No Future: The Sing-Off and the Art of A Cappella

by Jane Hu and Phil Maciak

Phil: Jane, you and I love a cappella, even though it’s not cool, it doesn’t give us any kind of cultural capital to love it and it doesn’t even give us a real sense of belonging inasmuch as neither of us are active participants in actual a cappella groups. But do we ever love it, and we’ve been talking about writing about how much we love it for years now. For that reason, I was ecstatic when I saw that The Sing-Off, NBC’s a cappella competition show had been resurrected for an abbreviated fourth season by professional resurrector-of-things Mark Burnett. Before we get into the nitty gritty of that show, its bonkers table of judges, the blinding glare of Nick Lachey’s flat-front slacks, or how season three champions Pentatonix were robbed in the Nobel Peace Prize voting this year, I want to start with a question: Jane, what do you love about a cappella?

Jane: Whoa, Phil. Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Before we move on I need to announce that I am not just an alumnus of one, but multiple, a cappella groups. And PROUD OF IT. Remember the scene from Pitch Perfect, where Benji lies despondently in bed while listening to the newly accepted members get initiated just outside his dorm room? That was basically me freshman year. A cappella try-outs felt more important than school. And, in a way, some small part of me still takes them very seriously, still.

I’m thrilled that The Sing-Off is back (even though it still strikes me as an ODD decision on Burnett’s part) because it means I get to experience, once again, the high of making music “all from our mouths”! I can’t entirely describe the frisson that is a cappella, but there’s something about finding your group’s groove that approaches some Platonic ideal of empathy — a cappella bridges are like falling in love. It’s not just about harmonizing musically, but emotionally as well. I know basically 99.9999% of the population fails to understand or feel this, but I’m SO GLAD you do, Phil.

Phil: Though I share your feelings, I tragically can never share your experience. I can whistle, I can play the ukulele, but I cannot sing. My college has adopted, as you might possibly know, the nickname, “The Singing College.” I grew up in Pittsburgh and went to a small Catholic high school where there was no such thing as a cappella, so when all five singing groups (heatedly competitive) performed at a thing in my college orientation week, I was captivated. Of course, like Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, I was a proto-hipster, worked at the radio station, and kept a thin veneer of ironic distance from the a cappella performances scattered every other week throughout my college career — “Oh, I’m only going because my friend will kill me if I don’t see her show.” — but it was well-known in my friend group that I was totally enraptured and always wished I was able to be in one. I loved the apparent camaraderie, the illusion of effortless virtuosity, even and especially the aggressive zaniness. Maybe — no, definitely — this is the part of me that romanticizes my privileged liberal New England college experience, but it feels now, and even felt then, very wonderfully nostalgic and funny and moving in a very college-specific way.

Jane: The sooner one embraces a cappella, the better. I fell in love in high school, but it’s true — even then, the endpoint of a cappella was to sing at college nationals.

And, in college, to be in an exclusive a cappella group was, even, at times, to be cool. (Pitch Perfect shows this so well.) On stage you loop so fast around uncool that you somehow land in the realm of cool. These performances are all very in-the-moment too, which might work as a micro-metaphor for the fleetingness that is college. Clinging onto a cappella is a way of holding onto one’s youth. But, like, not in a SAD way. Are we insane? We can’t be the only ones, anyway: The Sing-Off is back!

How do you feel about this season so far?

Phil: As we write, The Sing-Off is three episodes into its seven-episode run. So far, I’m a little ambivalent. But first, the good: I think we can both agree that Ben Folds, plus Shawn Stockman, plus whatever lady they put into the Defense Against the Dark Arts rotating third chair constitute the weirdest, best judging panel on reality TV. (And that’s not even counting our darling host and former Mr. Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey.)

In addition to modeling some handsomely piped blazers, Ben Folds comes off — much in the manner of Tim Gunn — as a kind of academic advisor. He has kind words and feelings on occasion, but primarily, he’s there for technical critique. That a show like this can sustain even a few minutes of music theory is a minor miracle. Though, I have to say that, while I’ve perceived a generally higher level of interest in technique across the board, the show sometimes takes a worryingly anti-intellectual tone: “Ben, tell us what you thought using words too big for me to understand in my pea brain.” I blame Burnett, not Lachey, who seems like an okay guy.

