Pretty Boy

A rapturous Chris Colfergasm. I’m just so obsessed with him. I understand that Glee isn’t for everybody, and it’s slowly moldering into a bloated pop graveyard, but he will always be a transcendent icon to me. He’s authentic, charming, and endlessly watchable. Here’s my fave recent performance to prepare you:

I guess I would have to say…puppies. Rainbows. Clear skies after a rainstorm. Daisies and diamonds.

So what do you see when Chris Colfer sings?

Chances are, your visions are similarly saccharine and you want them to last forever. It’s possible I’m just projecting (Colfer fans are fast gaining a reputation as rabid proselytizers), but it’s tough for me to believe that anyone could reject the sweet bliss that is Colfer’s signature sound. His unusual clarion voice first catapulted him from forgotten side character to featured performer on FOX’s hit program, Glee; however, it was his portrayal of openly gay high-schooler Kurt Hummel that quickly stole the hearts of countless young gay boys and brassy hags. Colfer is a sensitive and powerful actor, and the role quickly eclipsed the phenomenon of his rare voice. The Glee blogosphere is consistently abuzz with discussion of Colfer’s challenging part and comic timing (his nasty zingers burn holes right through your TV set). But no one’s really interested anymore in his vocals.

Well, I’m still hung up, damn it! I’m thoroughly convinced that the rise of C-Colfs is a highly significant development in pop music – nevermind the cultural importance of a unique gay character on a TV show geared towards multiple generations. For me, Colfer’s core appeal lies in his flawless, strangely classic delivery of a wide array of retooled pop and stage classics. His personal Glee catalogue ranges from Mellencamp to Midler, and the connecting thread is often his astonishing range; Colfer is technically classified as a countertenor, but his character identifies as a male soprano. In fact, the central question of Kurt’s first performance in the show (Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” in the Season 1 episode “Wheels”) is whether he can hit the high F in the song’s climax. When his father asks why his ability is in question by his teacher and classmates, Kurt says, “The song is traditionally sung by a girl.” Flabbergasted, his father responds, “But you sing like a girl. You know, in a good way. Isn’t there more crossover nowadays?”

The notion of crossover has indeed been attached to Kurt, and by extension Colfer, since he came into prominence as a result of the show. The character most often handles the material of timeless female singers: Judy Garland, Madonna, Dionne Warwick. After Colfer’s penchant for falsetto was established, Glee began to explore the possibilities of his voice. In a cover of “Le Jazz Hot” from the film Victor/Victoria, Colfer channels Julie Andrews with a sweet, chirping vibrato and then drops down to a low register, seductively rumbling a la Nina Simone. Sure, the hateful specter of AutoTune lurks in the background of any given Glee number, but Colfer has briefly performed live at a few points in the show as well as in interviews and live performances. Singing like a girl – in fact, singing like a bunch of different girls – comes quite naturally to this young man with the impish smile and eyes like a newborn baby.

So back to my contention that Chris Colfer is riding the wave of change in pop. Despite his starring on a television show, he is also part of a growing constituency of singers comfortable with traversing and even denying gender. Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, and others have begun to dot the popular music landscape with sounds that defy labels and performance sensibilities that challenge normativity. What subject matter can a female sing about? Is there a manly kind of sound? Which concerts are pretty much reserved for young girls?

These questions are now being routinely ripped apart and declared moot by this new wave of thought-provoking, rebellious musicians. Part of the conceit of such performers is to invade the machine of cultural production and poke at it, ridicule it, forcibly morph it. It might seem a stretch to lump in the doe-like Colfer with this musical guerrilla army, but he has begun to accomplish the same ends even within the sanitized, derivative universe of Glee.

The show purports to celebrate diversity and self-expression. Fie on you if you fail to recognize Colfer’s role in shifting the focus from the former to the latter, as he consistently proved how inefficient the “gay kid with the high voice” storyline really was. Kurt originally evoked an old-timey representation of the silly dandy, the probably-homosexual jester who secretly yearns for simple, straight womanhood. However, it became apparent somewhere around the end of season 1 that Colfer was outperforming his inner woman. His seductive low tones in Madonna’s “4 Minutes” were accompanied by his surprisingly masculine presence in a cheerleading uniform during the number – it was at this exact point that Colfer fans began to change their tune. A particularly zealous Youtube user remarked, “It’s sad he won’t be wearing cute outfits to school anymore…but now he gets to wear that uniform that fits him in all the right places. HOT!” With each successive number, Colfer continued to channel mostly female musical icons; but by combining his non-gendered range with a newly confident, sexually secure aura, he has managed to get a much wider range of fans on board. A little something for everyone, a stereotype of no one.

Colfer’s musical gift is dimensionality. He routinely crosses boundaries and surprises the audience, even from his place in a show which infamously boxes in characters for comedic effect. His catalogue may represent him as some kind of drag ventriloquist, delivering the right voice in the wrong package. However, to watch him perform – to see his songs paired with his wholly new and groundbreaking role – is to watch the slow erosion of those distinctions. Sexuality and musical delivery have become mutually exclusive in Chris Colfer’s small domain: a shining beacon in this pop revolution. Let’s hope he keeps fighting the good fight. Preferably while wearing that cheerleading uniform.

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