Is ‘Grease’ the most polarizing pop culture phenomenon ever?

01.29.16 1 year ago

In 2011 when Slash spoke to Entertainment Weekly about why he wouldn't allow Glee to cover Guns N' Roses' catalog, he said something that has stuck with me: “Glee is worse than Grease and Grease is bad enough.”

At that point Grease was almost 35 years old. It enjoyed a renaissance with a theatrical re-release in the late '90s, but it's not like Grease was begging to be invoked in Slash's takedown of Ryan Murphy's Fox show. Certainly it's a movie about peppy high schoolers who break into song, but how could a few tunes about summer lovin' and greased lightning have haunted Slash so?

Grease Live!, a live Fox musical version of that John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John classic, is coming to charm off our bobby socks this Sunday. Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough take over for Travolta and Newton-John in the lead roles while Carly Rae Jepsen plays beauty school dropout Frenchie and Vanessa Hudgens smirks it up as Rizzo. While Slash most likely won't be watching, it's kind of bizarre to think he'd have an opinion about it in the first place.

But then I remembered something: Grease is the first musical that was too popular to be ignored by even non-fans of musicals. You'll never hear rock stars grousing about Oliver! or My Fair Lady or Jesus Christ SuperstarGrease was the fourth highest-grossing movie of the 1970s and the only musical in the decade-end top 20, and that means it's beloved among a lot of people — and at least acknowledged by a whole bunch of bystanders.

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I think the most irritating thing about Grease to male non-fans — aside from the determined, self-consciously campy effervescence and Disney-level vigor of the whole thing — is how the tough guy characters vacillate between macho posing and goofy hand-jiving. It's a big fakeout: Travolta and the late Jeff Conaway (as Kenickie) are playing the types of swaggering dudes who've endeared macho audiences in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky's or American Graffiti, but here they routinely forsake their cool cred for what amounts to dorky showboating. They undermine their own greaser stoicism at every turn, which makes their performances kind of subversive (or, to non-fans, unnerving) in their vaudevillian blatantness. 

Meanwhile, it's easy to see why fans are obsessed. I would argue there are no catchier songs in musical history than “Summer Nights” and “You're the One That I Want.” I dare you to listen to “Summer Nights” right now. You will absolutely be humming it for the next week, if not month. It is a “Macarena”-type earworm of Kidz Bop sauciness. The way Grease is aware of its silliness at every turn — marked by the climactic car trip into the sky at the movie's end — is an additional endorphin burst for fans coasting on its pure ebullience. Grease is proof that at our most uninhibited, we might just be happily insufferable teenagers. And however you feel about that determines your feelings on the drama at Rydell High. 

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