Glee: Carmen Tibideaux, Kurt Hummel, and the language of props

I already mentioned Carmen Tibideaux’s office decorations in my first reactions post for 4×09 on Tumblr, but I want to take an a closer look at it as I talk about the language of props in this episode, as they relate to Kurt Hummel’s performances and what Carmen sees in them (or not).

The first time we see parts of her office is during Kurt’s (partly voice-over) narration about the “golden ticket” process while the aria “Ebben! Ne Andro Lontana from the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani plays on Kurt’s record player. Kurt says,

Winter Showcase is like the NYADA Met Ball. Ten students to perform in the Showcase a year, the cream of the cream. She hand-writes and hand-delivers each invitation. Just getting invited is an honor. Former winners have gone on to win Emmys, Tonys, Golden Globes and even an Oscar. They all agree: the proudest and greatest moment of their careers was when Carmen handed them that golden envelope.

In other words, this is about being chosen as someone incredibly special. At the same time, it means the judgment isn’t over, yet, because the Winter Showcase is not only a celebration where ten faculty-chosen students “who exemplify the best of what we are trying to achieve [at NYADA]” (as Carmen Tibideaux explains) perform for an audience of the entire NYADA faculty and several “theatrical luminaries” (as Kurt knows) but it is also a competition, and – as we learn by way of Kurt’s comparison to the social event of the fashion world – an occasion to be seen by the right people and deemed worthy by them.

The specialness is emphasized by the visual language of that scene. Here are some images that are intercut with pictures of Kurt and Rachel’s Bushwick loft apartment where they clean up the after-kiki mess in comfy (and in Kurt’s case) fashionably distraught clothes.

01-ink 02-pen
03-peacock 04-wax
05-seal 06-envelope

The ink is the color of blood, the pen is thin as a needle and attached to a peacock feather, the envelope is sealed with royal blue wax and stamped with a signet ring. In the quill and ink, the calligraphy and the wax seal, and even the personal delivery, we have symbols of authority and tradition, and also of a certain antiquity. The aria that plays in the background only underlines that theme. Clearly, Carmen Tibideaux is all about the classics.

Let’s look at these symbols a little more closely. She basically writes with blood, which signifies the blood, sweat, and tears that are the price for achieving excellence. And since she is a former NYADA student, as well as an accomplished Broadway and opera performer herself, we may assume she has paid that price herself at some point. [This theme is repeated by her purple blouse because purple signifies power derived from pain in the Glee universe.]

The needle-thin pen makes me think of accuracy and detail (even though it seems unlikely that the calligraphy we see was actually done with such a pen), emphasizing technical skill and the precision that only comes with a lot of practice. The blood-colored ink and needle-sharp pen also make me think of a different teacher in a different fictional universe: J.K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge whose blood quill was used as an instrument of severe discipline by way of engraving a certain message into the student’s hand. If we leave aside the fact that Umbridge is clearly positioned as “one of the bad guys” in the Harry Potter universe, and only look at the quill as such, it is a fascinating metaphor for the way that repetition and discipline (both in the sense of (self-)control and punishment for the lack thereof) literally change the student’s body and leave their indelible traces in places that go way beyond its surface (at NYADA this seems most obvious in dance but it’s also true for other dramatic arts, including singing).

The peacock feather is a symbol for beauty, but also vanity, which is the first hint that maybe the props tell us a story that the character doesn’t. It also indicates the eye that is watching (and judging) whoever comes before it, which is interesting because Carmen Tibideaux herself rarely even makes eye-contact with Kurt. But she watches him nonetheless, to a degree that surprises him because he expected her to not even remember his name.

