Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The A Cappella Manifesto

I've been at college for a few months, and as such have had ample exposure to a genre of music that is limited almost exclusively to college campuses: A Cappella. A few weeks ago, I attended a long a cappella show called "Best of the Midwest" which was an attempt to display some of the best college a cappella groups around the area of Northwestern. There were groups from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern's own Purple Haze performing. During that concert, I got to thinking about the genre and its place on campus.

Ever since I've known people in college, I've heard about a cappella groups. These bands of all-male, all-female, or coed undergrads would dress thematically, choreograph kitschy dance moves, and sing versions of your favorite pop songs, replacing all the instrument parts with other voice parts. A cappella groups are not a modern invention: a simple check of Wikipedia provides us with the information that the first one at a college was founded in 1909. However, those were all "Glee Clubs," groups that sang barbershop songs, choral standards, and other music reserved for its own genre. With the development of vocal percussion and beatboxing, colleges saw a drastic rise in popularity of a cappella groups as they became able to cover modern pop songs as they were released. Now there are over 1,200 groups in the US spanning every kind of university, and involving every kind of gimmick imaginable. Here at Northwestern there are male, female, coed, Jewish, and Indian groups, and I'm sure there are others out there I don't know about. There is a huge movement in music for recording a cappella, with specialized producers who help groups put out CDs. Groups try to get their songs on Best of College A Cappella, or BOCA, compilations, to get their group recognized nationally. These CDs are purchased almost exclusively by college students, but this is one of the only ways that the music trickles down into high schools.

So what's my beef with a cappella? I don't have a major one, I'm just curious as to why it's so popular, so revered, and so quirky. I mean, my best friend is in an all-male a cappella group here called Freshman Fifteen. I've heard them, they sing great, they have a good time, they put on a good show. I'm just not really sure why there's such a big mystique to the whole genre, and why it is isolated almost exclusively to colleges and universities.

The Good

There are things I like about a cappella; in fact there are a lot of things. I really enjoy listening to cover songs. I have a ton of them in my music library, and I think you can tell a lot about a band by the types of songs they cover live or in the studio. Elliott Smith had a huge catalog of live covers he performed, with tons of songs by the Beatles (and the individual members), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and more. Hearing cover songs makes you appreciate the songs you love in a different light. Maybe you'll enjoy an acoustic version, or a live version done by another of your favorite bands. That only works to a point though, because sometimes artists reach too far and cover songs that really should never be touched, like Counting Crows reworking of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" or Ben Folds' very, very late to the party take on "Such Great Heights."

Obviously, the best thing for these groups to do is to try and write something original, or to make a medley of something that you would never hear in this context. The best part of the Best of the Midwest concert was a group singing an original song called "Facebook Stalking" that was downright brilliant. Here's another group from that concert that did a great job making something original and completely out of line with every other group in America:

Also, it's impossible to ignore that some of the singers really have fantastic voices. Northwestern houses one of the best theatre schools in the country, and a great music school, so we have a plethora of voice majors and theatre majors with great voices that perform in a cappella groups.

The mystique that surrounds a cappella could have something to do with getting into one of these groups. At places like Northwestern, where there are tons of people with great voices, getting into one of these groups legitimates your voice and your talent. It is a pat on the back and a helpful "you can sing well" to people that make it; it designates them as worthy of pursuing singing, and as a better singer than a lot of other people at their particular college.

Our nationally notable groups include Purple Haze and Thunk, who have appeared on BOCA albums along with the "best" a cappella groups in the nation.

The Bad

I guess it's with that note that I'll start with my gripes. I'm not really sure what makes an a cappella group "great." In my mind, the barometer for categorizing a cappella groups looks something like this:

<-- choral/formal -- music focused -- balanced music/humor -- humor focused -- chaotic batshit insane -->

By the classical definition, an a cappella group is one without instruments, only using voices. I treat that as the most formal type of group, and I'm associating it with choral music, because there are groups that dress formally and perform some strict choral music.

I'll attempt to define these groups with videos of groups I know pulled from YouTube at some points:

These groups sing choral arrangements, don't sing as many modern pop hits, and are closer to the old Glee Clubs that used to be at colleges and universities. I'll be honest, when I hear a group do a choral song, it is a refreshing break from the overly ironic sets that every other group tends to put on all the time.