Jane: In the premiere for this season, Lachey observes (from the stage) that Ben’s glasses have gotten thicker, and then explains that this means Ben must have gotten smarter. As someone who wears increasingly thick glasses, the moment felt both very awkward and very endearing.

Phil: And then Shawn Stockman is like the eighteenth-century Man of Feeling up there. This guy! A cappella affects him in a very physical way. He’s always leaping out of his seat or making a face or throwing his hands up in the air. If part of a cappella is the experience, the “in the moment”-ness, then Shawn is like the viewer stand-in. He registers for us the delight of being in that room. He’s a grown man with a moustache and an argyle sweater full of unironic enthusiasm for a cappella.

Jane: You just know Stockman is FEELING IT. Did you listen to Boyz II Men a cappella as a child too, Phil? It might even have been my introduction. Let’s all just take a moment:

Everything has come full circle! If the origins of harmonious a cappella are ultimately choral and religious, I don’t think Stockman (or the viewer) has entirely lost that spiritual earnestness.

Phil: We should talk about the new addition to the panel, too: honest to goodness, lived-in-a-van, snaggle-tooth, I-Was-Meant-For-You, JEWEL! Jewel replaces the great Sara Bareilles, who had a kind of quirky, arts house, collegiate a cappella veteran vibe that was very appropriate for the show, especially after the exit of the original third judge, inexplicably nominated Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherziger. I’m all in on Jewel’s presence right now. She’s bringing the sequins and plunging necklines that Scherzinger had, but she’s also upping the theory jargon ante considerably from the Bareilles years. What’s your take?

Jane: If you needed one reason to watch this show, it would be to observe Jewel doing her magic. Phil, I don’t know who made that casting choice, but she really does seem like the exemplary Sing-Off host. She comes off as at once too pretty, too smart, and too cool for the show, but she comes at it with — and I feel like I’m repeating myself — a kind of seriousness that makes it work.

Jewel might be my favorite part of the show this season? The groups have been a mixed bag. Some are certainly more interesting than others (Oakland high school group Vocal Rush!!), but let’s face it: there’s no Pentatonix for this season.

Phil: You’re telling me, Jane. There are some highlights this season so far (the delightfully soulless sheen of Filipino boy band The Filharmonic and the almost TOO soulful collective of professional back-up singers in Ten) that we should get to, but before that, we should spend a minute talking about the best there ever was.

I’d watched Sing-Off with rapt attention for the first two seasons, but it wasn’t until the debut of Pentatonix last season that I encountered a group I wanted to hear more from. You mentioned earlier how fleeting a cappella is — you do it on a street corner or you do it in college, but there’s really no future for an a cappella group as an a cappella group out there in the world of music. Even Boyz II Men had to have their sound filled out in order to make it at all. Pentatonix, however, momentarily convinced everybody that there might be something else — how could a group of singers this talented, innovative, and gripping fade away into shopping mall appearances and bargain bins?

The thing about Pentatonix, though, wasn’t just that they were better than everyone else on that show — they weren’t necessarily any more technically proficient than the also-excellent Afro Blue — it was that they made good television. They maximized all the things that make a cappella impressive to lay-people — their percussionist was operating at a Michael Winslow level of uncanniness, they filled out a tremendously full sound with only five people — but their performances brought skillful drama to a show that can sometimes, understandably, feel low-stakes. Folds, at one point, told them that, “A surprise is a rare gift in a musical arrangement,” and that’s what they became known for. Starting, really, with their bone-crushing arrangement of “Love Lockdown” in the otherwise poppy, novelty “Hip-Hop” challenge, we got a series of performances that were perceptibly different from all the other acts onstage. In contrast to their competition, Pentatonix made the labor, the ambition, and the intelligence of their arrangements visible — you could actually feel them killing it. I’d love to say I re-watched — in order — all the Pentatonix videos to prepare for this piece, but I honestly might have done that anyway this weekend.

Jane: +1111111111111111111

A cappella doesn’t just come off seeming, as you say, “low-stakes,” it also suggests all these tropes we associate with “bad” music: thinness, corniness, unoriginality. Phil, you’re so right that Pentatonix worked by making the work of a cappella visible. Not only that, but they brought out the there there in not just a cappella but the (frequently) pop songs that make up a cappella’s repertoire.

