee, but it nonetheless suggests that Lisa’s dream, although difficult to achieve, may still come true. The Glee cast’s omnipresence at the Tony and Emmy awards indicates the series’ current popularity and viewers’ willingness to cheer for its talented underdogs, but it takes The Simpsons to give Glee the pop culture stamp of approval while challenging the status quo.