Music Focus
These a cappella groups tend not to do funny choreography, and are much more intent on a tight, musically sound performance. They're the ones that are known to sound really great, usually make the BOCA compilations, and do well in national tournaments. As far as groups on Northwestern's campus go, the quintessential group for this category is Purple Haze. They recieve university funding, they go on trips, they record albums (although that's becoming much more commonplace for all groups), and they draw the biggest crowds:

If you see a group that makes especially ironic music choices, like something by Alanis Morisette or Sixpence None the Richer, but they aren't joking around the whole time, chances are you are watching this type of group. To me, this is the best kind of group, because they sound great, are focused on making their voices work together and blend very well, but are still laid back about their performances and look like they're having fun. These kinds of groups are incredibly hard to find, because they tend to fall about one degree one way or the other. The closest I've come to finding a truely balanced a cappella group is Indiana's Straight No Chaser (which unfortunately chose to name itself after a Theolonius Monk song that references IU's party reputation). Here they are performing a Christmas song, which is a good idea of a standard

Humor Focus
This type of group does a lot of skits between parts of their set, invent little funny parts to their songs, and are very irreverent. They take a hit in their musical ability because of their attempts at being relaxed and funny, but they are still entertaining to watch. This is pretty much the group my best friend is in, and I hope they don't take offense to this classification. It's nothing against their musical ability, they are just geared more towards humor:

Chaotic Batshit Insane
I know of one group at my school that fits this bill. They're called the X-Factors, and when I saw them basically half of their group came onstage naked. They yell, they run around, they jump, and they sing pretty well. People laugh at what they do, and most of their show is watching what they do instead of listening to them sing. As far as all the comedy and rambunctious stage attitude goes, the only people who are going to find that funny are people that know the performers. If an a cappella group goes to another school, or to a high school, and tries to replicate the antics in front of anyone that isn't their friend, the humor just isn't going to work. Skits and jokes from these kinds of groups are pretty much inside jokes to friends of the group or to members of the university, so people outside that range just won't be able to have as much fun.

A lot of groups tend to have the same repertoire as well. They've all got songs by Michael Buble, can sing Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", have a nostalgic 90s pop song up their sleeve, a Pat Benatar or other 80s song, and so on. It sometimes gets to the point where you don't know which group you're listening to if you close your eyes.

And not to be sexist or anything, but all-female groups just lag behind the quality of the coed and all-male groups. It's not because they don't sing as well, I've heard far more female soloists that sing fantastically, but it's an issue of the parts. All-female groups don't have the bottom end that the other two types do, and can't fully fill out their sound. They sound partially empty, and its a symptom of their own group design.

The Ugly

Okay, now I've just got some things that bug the crap out of me about the songs, the groups, and the genre at large. First off, go check out this list on Wikipedia. It's of the "notable" a cappella groups throughout the country. Notice anything peculiar? Essentially half of those groups are from the Ivy League, which is complete bullshit. There's no way in hell those groups are all notable, especially when a blog like IvyGate can take a bunch of groups and pit them against each other in a poll of the "Worst A Cappella Group in the Ivy League."

No matter where these groups fall on my makeshift scale, 99% of them do the following things:

1. Coordinate their dress with some kind of specific article of clothing or a set of colors, not unlike a sports team.
2. Have some ridiculous name that tries way to hard to make a pun or be clever.
3. Cover songs that are meant to be witty, ironic, or nostaligic choices.

You know the groups I'm talking about. These are the ones that dress all in black and red, sing N*Sync and Backstreet Boys while winking at the crowd the whole time, and are called the "One Hit Wonders" or something like that. We all hated that genre of music back in the 90s, and anyone who is pretending that those songs were legitimately good contributions to the history of music shouldn't have gotten in to any college or university.

General pretention really eats at me with these groups. It's so much better to see a group having fun than for a group to call itself the "best" or "premiere" group on campus and look down on the others. Here, it's obviously Purple Haze that does that, and they've even got their own little quirky, semi-intentional choreography to go along with their smug attitude and polished smiles. We call it the "Purple Haze Bounce." Take a look:

It's not that they don't have the chops. They are without a doubt one of the best blending and sounding a cappella groups I've ever heard, but in my mind no amount of talent over the rest gives you the right to act superior than anyone else.

Also, the very fundamental part of college a cappella is representing pop/rock songs with only voices. So they're trying to replace instruments...with a sound that can in no way equal how good the instruments sound on a record. It's as though the style of the genre is setting itself up to be worse than the original. Good a cappella groups will realize that they shouldn't just imitate the instruments with their voices, and just sing the song as a a blend of voices, but too often I hear the background simply attempting to be the instruments on the track, and the vocal percussion doesn't help.

Beatboxers in a cappella groups are either trying to be one of two people: Matisyahu, or this dude from a French talent search show:

In either case, they just aren't as good, and sound like really bad background drumming that you would find on a karaoke track.

The End

Okay, so I ripped on a cappella a lot this whole time, but I don't hate the whole thing. I think that since I'm in college, I'm just exposed to so much of it, that it's hard not to get fed up with how similar the vast majority of these groups are. There have only been a select few breaths of fresh air in the whole first quarter of college in a cappella for me, and the other 90-ish% has been so blandly similar that I'm at the breaking point. Like I said towards the beginning, my best friend is in an a cappella group, so I go to a lot of these shows. I enjoy going to them, I want to support my friends, but I really think something needs to change in this genre so that every group you go to see is not doing the same types of things and having almost the exact same successes and failures.

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