Even when Glee lost its way, Naya Rivera was its brightest spark

It’s an odd thing, to listen to a song and realise that the person singing it is no longer with us, but their voice lives on. 

I’ve experienced that exact feeling ever since it was announced that Naya Rivera had died aged 33. 

Like most queer people my age, I was a huge fan of Glee (well, the first two seasons – but that’s a conversation for another time) but as much as I tend to make fun of it nowadays, throughout the odd and highly-emotional events surrounding Naya’s passing, I’ve begun to realise just how much influence the show had over me; in my outlook, in my taste in music, in my writing. 

Naya Rivera was much more than Santana Lopez, but the character, aside from her son Josey, will be her biggest legacy and I think one thing that’s been lost in the discourse over the past few days is just how great Naya Rivera was in Glee. So in my own small way, I wanted to pay tribute to her in the only way I really know how – by talking about pop culture. 

Santana Lopez was never meant to be a main character – but then she was played by Naya Rivera

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In its first and purest form, Glee was a parody and a critique of teen comedies in the vein of Mean Girls and Election, just with more songs. 

Santana’s character is a potent reminder of this. In her debut during the show’s pilot episode, she’s little more than a lackey of head cheerleader Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) – but as the show continued, so did Santana’s character grow and expand, thanks mainly in part to Naya’s portrayal of her, soaked in venom and her barbs honed to devastating perfection, a small knife to slip in under the ribs. 

Through sheer force of will, Santana eventually became a major Glee player by the end of the first season, mainly as an obstacle for many character to overcome, but it was in the second season where she truly began to shine. Glee did what it did best and subverted the mean girl trope to reveal the complicated layers underneath, but we’ll get to that in a bit. 

This is, really, a testament to Naya and her unique presence and charisma. Santana was never meant to be a likeable character, but you felt herself drawn to her anyway. The first time I became aware of her magnetic presence was in the latter half of the first season, where the cast covered Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, by then, the biggest song in the world. 

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She only has a small part – she can be heard on the chorus and takes the belting notes in the middle eight – but I was totally and utterly transfixed by her watching the performance and then listening to the cover, over and over again. 

It’s no mean feat to outperform Lea Michele and Amber Riley on a song that relies so much on theatricality and the kind of magnetism a pop star like Gaga can’t help but exude, and Naya had that in spades. 

I knew straight away, then, that she was a star and it was no surprise to me that when Glee’s second season rolled around, Santana was at its very heart. 

Santana’s coming out story made Naya a star – it’s easy now to see why

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Santana Lopez learning to accept herself as a gay woman was an integral part of Glee’s second and third season. Initially dreamt up as a form of fan service, thanks to her dazzling chemistry with best friend Brittany (Heather Morris), the relationship between the two cheerleaders eventually became the show’s earnest and most beloved character pairing. 

This would have not been possible without Naya, and the storyline allowed her to show the full breadth of her talent. 

My favourite of all this is the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which is lead by guest-star Gwyneth Paltrow but features Naya on backing vocals. In the context of the show, the song comes up as a way for Santana to start to unpack her complicated feelings for Brittany, and Stevie Nicks’ poetic lyrics, referencing the changing of seasons and the inevitable passing of time, feel all the more potent today. 

Neither Santana nor Naya were placed front and centre in the song, as they would be while the storyline grew in prominence, but once again, you can’t help but be captivated by her performance. You can practically see all the suffering, confusion and mis-placed anger that comes with wrestling with your sexuality pass over Naya’s eyes. It’s very rare to see a performer so accurately portray someone’s real, interior life.

This is something, I think, that gets lost when we talk about Naya and Santana. We’re quick to hone in on the devastating, dagger-sharp monologues, when we forget that she was just an adept dramatic actress as she was a comedic one.

Even when Glee lost its way, Naya Rivera remained its one bright spark

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But while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about those monologues. Glee had a protracted and slow journey to cancellation, petering out after six seasons, when the show really should have ended after the third. 

Yet it kept going, extending the location to New York, where Santana eventually lived with Rachel (Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer), before returning to McKinley in the show’s final season to marry Brittany. 

Even as it lost its power and voice, Glee still made room for Santana, and she was consistently the best thing about the show in its twilight years. The best example of this, and one that’s been posted numerous times since the news of Naya’s death, is Santana’s blistering critique of Kurt in season six, after he voices his objections at Santana and Brittany’s wedding.

The speech is just over a minute long, and not one line is wasted from Naya, every word, syllable and insult is delivered perfectly. It can, at times, be read as not just Santana decimating Kurt as a character, but critiquing Glee as a whole. It’s an alarmingly prescient meta-commentary on the strength the show lost over the years, turning, as she says ‘from the very apex of the gay rights movement’ to ‘utterly, utterly intolerable.’ 

I can’t imagine having enjoying Glee half as much without her

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Naya’s range and versatility as a performer was suited perfectly to Glee – which would veer wildly in tone from episode to episode and scene to scene. 

During her tenure on the musical, she covered showtunes, ballads and high-energy pop numbers. She was as adept at singing Britney Spears as she was Barbra Streisand. 

Her performance of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie is a perfect example of this – and one of the only times I can remember a character on the show using a microphone to sing during a performance, and despite the presence of two wildly talented dancers beside her, you can only hear (and only want to see) what Naya is doing with her time in the spotlight. She didn’t waste a second of it. 

I’ve had some time to think about what Naya’s greatest Glee performance is, and in all honesty I struggled to pick it. There’s her second Fleetwood Mac cover of Songbird, her emotional take on Taylor Swift’s Mine and the barmy mash-up of Adele’s Rumour Has It and Somebody Like You. 

But, for me at least, the one I keep coming back to, again and again, and the one that gives me so much joy to watch is her and Amber Riley’s star-marking turn duetting Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High.

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In the context of the episode in which it was performed, Santana and Mercedes attempt to win an inner-Glee Club competition for a free meal, teaming up for the track even though they aren’t friends, because they both know they’re the best performers.

And it’s true. Watch it from beginning to end and you see nothing but star quality. This makes me believe that Naya and Santana climbed the ranks of Glee with alarming ease, that she managed to go from smarmy background character to leading the show’s most potent romantic storyline. 

There are few examples of what a true star looks like, of what it takes to make it when others fail, but you can see it in Naya during this, or any, Glee performance. You can see the fire in her eyes, the conviction in her voice. You cannot teach or mimic this kind of talent, or the presence she had on screen.

Naya Rivera was an actress and a singer of rare calibre, and the world is a quieter place without her in it.

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