Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of Glee. A ‘Gleek’, if you will. And while my friends may make fun of me each December as we compare Spotify Wrapped profiles, Glee is a show that I stand by, as it has stood by me for (what I would call) very valid reasons. Often in the most absurd manner imaginable, the show has not only harnessed both heart-warming and heart-breaking storylines, but across its six seasons it also has released bop after bop. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the show, Glee follows an Ohio high school teacher (Mr Schuester, played by Matthew Morrison) and his students as they discover themselves, their dreams, and life-long friendships in the confines of their choir room (the titular Glee Club). Sounds like a pretty standard coming-of-age plot, right? 

But after the pilot premiere in 2009, Glee became a pop cultural phenomenon and has remained relevant in the media for the last fourteen years. One explanation for this show’s persistent popularity may be its controversial cast, or the tragedy of the ‘Glee Curse’, but from its outset, Glee was never meant to be a show that played it safe. Although few would bat an eyelid now, to have an openly gay teen (Kurt Hummel) explore his sexuality on network television was a big deal in 2009. The first season alone explores several heavy themes, including teenage pregnancy and marital breakdown, all while maintaining a comedic beat. Throughout the following five seasons, the show covers a huge variety of issues – chances are that if you’ve been through something, so have the characters of Glee, an ever-present reminder that you’re never alone. 

However, the real star of Glee is surely the music. Before the immense popularity of streaming services, this show was essentially performing the duty of Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’ or Apple Music’s ‘Discovery Station’: exposing songs to a new generation. From golden oldies to contemporary classics, hip-hop hits to Broadway bangers, this show did it all. And it shows. In 2011, the Glee cast surpassed both the Beatles and Elvis to break the record for the most entries on the Billboard top 100, a record they then kept for nine years before being broken by Drake in 2020. The popularity of the music led to what has since been referred to as the ‘Glee Effect’ – ​​ a huge spike in the number of teenagers getting involved in musical activities, something that I think can only be a good thing. 

However, the songs on Glee aren’t that special. Don’t get me wrong, they’re often great covers, and while star Lea Michelle may be rumoured to be an incredibly difficult co-worker who can’t read, she definitely can sing. But the Glee covers are exactly that: covers. They often don’t differ from the original song greatly, posing the question of why someone would choose to listen to the Glee cover rather than the original: is it the familiarity of the voices of the cast, or the visuals that accompany each song? If we have a look at some of the most streamed Glee covers on Spotify, the answer, I think, becomes obvious.

Each character in Glee is reflected in a musical realm. The only constant of Rachel’s character arc is her dramatic ambition which is perfectly translated into (a personal favourite) “Don’t Rain on my Parade”; Santana’s soulful yet fiery personality is encapsulated in her most streamed song ‘’Valerie”. Each of the songs that feature on the show seem to have something to say about the characters, their narratives and their relationships with each other. 

To begin with, the classic only seems natural. “Don’t Stop Believin’” made its first appearance in the pilot episode and crops up time and time again throughout the show’s following seasons. Without any elaborate sets or choreography, this is the song that sets the tone for the entire show. It’s at this moment that both the students and their teacher realise for the first time that they’re a part of something special.

“Somewhere Only We Know” (performed by Blaine and the Warblers) hits hard not only as an already emotional and iconic song, but also because it comes at a time when Kurt and Blaine are forced apart by Kurt moving school. Suddenly their new and exciting love has been threatened and this song is a desperate plea that they should hang on to each other. 

Their cover of “Smooth Criminal” deviates from Michael Jackson’s energetic pop song, becoming an anthem of intolerance for violence and defence of friendship, as two members of rival show choirs battle their voices to the intense accompaniment of 2CELLOS after an attack on one of the teammates. 

This isn’t to say that the Glee cast had no flops – I for one could have gone without a puppet rendition of “What Does the Fox Say”, or their problematic cover of “Gangnam Style” – but with each of the more notable songs, it’s not about the production or the costumes or really the music. They stand out because they mean something – to the characters, to the audience, and to the narrative. These covers are not so much about the voices of the cast, but the bonds created between the audience and the characters.

Over the six seasons, Glee is an emotional rollercoaster. It’s the only show I can think of that can hit you with an incredibly emotional plot point, immediately followed by a ludicrous comedic scene, all rounded up with a poppy 2010s cover. Mic the Snare states in his Glee video essay that “at its core, Glee is a show about sad people looking for something greater”. That is what this show boils down to and that is what the music reflects, not only through its characters, but in the way that it has inspired the same behaviour from its audiences. 

Ultimately, this is a show about singing teenagers, some of whom (looking at you, Sugar) can’t even sing. It’s their relationships, however strange they may be, that make the show worthwhile and keep the tunes so good. If this has piqued your interest, you can watch all six seasons of Glee on Disney+, or stream the covers anywhere you get your music!