I found three different meanings for blue sealing wax, all of which date back to the later 19th century: a) color denoting the rank of the user, with blue being reserved to certain religious orders (source), b) five different shades of blue expressing “all gradations of passion,” and c) blue denoting constancy (source). I believe all of those make sense here. NYADA is like a religious order in the way it is devoted to a ‘higher power’ (art) to which people feel a calling and the way it comes with its own set of habits (all those black clothes and dark, muted colors) and rituals (the classes and their discipline), not to mention the elaborate application process that tests whether a student is willing and able to follow orders (see the ‘Ave Maria girl’ who was retroactively rejected from attending the school when she hadn’t practiced as much as she had been told to). Without a intense passion for singing (and dancing), nobody would make it even into the school. And there is a requirement for a constancy in one’s dedication, because the discipline required to become really good is one of constant repetition over a long period of time. [1]

The seal as such, and the signet ring symbolize Carmen Tibideaux’s rightful authority within NYADA to make those choices, no matter how subjective and unfair they may seem. And that authority implies the power to choose these symbols, so may safely assume that her choice of them has been as deliberate as anything else we’ve seen her do so far (even if it also seems arbitrary).

And then there’s the aria that plays throughout the entire sequence, the aria Kurt chose to listen to. The lyrics that we hear can be translated into “I will go away alone and far / There, somewhere in the white snow, I shall go / I will go away alone and far.” In the opera La Wally, this aria is sung by Wally, a young woman who rebels against her father’s demand to marry a man she doesn’t love and instead moves away from her father’s estate into a small hut in the snowy Alps. [2] These lyrics play into the theme of last chances (and the implicit question of what the alternatives are when you blow your last chance) that appears all over this episode. Kurt says to Rachel that he has “one more chance of getting into NYADA” and that he “can’t blow the audition.” He says he “can’t live [his] life chasing something that the Universe is trying to tell [him he’s] not good enough to achieve.” Rachel interrupts him to sa,y “it’s not the universe, it’s just Carmen Tibideaux” which Kurt counters with, “is there a difference?” And yes, I spelled “universe” differently in their quotes for a reason. Because for Kurt, Carmen Tibideaux is the capital-U Universe, that is, a kind of ‘higher power’ (like fate) that acts as the gatekeeper between and NYADA and by extension between him and a life where he at least has a chance of becoming a Broadway performer. So if she doesn’t grant him this chance, he will go alone, and he will still go far. [3] For Rachel, however, “the universe” is every person on this planet, and Carmen Tibideaux is just one of them (if an important one). But since it seems as if Rachel has already given up hope of getting one of the “golden tickets,” Carmen has no power over her in this moment.

And then Rachel gets chosen after all, she gets her golden ticket,” even if Glee itself offers us no explanation for this that is in line with anything we have learned about Carmen Tibideaux and what she values so far (see [1]).

09-chosen

Except for the fact that Carmen is all about the classics, and that’s just what Rachel delivers when she sings (and, if we are to believe her narrative, delivers to an outstanding degree). [4] And this is precisely not what Kurt has delivered to Carmen before. He has sung, and he has sung well, so a lack of talent or skill is not the reason for her refusal. He has shown courage in his choice of a song that is not a traditional audition song (even if it was a showtune), which she has acknowledged. But he has still not shown her enough of the musical style she prefers. He hasn’t been “classic” enough for her.

Which is why, when Kurt comes into her office to inquire about the state of his application for the second semester, she tells him that after reading and reviewing it, she still thinks he is “a very talented young man who knows how to sell a number but who is devoid of complexity and depth” and says that he “gave [her] surface when [she] was looking for soul.” She goes on to explain that “we are training artists here, Mr. Hummel, performers who are not afraid to show their vulnerability, and, yes, even their heart.”

Over on Tumblr, we have discussed how Carmen Tibideaux indeed has not yet seen what we have seen over and over again in the previous three seasons of Glee, namely that Kurt Hummel does the most heart-wrenchingly emotional, deep performances of his vulnerability and complexity. He sang “Defying Gravity” after his father protested Will Schuester’s decision that Kurt couldn’t sing a ‘girl’ song (Wheels, 1×09). He sang “Rose’s Turn” after he failed to convincingly become more masculine so that his father would love him more and they’d have more “guy stuff” in common (Laryngitis, 1×18). He sang “I Want To Hold Your Hand” when his father was in a coma after a heart-attack and Kurt was afraid he would die (Grilled Cheesus, 2×03). He sang “Blackbird” at Dalton after Pavarotti, the canary he was given to take care of, had died (Original Song, 2×16). He sang “As If We Never Said Goodbye” when he returned to WMHS from the safe but stifling Dalton (Born This Way, 2×18). And he sang “I Have Nothing” when Blaine pulled away from him for fear of being left alone once Kurt began a new life in New York (Dance With Somebody, 3×17). All of these openly vulnerable songs have gained him things, have moved him forward.

