Germ-free adolescents

On "Don't Stop Believin'" by the cast of Glee.

It begins with a display of America's finest synthesised larynxes. A female voice, duplicated to infinity, hums the upper melody while male baritones pick out the bassline. Entering this throaty hall of mirrors, a young man and woman sing sketches of lovelorn couples. A chugging guitar kicks in, driving the song towards the chorus, which, when it comes, is an explosion of voices, delivered with regimented precision. The effect is less an invitation to have fun than an order, backed by the threat of death by dia­phragm if you refuse.

The song is a cover of Journey's 1981 power ballad "Don't Stop Believin'" and the performers are the cast of Glee, the latest US television teen drama to hit these shores. Like its forebears, Glee details the angst-filled lives of young adults, in this case the members of a high-school music group (a "glee club", in the parlance). The characters' lives may be fraught, but the moment they begin to sing, a strange transformation takes place: despite the humdrum settings - an empty hall, cheerleading practice on the football field - the sound is that of a slick, expensively produced pop act. Their vocals are kept in tune by digital trickery; lush backing tracks, featuring thumping electronic beats and multilayered instrumental parts, seemingly emanate from a handful of amateurs.

In the TV programme, these musical numbers mark the emotional high (and low) points of the plot - so why, at these crucial moments, do we flip from the natural ambience of the actors' voices to this sanitised treatment? Yes, it helps the sales of the chart-topping soundtrack album (from which "Don't Stop Believin'" is the lead single), but it is also a way of glossing over the dirty, messy reality of teenage life.

Dirt, according to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, "offends against order" - and indeed, what could be more offensive to the order of things than a teenager? A pustulating, unpredictable creature, the teenager sits ambiguously between childhood and the adult world, prone to strange bodily urges, emotional outbursts and idealism. All these are qualities ripe for exploitation by consumerism, but qualities that would jar in the grown-up work environment, so they must be neutralised.

We deal with ambiguities, writes Douglas, by denoting them as unclean or elevating them to ritual status. This is where the likes of "Don't Stop Believin'" come into play. The song replaces any suggestion of real teenagers with an impossible ideal.

During those crucial years, when our own bodies are revolting (in both senses), the three minutes of transcendence promised by a slick, machine-like pop song perform an important function. Sung by youths whose on-screen lives may be in crisis, but whose voices produce such pitch-perfect, clear tones, "Don't Stop Believin'" is pop at its most illusory. Its title hints at the degree of blind faith that is required to help us through those beastly teenage years.

But beware! We are encouraged to accept the myth of flawless youth for far longer than is healthy. Take the exhortation to carry on believin' too literally and you may end up like Michael Jackson, aka The Boy Who Never Grew Up. His own plight is best summed up by this passage from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar", a horrid tale of a man who is kept alive by occult methods:

As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes,
amid ejaculations of "dead! dead!"
absolutely bursting from the tongue and
not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole
frame at once - within the space of a single
minute, or even less, shrunk - crumbled -
absolutely rotted away beneath my hands.
Upon the bed, before the whole company,
there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome -
of detestable putrescence.

Such is the grisly fate in store for a culture where youth is paramount.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on