As Empire closes its first season burning bright, it has been called Glee for grownups, the successful city cousin of Nashville; there is truth in these assessments. This map of musical taste is suggestive. Country and hip-hop are the two great indigenous musics of the US left standing, and the most disavowed: “I listen to everything but country and rap” is standard first-date chitchat, and the purest formula of class and race contempt on offer. Network television doesn’t disavow all that much. It mostly crunches numbers.
But: show choir? There is something about sexuality here, about the show’s compassionate, candy-colored queerness. This identification is inextricable from musical constraints. While the recurrence of the mash-up was one way Glee fitted songs to a chorus with mixed gender soloists, the go-to solution was tunes originally sung in high or falsetto male vocal, thus suiting all of the genders some of the time. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the alpha and the omega. Unfamiliar as it is to hear Journey this way, the show’s music was in some sense trans, secondary character Unique its truest expression; we might think of Glee as an upbeat redaction of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
These then are the coordinates, musical and social, of the small screen musical, along with its roots in the variety show. But there is another genealogy: from the moment the mp3 compression algorithm was developed, Empire was inevitable. Glee and Nashville were inevitable, just as American Idol was inevitable. Once albums could be digitized efficiently, piracy was inevitable. But so too, in the way of digital dialectics, was a vast apparatus which would both disarticulate songs from albums and sell the new singles cheap’n’easy enough to compete with the pirates. They would also avoid the snares of radio release. Instead, they would require an entire genre of shows about music-making.
This cannot be explained simply by the culture industry’s self-regard, its need to narrate its own conditions. Rather, there was no other way to preserve the music business. The singles would be embedded in shows as incomplete teasers, parts of a narrative from which they were easily detachable (note the identicality of Glee’s intensifying series of interschool competitions with Idol’s format). Most importantly, they wouldn’t be released in another format.
This created a brand new release time: the window after the show aired but before someone grabbed a recorded file of the complete song, cracked it and set it free. Into this window, the new now, enter first the 99¢ performances from Idol, and then the songs of Glee. As so often, covers precede originals. Over and over they get up for the download, climbing the new charts.
Originals would follow. Enter Nashville and Empire (we do not speak of Smash). The former has not quite found its way to the titanium majesty of New Nashville haunting its dreams; the latter is advantaged, surely at great cost, by its music producer. One of the two greatest producers of our era, Timabaland has always moved sinuously from R&B to hip-hop, drawing them into a syncopated and hypnotic vortex of futuristic newer-than-new jack swing. With his collaborators, he provides Empire with more than the telenovela-noir could ask for.