New year, new semester and fresh episodes of Glee are on the air.
Read the last Popdose on the new graphic novel 'One Model Nation.'
And if the TV show is no longer the headline-grabbing pop juggernaut that it was in its earlier seasons, we have yet to see the extent of its true, long-term cultural impact—as the gateway, for a generation of high-schoolers, into the odd and wondrous world of show choir. Because the coming of the new semester also means that, all over America, real-life high school show choirs are getting ready for competition season.
Most of the kids taking their first tentative stumbles through song-and-dance routines set to “Carry On Wayward Son” (or “Paparazzi,” or “Only Girl in the World”) are unaware that they are carrying on a tradition that long predates Fox, Up with People, or the Fifth Dimension—a uniquely American art form with its own aesthetic, its own creation myth, its own subculture of rivalries, tribes and factions. Mike Weaver and Colleen Hart blow the lid off this shadowy demimonde—for so long hidden in plain sight!—in their lavish text Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands: The Official History of Show Choir from Vaudeville to Glee.
I’m not sure what makes it official, exactly, but the authors have certainly made an effort to be comprehensive. Family tree-style diagrams of influential show choir directors and their protegés chart the development of different regional performance styles, which are analyzed with the passion and detail one usually sees applied to East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalries.
Weaver and Hart trace the seemingly spontaneous emergence in the 1940s and ’50s of what was then called “swing choir” to the heyday of Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. Largely forgotten today, Waring’s group was massively popular on stage and radio—even into the early days of television—and pioneered many of the art form’s conventions of technique, presentation and repertoire. Likewise, the authors break down the minutiae of competition structure and scoring, in swift and breezy prose.
Sometimes, the authors’ drive to be definitive leads them down some winding avenues. The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan used to say that “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Weaver and Hart don’t go quite that far, but their recipe for pie does contain a detailed exegesis of modern apple breeds, a narrative of the spice trade from the days of Marco Polo, and a treatise on the rearing, butchery and rendering of hogs for lard (for that flaky crust, you know).
Some of these sides are quite charming, as with the potted history of American popular entertainment from P.T. Barnum to the glory days of vaudeville, with sidebars on Tin Pan Alley and the vanished world of the song-plugger. Others run further afield; a primer on pacing a competition set morphs into a multipage digression on the mathematics of the Fibonacci series and the Golden Ratio, complete with illustrations drawn from Renaissance painting.
Some of the more strained pop-culture references raise a smirk. Talking about popular entertainment during Prohibition, the authors note that “Much like rave parties in the late 1980s, speakeasies could pop up, shut down, or shift locations on a whim.” That’s right, kids, speakeasies were just like raves, except for the booze that might send you blind.
Then there’s this gem, which explains in layman’s terms the concept of the zeitgeist, the idea whose time has come: “Consider Justin Bieber, the musical phenom discovered on YouTube…Average tweens may not overtly think of him when they sit down to get a haircut or pick out their outfit for the day, but suddenly classrooms around the United States started to have a similar, fashionable look to them,” a look characterized by “long, shaggy-but-styled haircuts...tight jeans and bomber-style jackets.”
At least I think they’re talking about the zeitgeist there. I got distracted thinking about Justin Bieber and his funny, tight pants.
Still, when one considers the world of show choir, one must be prepared to forgive the occasional strained stab at hipness, the showing off, the occasional lapses into outright silliness. Not only does it all come with the territory, but it stems (mostly) from overenthusiasm, and that’s no bad thing. Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands is aimed squarely at teenagers, current and former, and its tone—overachieving, nerdy, as breathless and eager-to-please as a sophomore on her first day at band camp—is both appropriate and endearing.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.