Re-listening to their rendition of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” I was reminded again just how GORGEOUS that hyper-synthed song is. The harmonies in “pictures came and broke your heart” always choke me up. The song was also their choice for the “Guilty Pleasures”-themed week, which added another layer of winking irony to the premise of The Sing-Off. A cappella might be the singer’s guilty pleasure par excellence (even worse than musical theater, I fear), but Pentatonix’s surprising arrangements were so completely overwhelming in that they not only revealed the rigor and creative energy in Pentatonix’s work, but also in that of those they borrowed from.

A cappella is almost always a means of paying tribute, and Pentatonix did it beautifully. They managed to reincarnate old songs in a way that made them sound both familiar and strange, and that’s a really hard line to walk when it comes to a cappella. (It was also one that they struggled with throughout their season.) So much of a cappella rests on the audience’s ability to recognize the song being performed, but I’d argue that the group’s ability to stray from the original arrangement in their reinterpretation is just as crucial.

Pentatonix made old classics uncanny — slowing sections down, speeding others up, toying with key changes — but not a way that detracted from the song’s spirit. I mean:

Before we get sucked into a Pentatonix vortex, though [side note: watch their evolution of Beyoncé if you haven’t yet], let’s bring it back to the current groups at hand.

We’ve mentioned Vocal Rush, Filharmonic, and Ten, but the season begins with ten different groups, and we’ve already witnessed the departure of a handful of them. I don’t know who my money’s on definitively.

Phil: It’s not belaboring the point or projecting to say that this season, so far, has been kind of haunted by the ghost of Pentatonix. The group hasn’t made a hit record, but they’ve been pretty popular virally on YouTube, and their influence — along with that of Mixmaster Anna Kendrick — is apparent in a lot of the new arrangements.

Jane: And a number Pitch Perfect arrangements were direct descendants of Pentatonix’s oeuvre! David Guetta, “Starships,” “Since U Been Gone” etc.

Phil: We’re hearing a lot more simulated tape effects, remix-y tempo changes, stylistic mash-ups, and that whole “power-down” move they were known for and that the otherwise solid VoicePlay jacked for their opening performance.

Aside from that, I’m not sure there’s much of a trend aside from the fact that I don’t really care about any of these groups that much. Because this season is only taking place over a two-week period, you don’t have the opportunity to see a group like Pentatonix grow into themselves slowly just as you could see other groups reveal their flaws. Things feel a little rushed this time.

That said, there have been some pretty intriguing moments. Vocal Rush opened things off really strong:

That’s a really textured sound for some high schoolers, and all the more impressive because — as someone pointed out on Wednesday — this is a mostly female group. (The knock against female groups for sounding thin is almost a cliche by now, though it seems as much an issue of arrangement as anything else. The dudes in Calle Sol couldn’t throw together a low-end to save their lives.) But I was almost more excited for this group, in context of the others, for the presence of an actual lead! (She hasn’t sung lead since.) Jane, is it just me, or is there a dearth of star lead vocalists this season?

Jane: Pitch Perfect did a pretty good job of countering the argument against all-female groups. (The film even had a conveniently-placed explanation about why female singers — lacking a true bass — could not achieve a full and round sound.) And while the film did it by having one female singers suddenly acquire a bass-range, it (and now Vocal Rush!) are reminding us of the diversity, power, and flexibility of the woman’s range. JUST LIKE IN REAL LIFE. Element has been losing my interest this season, but not because they’re an all-female group! In fact, I was really excited to hear an a cappella version of “Burn.” But they largely stuck to the upper register, which is an artistic choice as much as it’s a physiological necessity here. I agree about your point on arrangements, and I wish there was, for Element, more harmonizing as well as more scene-stealing. Where’s my Skylar Astin? Or Anna Kendrick?? Even groups with a purported lead this season (Home Free or Filharmonic) have a lead in the loosest sense of the word. Their vocal work isn’t really more virtuosic than the other members, and they’re (oh god I can’t believe I’m going here) just marginally better-looking than everyone else.

At this point it feels like anyone could win. For real, the Minnesotan country group might actually win — they’ve been getting a lot of consistent positive feedback. Do you have any guesses, Phil? Hopes? Dreams?