Interestingly, almost all of these songs are echoed by decorative elements in Carmen Tibideaux’s office. There are hand sculptures that are almost floating in thin air (“I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Defying Gravity”), bird statues and an empty birdcage (“Blackbird”) and white roses (“Rose’s Turn”). These props subtly underline the fact that we know that Kurt can do what Carmen asks him to because we’ve already seen it multiple times, even if she hasn’t. As a matter of fact, these props could also speak to Kurt himself, if he was paying attention, because he understands the language of props and accessories very well (after all, he didn’t get into Vogue.com on the basis of a website that showed off his own carefully selected outfits for nothing!), even if Carmen’s office decorations aren’t what they are as a deliberate message to Kurt – at least not one by her. [5]

hands birds
roses+birds cage

Anyhow. During his visit, Carmen Tibideaux tells Kurt she doesn’t want to see his props, his “surface” but she wants his vulnerability and soul because she hasn’t seen them so far (or so she believes). If we take her words at face value, however, it certainly seems curious that a woman who repeatedly professes to have very little time to waste, seems to be so inordinately fond of such elaborate and time-intensive gestures as hand-calligraphing ten letters of invitation [6] and then personally delivering them to the selected students who are presumably strewn all over the school building. If that is not all about “surface,” then I don’t know what is.

So, if she is indeed a person who seems to be an expert in the language of props and symbols and how they are meaningful, complex and deep, why on earth can’t she see the depth in Kurt and his props?

My argument is that Carmen Tibideaux simply is not as variable in her prop-related language skills as Kurt Hummel is. And I would argue that this is the main reason why she has not been able to fully understand the emotional depth in the performances of him she saw so far. And that is a problem she shares with the other people Kurt has auditioned for, who on average are a lot less fluent in any symbolic language than Carmen Tibideaux is: Will Schuester, Jesse St. James, Artie Abrams, Emma Pillsbury, and Shannon Beiste.

To recall: Kurt sang another song by the character Rose from Gypsy, namely the upbeat “Some People” for the role of ‘star performer’ in their Nationals set (Funeral, 2×21), echoing his earlier performance of “Rose’s Turn.” He sang another song usually performed by women, “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl, for the role of Tony in West Side Story (I Am Unicorn, 3×02), and “Not The Boy Next Door” from The Boy From Oz for his first NYADA audition (Choke, 3×18), which is basically a song about being gay (because the character who sings it in the musical The Boy From Oz and the real person upon which he is based is gay) and having grown beyond the place where one has come from. All of these songs have been about Kurt proudly claiming and showing off his talents, from his countertenor range to his dancing/acrobatics. All of these songs have also been about Kurt proudly claiming and showing off his gender non-conformity and his relation to (parts of) gay culture.

And the latter is exactly what Carmen Tibideaux (and all the other judges) hasn’t been able to understand. Because Carmen Tibideaux lives in the world of musical theater, not in the reality of Lima, Ohio. And while there is some overlap between the world of musical theater and gay culture, Kurt’s queer-related symbolic repertoire is not limited to Broadway plays but also encompasses relevant chunks of pop culture. And this means that not only wasn’t he “classic” enough in his song choice and performance style for Carmen Tibideaux, he also very likely wasn’t classy enough for her.

And this is really all we need to know to understand why Kurt’s video of his acoustic version of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” – or even his pair of gold lamé pants – will never ever get Carmen’s (symbolic or literal) seal of approval. She simply can’t read the language of gold lamé pants and stripped-down 1980s pop songs. She seems to have problems in understanding that emotional depth and someone’s heart can’t just be conveyed by vulnerability, but also by triumph and joy, which is something that she has seen when Kurt performed “Not The Boy Next Door,” as a joyous and triumphant song of him finally embracing all his unicorn-ness instead of trying to be like everyone else. She doesn’t see the vulnerability that is implied in singing this song in this auditorium in this school in this town. In gold lamé pants. She doesn’t understand the relation between the T-shirts that Wham! wore in their “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video (which became a major fashion item back in the 1980s) and the ones New Directions wore during their performance of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”

wham2 born this way

But thankfully, Kurt Hummel speaks more than one symbolic language, and is able to give Carmen Tibideaux a performance she understands, one where he just stands there and bares his throat while singing about being hurt, first against his will, and then with his informed consent, because, apparently, that’s necessary to get him what he wants.

