I haven’t watched Glee in a few years now. It wasn’t a decisive break; I just stopped having a DVR and lost interest in a lot of TV shows as a result. But as someone who self-identified as a geek in high school, I generally appreciated the idea of a show about socially marginalized nerds who find success. In the season or so that I watched, I appreciated the theme of underdogs banding together and working hard for a goal. And yes, I enjoyed a lot of the music too (but not all of it).
Glee recently returned to my attention, however, due to this news story. Jonathan Coulton (whom I had never heard of) is a musician who does a very distinct cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back.” Glee licensed the esteemed Sir’s song for an episode, but the show used Coulton’s arrangement. The people behind the show did not contact Coulton about this, nor did they make any reference to him in the credits of the episode or on the iTunes or Amazon sites where the song is available for download. As best I can tell, these facts are not in dispute by anyone involved.
Nor is there much of a legal dispute. Glee’s producers have a license for Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song, as does Coulton. However, because he did a cover, he cannot copyright the arrangement. So, legally speaking, Fox has done no wrong.
Still, it’s disheartening to see a show that celebrates the underdog (or at least used to; remember, I’m at least two seasons behind) has become a juggernaut that disregards the underdog.
This insight spurred me to theological reflection precisely because of how I understand the vocation of the Christian. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus said
- ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
When we read further in the Gospels, we often see that neighbor understood as the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the vulnerable. It’s probably a bit crass to describe these neighbors as underdogs, given the gravity of what so many of them contend with. But they are most especially the ones we are called to live, to be in solidarity with, and to work for in this life.
But sometimes the structures of our community work against that. We see this most traumatically in the sex abuse scandal in the way sex abuse in the Catholic Church was covered up. Preservation of institutions and of the Church’s “good name” took precedence over protection of the vulnerable. Maintaining the juggernaut superceded following the vocation. Structures exist to hold something up; institutions persevere to preserve something valuable. When these structures and institutions lose sight of that mission, that calling, that charism, they become more like shackles than scaffolds.
As my colleague Jessica Coblentz recently asked, “If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?” It’s a haunting and necessary question. Oddly enough, it’s a question I was asked when I was entering the Catholic Church my senior year of college. I began RCIA in 2002, not too long after the scandal broke in the Boston Globe. My RCIA group did the Rite of Acceptance that fall, and the priest preaching the homily asked us “Why do you want to enter the Church NOW,” noting the ongoing scandal. And he wasn’t asking rhetorically; some of us gave answers about vocation, community, and so forth. Nonetheless, I knew when joining up what I was getting into, the structures I was hoping to become a part of.
What do I take from all this? No, I don’t think Glee ripping off a guy’s arrangement of “Baby Got Back” is morally on par with covering up sexual abuse. Sure, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Lk 16:10), but these are still orders of magnitude apart. Nonetheless, There is something seriously wrong whenever we let maintaining a structure for its own sake trump living out the vocation that structure exists to serve. And while Glee’s true mission, given that is a corporate media product, is the bottom line, it’s terribly disappointing to see it sell out on a message it was fairly successfully promoting. In matters great and small, we might all benefit from rethinking how the structures and routines we’ve made in our lives might detract from our vocations.