Phil: Jane if I hear one more awkwardly-placed, excessively-long melisma from the lead singer of Home Free, I am going to pray to Whitney Houston that their next bit of choreography involves line-dancing into a bank vault where they will be sealed off until the end of the season. But at least they have a distinct sound. From Element’s artistic decision to be instantly forgettable to the AcoUstiKats’ catastrophic, borderline racist decision have their one African American member perform most of “Hey Ya” even though it sounded like what I imagine it would sound like to hear Rex Harrison rap, we’ve seen some baffling choices early on.

And then there are the situations where a group makes no decision at all on principle. Almost every season, there’s a group of old-timers singing what the show’s rhetoric repeatedly tells us is “classic” a cappella. That mostly means doo-wop. The group sticks around for a while, Shawn Stockman tells them a few times how much they’re teaching us about a cappella, and then they get booted because they refuse to do anything other than the same arrangement for every song. This season’s veterans, Street Corner Renaissance, went pretty early, all told. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with traditional doo-wop. But, over four seasons, this show has essentially become a group-brainstorming session about how to make a cappella into a marketable commodity in the twenty-first century. And being a strict traditionalist — no matter how good — tends not to work out because the answer the judges want to hear is innovation.

Street Corner Renaissance lost out after going head to head against The Filharmonic, a group of young, handsome Filipino kids who are explicitly, almost obscenely dedicated to becoming the next One Direction. It was a telling match-up, if only because it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the boy band structure is the commercial future of a cappella. Jane, boy band laureate that you are, is this a plan that works for you? And how do you feel about The Filharmonic?

Jane: Oooooof, Phil, that is a really difficult question. I love a cappella, and I love boy bands, but I don’t know if I love them together? The underlying cheesiness of both might be a means of associating the two, but the thing about 1D is that, well, some members aren’t that spectacular of singers! And that is totally fine! They can barely dance, and instead get by with being complete charm-monsters. A cappella requires a different skill-set, and while we all know that boy bands are incredibly marketable (I just bought the 1D month-planner; it goes until DECEMBER 2015), it’s that kind of marketability that makes me think they might be incompatible with a cappella-dom. A cappella is endearing to me for exactly what you said before about it lacking a future in the world of contemporary music. I love the quiet nihilism that underlies the huge amounts of joy and optimism that make up an a cappella performance.

What is especially fascinating about The Filharmonic is how — despite being peppy and chipper and able to pull off all-white tracksuit outfits — aggressively anti-boy-band they come off. Maybe it’s the whole uncanny force behind a cappella, but I completely agree with your use of “obscenely dedicated.” It’s at times uncomfortable to watch! Like when the Dartmouth Airies tried to sing hip hop. As one of my friends said in response to that R. Kelly cover: “I’m not sure there are words to describe how much I hated this.”

I don’t know why I don’t find a cappella or boy band performances in themselves embarrassing, but when I see a cappella trying to adopt the typically pre-college and un-self-aware pretense of boy-band-hood, I cringe.

Boy bands don’t often write their own music; as the recent Joe Jonas expose showed, boy bands usually don’t have control of all that much when it comes to, essentially, their brand. What is charming about the DIY of a cappella isn’t just that it’s largely grown men and women harmonizing, but also that we know they arranged those harmonies. That’s what made Pentatonix so great: they knew their sound, they knew their voices in relation to the group, and all of this was tied up in a deep awareness of their specific approach to musical interpretation. To call the future of a cappella that of following the boy band worries me only because it levels out the possibility of distinct styles.

A cappella DOES have a future. (Just like magic, I swear.) But I don’t know if we can limit it to pop stardom (though a winning lead always helps, certainly). Alternately, even my most beloved boy bands might gain from learning a thing or two from a cappella:

Phil: Yes, Jane! “Keep A Cappella Weird.” Speaking of the future, though, if you and I were looking to put together an a cappella group for next year’s Sing-Off, what would we be called?

Jane: Oh, we couldn’t quite well use Cruel Poptimism, could we?

Phil: Aural Exams, BeatBakhtin, Three Part Harmony in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Vocal Historicism…

Phil Maciak is a film professor in Louisiana, vocal historicist, and co-writer of Dear Television.

Jane Hu just got her own domain! She’s also on Twitter.