As I watched Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning saunter as he performed “Somebody to Love” in Bohemian Rhapsody’s Live Aid scene, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Lea Michele did it better. What’s more, she did it in an ill-fitting royal-blue button-down in a humdrum high school theater.
At its height in 2010, Glee, the long-running musical-comedy-drama, was the biggest cultural phenomenon on network TV since Friends. The show’s accolades include 32 Emmy nominations and 25 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — the most by any artist since the Beatles.
The show introduced classic songs to a new audience with an earnest, PG-13 veneer. Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Liza Minelli’s “Maybe This Time” and Heart’s “Alone” all found new lives as tweens fangirled over their Glee covers.
But the later seasons were poorly reviewed, and the show’s legacy was marred by crime and tragedy: star Cory Monteith’s 2013 death by drug overdose, and Mark Salling’s 2013 sexual battery accusation, 2015 child pornography charge and 2018 death by suicide.
Still, five years after the show left the air, the Glee audience returns to the soundtrack unironically. “If I’m just listening on the subway, maybe I prefer Glee’s ‘Poker Face’ over the real one,” Jessica Marie Fisher, 22, tells me.
From a queerified “Teenage Dream” to a squirmish “It’s a Man’s Man’s World,” some Glee covers left an indelible mark on the classics — leaving the original artists forgotten entirely. You’re telling me “Don’t Stop Believin’” is by some band called Journey? Finn Hudson (Monteith), Rachel Berry (Michele), Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) pioneered the tune in perfect a cappella pitch and mall clothes.
What other classic covers did the show bring us?
“I literally thought that song was written for Glee to sing. I was pretty young, and I just remember them singing it together in a Christmas tree lot and thinking they must have written that song because it was so melodramatic. Then I heard the Taylor Swift version and thought that Taylor did a cover of the Glee song. I even signed it for a project in my American Sign Language class in high school. Wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized pretty much every version I knew was a cover.” — Sage Higgins, 20, Los Angeles
Who Did the Original? “I honestly do not know who the original singer is. In my heart, it will always be a Rachel and Finn original.”
“It’s a Man’s Man’s World”
“That TV show definitely changed the song for me. The iconic dance sequence with the pregnant women? So odd. The breathing. Watching it as an adult, I was like, Okay, this is interesting, cool and artistic. As a child in 2009, I was like, What is this! I’ve never seen pregnant women move like this. We can’t ignore the vocal abilities of Lea Michele, Amber Riley and Jonathan Groff, but when the song isn’t fundamentally changed and is sung worse overall, the cringe is major element of the enjoyment of the songs.” — Jessica Marie Fisher, 22, Brooklyn
“‘Jessie’s Girl’ is my favorite song Cory Monteith sang. His voice just sounds great, and it was a song I hadn’t known exactly.” — Billy Dixon, 24, New York City
“Don’t Rain on My Parade”
“It’s Rachel Berry’s song because it was just a powerful performance, and she sang it so beautifully. Rachel performed ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ at their first sectionals after the other clubs had stolen New Directions’ songs. So when she did start singing it, it was such a good comeback for the group.” — Michelle Flores, 18, Fairfax, Virginia
Who Did the Original? “I’m pretty sure it’s the musical Funny Girl? Sung by Barbra Streisand? I’m not 100 percent sure, though.”
“Hey, Soul Sister”
“I didn’t know it before, and every time I hear it now I can only think of Glee.” — Arooj Waqar, 19, London
Who Did the Original? “I know it’s Train, but I don’t know who that is.”
“When I first heard ‘Valerie,’ I was floored by Naya Rivera’s confidence and vocal styling. The theater nerd in me had to perfect it myself, so I looked up the original Amy Winehouse version to learn it. I found myself needing to emulate Ms. Rivera rather than the legendary Ms. Winehouse. I know it’s sacrilege, but Naya’s smoky vocals add an undeniable sex appeal to the songs.” — Kaitlyn Edicola, 23, Chicago
“More Than a Woman”
In the disco episode in Season Three, I was introduced to a lot of Bee Gees music, which was awesome. When Finn sang ‘More Than a Woman’ about Rachel, I honestly loved it so much that I had to go and find the original. I prefer the Glee version, definitely. The mixture of voices in ‘More Than a Woman’ between Finn and Kurt makes it sound so much better than the original.” — Emma McDowell, 21, Belfast, Northern Ireland
“There’s just something about a good a cappella cover I and so many others love. The harmonies are much more prominent, and they sound more cheerful than the Katy Perry version. Darren Criss sings some words short like Katy Perry (‘turn me on,’ ‘until we die’) but then the other Warbles drag it out. Every time I sing it, there’s a different part to try out. That makes this version a lot more fun. The context of this version always felt a bit more relatable to me as a gay person. Blaine is singing it the first time Kurt sees him, and it’s a love-at-first-sight sort of thing. This version has this explicitly gay backstory to it that Katy Perry’s version doesn’t.” — Grant Roth, 24, Atlanta, Georgia
“Somewhere Only We Know”
“This is the scene where Kurt is moving [back to McKinley High], and the song is their way of almost saying goodbye to each other. The Glee version hits harder [and] sticks more than the [Keane] original because the harmonies are much smoother. The song almost slowly sweeps you up and into emotion before you know it. Complete transformation from the original, and I loved that difference.” — Rich Stevens Jr., 26, Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t know that song before Glee, and one of the only scenes from Glee that I always remember is when Miss Pillsbury is trying to teach abstinence. She sings this song not knowing it’s about an afternoon quickie till after the performance.” — Marissa Carlino, 24, Syracuse, New York
“I Say a Little Prayer”
“Glee still pops up everywhere around me, and most people don’t even notice it, but I do. I heard that specifically at the grocery store Ralph’s near my house. I was there buying some desert with my sister and freaked out because they started playing it. My sister thought I was crazy. I love it mostly because it’s pretty iconic to Glee itself, and the choreography for that number is super-great too.” — Jaylen Baham, 25, Rancho Cucamonga, California