I watched the first episode of Glee the very night it aired, immediately following the season finale of American Idol. (This was back in the day when I watched American Idol—and back in the day when I watched Glee, for that matter.) I was instantly hooked. I still count that first performance of “Don’t Stop Believing” as one of television’s most iconic moments; despite the inherent cheesiness of the stars’ matching outfits, and the fact the producers didn’t even try to mask the lip-synching, and the anti-climactic notion of singing to a stubbornly empty auditorium, the actors really just looked like they were having so. much. fun. It also provided our first glimpse at the unlikely, but undeniably thrilling, vocal chemistry between Lea Michele and Cory Monteith, one that would come to define many of Glee’s most popular numbers.
In a way, Glee was the Harry Potter of musicals; it’s been said that J.K. Rowling’s popular series revived kids’ interest in reading, and I’d argue that Glee functioned in much the same way with regards to musicals. In a brilliant stroke of marketing, FOX slotted in the series premiere of Glee right after the American Idol finale—and then forced us newfound Gleeks to wait two whole months for the rest of the season to pick up. Turns out I wasn’t the only lazy bum who stayed on my couch after AI that night; I remember discussing my excitement over this refreshing, peppy new TV series with a variety of my peers in school the next day.
Glee was beloved for destroying Breakfast Club stereotypes at the outset. You can be a football star and lead singer in the Glee Club. You can have Down syndrome and be on the cheerleading squad. You can be gay, or bisexual, or dumb, or have a big nose, and you can be you. And once the show gained traction, the writers took full advantage of the spotlight to explore very prevalent, very relevant teen issues. The first was homophobia. Chris Colfer became an instant idol to closeted—and out—teens everywhere, and the students of the Glee club became role models of acceptance. The next was teen pregnancy. Another was the very specific, but very, very prevalent issue of texting while driving. The delivery of the message was unartistically blunt, but I was okay with that, because I believe that it’s too important of an issue to risk it being lost in translation. I hope these messages were received loud and clear by Glee’s many devoted fans—fans who tuned (ahem) in week after week all in order to cheer on a couple of kids who liked to sing and dance.
A wise wizard once said that music is a magic beyond all that is learned at any esteemed school of witchcraft and wizardry. Indeed, there is something magical about music that causes it to dramatize a moment, and that’s where Glee really took off. Sure, the show got kooky at times, but the music was always soaring. After a time, I realized that I didn’t have to suffer through ridiculous plotlines to get my fix of Glee club performances, and instead could just binge-watch the musical numbers on YouTube later on. But it wasn’t just the complex harmonies that hooked me—it was the unbridled enthusiasm exhibited by the cast as they performed these complex harmonies and astounding choreography moves. And Cory Monteith, with his baby-faced smile, lumbering dance moves, and airy voice, was an integral part of all that.
It’s hard to know what to do or how to react when a celebrity dies. I can’t—and shouldn’t—even begin to imagine how Cory’s friends and family must feel, so I won’t attempt to address that. You feel sad, because a person you know existed now doesn’t, but you feel guilty for even feeling sad because you didn’t know him or her personally. And what you will miss of that person is not even that person, but a veneer, a public image, a character in a television series.
You also feel terrible spewing banalities like, “Such a talent was taken too soon,” because it shouldn’t matter how much talent a person had. And, truth be told, Cory was far from the most talented singer or dancer or even actor on the show. But that boy sure had a beautiful smile.
He had one of those smiles that makes it impossible not to smile back, and this smile was also on display when he was just Cory, not Finn Hudson, in interviews, articles, Twitter. To be honest, I had no idea about his history of substance abuse, so it’s clear—as with any human being on the planet—that his life was not all rainbows and unicorns. But even out of character, he seemed like a guy you’d want to be friends with, like a big teddy bear who could make you laugh and, oh yeah, serenade the hell out of you. His everyman persona was aided by the fact that he was a huge hockey fan—not only does he sing and dance and act but he also yells at referees and fumes after losses and jumps up in euphoria after goals. It felt like he was one of us.
On screen, Cory epitomized in the most literal way what Glee was all about. His was one of the most prominently heartfelt, joyful faces at the end of each episode, when the members of the club would sing and dance their hearts out to any number of popular or obscure songs, and Mr. Schuester would look on, beaming. Separate from the heavy stuff, Glee’s lighthearted jingles always made me unabashedly happy; the enthusiasm of the actors was contagious. Within that, Finn and Rachel—that is, Cory Monteith and Lea Michele—have always been at the heart of the show. Cory’s death is tragic, and in its own way, Finn Hudson’s disappearance is as well. Glee has never shied away from teaching difficult lessons, and telling the difficult truths. As I mentioned before, the show has always embraced its responsibility to educate its viewers. Here’s hoping the showrunners will find a way to honor both Cory’s memory and the heartwarming character he left behind. But here’s also hoping that, amidst tragedy, Glee will help us, through music, find that often-elusive, precious joy in life– like it has always done for me.
If you haven’t already sniffled through every Glee video on YouTube, check out a sampling of Cory Monteith’s greatest hits to get a feel for his performances. You might want to have your tissues at the ready.
More Journey. You can never have too much Journey…
…Or too many epic Cory Monteith-Lea Michele duets…
…Or too many boy band covers. Definitely not too much of this. Ever.
And Cory rockin’ out on the drums is always pretty awesome, too.