And then he gets a standing ovation and is accepted into NYADA, because it seems that finally, for once, the language he chose and his audience match.

It will be interesting to see how that theme plays out once Kurt is a student at NYADA. Because I can’t see him giving up a language of expression that brings him as much joy and pride as his carefully selected props and accessories do, on and off stage. But NYADA will not understand that part of him and will not want it  – but Vogue.com does, and I hope that Kurt will find a way to be all that he is in a place (or several places) that embrace and celebrate him for just that.

Notes:

[1] All of which makes me wonder why Rachel Berry is still at this school because we have only ever seen her resisting her teacher and refusing to accept instruction, so it’s easy to forget that she actually practices her singing and may in fact do well in her vocal performance classes. But this post is not about Rachel Berry, so I’ll leave it at this.

[2] In the universe of Glee, however, the “white snow” also hints at the song “White Christmas” that Kurt and Blaine will sing in the upcoming Christmas episode.

[3] After all, his fairy godmother (and Vogue.com boss) Isabelle Wright has promised him that he can achieve all his big dreams if he works hard for them. Which probably foreshadows that Kurt won’t stay at NYADA for a long time, or that it will turn out not to be enough for him. Because his dream is already bigger than NYADA (as we can see by his idea of attending the school and still working part-time at Vogue.com).

[4] And the Glee narrative is the reason why it is irrelevant that I find Rachel’s performances technically great (as far as I can judge that) but emotionally void, no matter what the show, the actor (yes, the female actor), and the character do to convince me that Rachel’s emotions are as big as her voice. Nevertheless, let me state at least once that for me Rachel is to Kurt what Celine Dion is to Lara Fabian. In other words, she technically hits all the right notes, but I just don’t feel her, whereas Kurt hits all the right notes and hits me right in the feels every time.

[5] I have no doubt, however, that Glee‘s set designers very deliberately placed all these items in Carmen’s office for us (and possibly Kurt) to see.

[6] These are invitations to an event whose audience is probably as carefully selected as its performers, and as deliberately directed as them – down to their seating arrangement that Carmen Tibideaux controls.

One thought on “Glee: Carmen Tibideaux, Kurt Hummel, and the language of props

  1. “During his visit, Carmen Tibideaux tells Kurt she doesn’t want to see his props, his “surface” but she wants his vulnerability and soul because she hasn’t seen them so far (or so she believes). If we take her words at face value, however, it certainly seems curious that a woman who repeatedly professes to have very little time to waste, seems to be so inordinately fond of such elaborate and time-intensive gestures as hand-calligraphing ten letters of invitation [6] and then personally delivering them to the selected students who are presumably strewn all over the school building. If that is not all about “surface,” then I don’t know what is.”

    A great piece, and the quote above really struck a chord. There’s such an elaborate ritual Carmen follows—and that woman has some mad calligraphy skilz, too! And that ritual further cements her authority, as the delivery of the letters disrupts all classes while students get to see firsthand who gets them. They get to see the reaction of the letter’s recipient too (because of course these letters aren’t mailed). The ritual speaks to authority and class in many ways, too. As you say, it’s elaborate—so it does feel kind of ironic that she doesn’t appreciate Kurt’s similarly time-intensive approach to preparing for a performance (and selecting the objects that will accompany it).

    Really, Carmen is very much about objects—these objects that are part of the ritual with the letter, the objects that help to create those letters, the objects that are carefully placed in her office. And when you put Carmen’s office next to the loft (as we saw in the episode), Kurt similarly has very carefully placed objects all about him. Somehow they are both people who connect to things, because of their shape, form, weight, texture . . . I wonder how much of herself she sees in him? And how much, conversely, in Rachel (if at all)?

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