Every Wednesday, our resident Gleek Eric Garneau gives his take on last night’s Glee covers.
In “Extraordinary Merry Christmas,” Artie (Kevin McHale) is offered the chance to direct McKinley’s glee club in a televised Christmas special. Little do the other club members know he takes his Christmas inspiration from some bizarre sources.
“Extraordinary Merry Christmas” is not the first Christmas special to air on television this year. It’s not even the first Glee Christmas special to air, thanks to the irreverent, genius and criminally unpopular NBC sitcom Community, which last Thursday dedicated its entire Christmas episode (entitled “Regional Holiday Music”) to spoofing the Fox musical juggernaut. The staff behind Community probably couldn’t have predicted that they’d get payback for spending a half hour in Glee‘s shoes; this week, Glee decided to live in Community‘s world with an episode you’d expect to see on that show or, really, anywhere but Glee. The Christmas special Artie ends up producing is a (directly referred-to) mash-up of the much-maligned 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, Judy Garland’s classic 1963 Christmas special, and at the end some Charlie Brown Christmas for good measure. The result basically ends up a cover of a TV show. Though Glee certainly likes to allude to existing pop culture, even going so far as to recreate certain music videos shot-for-shot, it has never lived in another universe for two acts before. That’s Community territory, but Glee pulls it off marvelously.
Will most Glee viewers even get the Star Wars jokes? I’d honestly be surprised if anyone reading this but me laughed out loud when Artie started talking about the Christmas elf “Itchy,” aka this guy:
(this is Itchy, Chewbacca’s dad)
It’s kind of hard to believe this episode exists; Glee‘s often (rightfully) considered populist entertainment, but so much of this particular episode felt like a giant in-joke. I mean, of course there’s the usual assortment of songs (which I felt were better than average, as you’ll see below), but even some of those were done more as genre homage than actual performance. I applaud Glee for producing such an episode, though, and I think the format of their show (based completely on aping other culture, albeit typically music) lends itself very well to such experimentation. I really hope other people end up liking this one too so we can get more like it.
Now, the tunes!
All I Want for Christmas is You (Mariah Carey cover)
The episode opens with this Mariah Carey cover, a song that certainly ranks high on the list of music I quickly grow tired of every December. Lead singer Mercedes (Amber Riley), though, invests a lot of soul into the tune, eliciting a powerful delivery and creating something that I think sounds better than Mariah’s original. It gets the episode off to a bouncy yet heartfelt start.
BONUS: It almost seems unbelievable, but John Mayer has performed this song live and it sounds pretty awesome.
Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley cover)
Hey, Rory (Damian McGinty) gets to sing one again! Unfortunately, what results is a little schmaltzy. I know smooth lounge singer is his shtick, but I think applying it to “Blue Christmas” takes it a step too far; this cover’s missing pretty much all of the original’s soul. Its instrumentation doesn’t help; the backing vocals here are awful. Also, it seems odd that Rory would try to cheer himself up at Christmas by singing a song about how he’s sad and lonely. But maybe that’s all musicians ever do.
BONUS: No doubt a lot of people will name She & Him’s holiday record as one of their favorite seasonal offerings from this year, so it seems right to represent one of their tracks here. Zooey does a pretty solid job on this song.
River (Joni Mitchell cover)
This 1971 Joni Mitchell track provides one of the only non-traditional Christmas songs covered by Glee. Rachel (Lea Michele) takes the lead here, which lets her show off some impressive vocal runs. A nice performance.
BONUS: Of the many artists to cover this song, none stand out quite so much as Herbie Hancock, who recorded the song with Corinne Bailey Rae for his Joni Mitchell tribute record.
Let It Snow (traditional cover)
With “Let It Snow,” the show’s stylistic tribute to Judy Garland kicks in. As with “Baby It’s Cold Outside” last year, we get another nice duet from Blaine (Darren Criss) and Kurt (Chris Colfer), this one with a jazzy feel – it even has a couple scatted verses! I liked it; it sounds suitably classy to match the visual component of the scene, and Darren Criss leads are always welcome.
BONUS: Man, what to choose? Frank Sinatra is kind of the prince of Christmas music, so let’s go with him.
My Favorite Things (from The Sound of Music)
This Sound of Music holiday classic benefits from four-part harmonies courtesy of Criss, Colfer, Michele and Riley. This episode really felt like a showcase for Amber Riley to me; she gets three fantastic lead turns throughout. Even the direction of this scene owes a debt to retro television; look how it’s all done in medium/long shots and with very few cuts. This legitimately feels like a Christmas special from the ’60s… until the guy with the lightsaber shows up.
BONUS: Hey, Shenanigans! Lea Michele has sung this song before… in a Dove commercial. That’s not cool.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (traditional/Bruce Springsteen cover)
Yeah, the Boss doesn’t own this song, but Glee‘s clearly paying tribute to him here; everything from Bruce’s noted 1985 live single is replicated here down to Max Weinberg’s drum fills. Finn (Cory Monteith) and Puck (Mark Salling) take the lead, and both guys are suited to rock vocals like this one. Amusingly, they’re dressed like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, respectively, which creates a truly bizarre and awesome image. In place of the deceased Clarence Clemons’ famed sax solo, Blaine lays down some harmonica, which sounds pretty cool. I’m probably just dreaming, but I’d like to think that’s Glee‘s way of saying that no one can replace the Big Man.
BONUS: By default Bruce will always have the best version of anything, but no one quite understands how creepy this song really is like hair metal band Dokken.
Christmas Wrapping (The Waitresses cover)
Wow, Glee’s done two Waitresses covers…that seems improbable. Also improbable, Brittany (Heather Morris) gets to sing lead on this one, and she does a really great job of replicating vocalist Patty Donahue’s unmistakable delivery.
BONUS: If you want a version of this song that’s a little more edgy, check out the Donnas‘ punk cover from… shudder… Shrek the Halls.
Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Band Aid cover)
Alright, clearly this song is pretty terrible, but let’s try to keep a straight face while we talk about what Glee does with it. The fact that the show has a massive ensemble of talented singers suggest it would be a good fit, and mostly that’s true, though for some reason the key’s bumped up a half-step or two, making it harder for guys with limited ranges to hit the notes they need… that’s a weird choice. That said, Amber Riley, Darren Criss, Mark Salling and Naya Rivera do an exceptional job with their parts. This scene’s meant to elicit sympathy from us, but maybe it worked a little on me. At least it’s nice knowing that if you purchase Glee‘s recording of this song off iTunes, proceeds go to the Band Aid Trust to help feed the hungry in Africa and throughout the world.
BONUS: Scott Aukerman’s mega-popular Comedy Death-Ray podcast (now Comedy Bang-Bang) assembled a ton of indie comedians for a not-quite-straight-but-still-charitable take on this tune. Watch the video for appearances from Weird Al Yankovic, Aimee Mann, Garfunkel & Oates, Patton Oswalt and more!
Glee’s on winter break! Check back next year for more Glee covers!