october 5 1996: a cappella hell

certain brand of middle-of-the-road a cappella pop music is hugely popular on American college campuses - and nowhere else. It may have started as an East Coast, hoity-toity private school phenomenon, but now it seems that most colleges with more than a thousand students (and no doubt some with less) support at least two or three a cappella singing groups. These groups shouldn't be confused with the more benign choral and glee-club traditions; choirs aren't related to popular culture these days and don't pretend to be. The singing groups that we're talking about here have a sound, style, following, and way of behaving apparently brand new (since the mid-1980s), and apparently all their own.

And within this strange state of affairs, there's also the fact that it's hard to find people who dislike a cappella groups only mildly. Students either like it to some degree or another, have no opinion, or want to see it die screaming in flames. Also, many of the a cappella-haters are former a cappella lovers who have a small collection of a cappella records of some kind, tried out for groups and didn't get in, sang in a group in high school, or have some other involvement that they're somewhat embarrassed of. They're like the people who used to be zealous adherents to some fundamentalist religion, then suddenly switch around and turn into vitriolic critics. Why do people treat collegiate a cappella like a religion?

back to the present...

woo ha
(total fabrication on my part)
While you're in this situation, of course, it seems perfectly natural. None of us question the presence of six groups on our campus alone; they're just there, part of life. But it isn't inevitable that amateur performers of a pop form that's definitely the exception to the rule in the larger musical world should draw packed crowds on college campuses, or that all college students think that the average song is immeasurably improved when transposed from standard rock instrumentation to the sound of a bunch of white kids going "doo doo doo."

Dammit, now I've gone and played the race card; I guess we'll start there. It's rare to find a college singing group with a high degree of soul. I assert that this has nothing to do with the ethnic makeup of the groups (which is pretty overwhelmingly white), but rather has to do with the groups' estrangement from authentic traditions of a cappella music in America. When I say "authentic" and "soul" I mean things that I can't quite put my finger on; I'm thinking not only of streetcorner singers and doo-wop groups of the '50s and '60s but of barbershop quartets earlier in the century, old community glee clubs, contemporary groups like the Bobs and Take 6, even church choirs and gospel - all of them forms that feel more connected to a song directly, rather than feeding off of recorded music as a primary source.

Collegiate a cappella is fundamentally uncreative. That's just a statement of fact. Extremely rare is the group that performs any original material, besides maybe a traditional group theme song. Instead, collegiate a cappella trades on choral arrangements of current, classic, or ironically hip old pop songs. Most groups perform about a two-to-one proportion of their own arrangements and arrangements cribbed from groups at other schools, or from non-collegiate semi-pro a cappella groups. Not all big singles make it to a cappella-dom, but nice simple ones with interesting harmonic structures are safe bets. If the song is by a pseudo-alternative mainstream artist popular on campuses, such as Sting or Peter Gabriel, you've got a sure hit. And of course, any song that's charted in the last twenty years that was originally performed a cappella will be performed by college groups everywhere.

A college a cappella concert is an exercise in simulation. Arrangements and soloists that sound at least plausibly like the real thing (remember that phrase "plausibly live" from the Olympics coverage?) are prized. It's as though the local Top 40 radio station were giving a concert - not sponsoring or promoting a concert as radio stations often do, but the radio station itself actually performing live, its computerized playlist shufflers and mixing boards sitting on stage and churning out your favorite early '80s classics through the PA.

To be fair, nobody who goes to a cappella shows is coming anywhere close to thinking any of that consciously. Therefore, we have to give a little more credence to the social aspects of singing groups, which many fans have quoted to me as the main appeal of the phenomenon. People like to come and watch their friends sing, or to watch their friends watch their friends sing, and just to be a part of a slick, well-rehearsed musical event that's deeply connected to the community it happens in. The thrill is certainly different than watching your roommate's slightly sucky indie-rock band play; indie rockers can be heavy on pretension but are exciting and don't sound slick, whereas a cappella fans are drawn to music that's smoothed out and made nice, offered up in a format that presents performers as just plain folks. Singing groups often function like fraternities at schools that don't have them (and some that do); the best example of this is probably Yale, home of the Whiffenpoofs (the world's oldest and most famous college singing group, and probably the origin of the whole culture if there is one), where new students are said to "rush" a clear hierarchical structure of groups, and graduate from one to another.

The original American a cappella singing traditions got their start around the turn of the century, when recorded music was very much still a novelty, so actual musical performance was not as far from most people's lives as it is now. Today, colleges have a strange, homogenized a cappella tradition designed to make people feel personally closer to musical performance in a way that going to a rock show or symphony can't. College students get hooked on singing groups, and keep going to see them, because they mentally put themselves in place of whoever is actually performing. Every time a singer steps out in front of the rest of the lineup with a grave expression to do his or her solo, the audience isn't really seeing him or her; each student watching and listening is thinking, "I should be doing that." Even if they aren't, they're at least noticing that these are people that they can see around campus regularly, who often don't have super-exceptional talent and are generally not far removed, socially speaking, from their audience in the way that so many other performers that come to campus are.

So how many of those who don't actually participate, i.e. sing in a group, keep exploring a cappella music after they leave college? I'd say few to none (SUG: Singing-groups Until Graduation), but I can really only back up that claim by pointing to the general tendencies of singing groups to emphasize insularity and tradition, two things that are highly valued in most colleges and usually abandoned to a degree when modern students enter the real world. Those who do participate in an a cappella group seem largely engaged not with presenting a more artful experience to the audience, but with mastering (or playing around within) a system - not only the intricacies of coordinating the parts of vocal arrangements, but all the fun of learning the landscape of all the groups at all the different schools, working with them to arrange tour stops or "borrow" arrangements, whatever. This puts college a cappella firmly within the ranks of geek culture (that is, systems-based forms of entertainment like science fiction, fantasy role playing games, computers and the like).

Many of those who hate college a cappella are fans of a cappella music on some level, and it sems to me that a good deal of them actually feel betrayed - I've often heard the phrase "it could have been so good" in discusions about the college singing-group phenomenon. If I seem overly harsh in this article, I should make clear that I have real experience with, and real love for, the possibilities and the practice of good-old-fashioned unaccompanied harmony, and that I'm still sort of bitter about trying out for all the groups I could back in freshman year and getting dissed by them all (so I don't audition well, so sue me). Lastly, I also want to make it clear that I would never begrudge singing-group fans their honest evening's fun. As Daniel Clowes writes at the close of his Oedipal analysis of American sports in Eightball #14: "I'm not saying it's wrong to like sports, just that it's kind of fruity and perverted." I guess that's how I feel about college a cappella. Thank you.

in other news...

This summer I got a lot of mileage on this column by avoiding work on the one piece I really meant to do (sex & hypnosis), and now it appears that if I attempt to work on the piece that I've been meaning to do next (in fact it's one of the original ideas I got when I started doing this), nothing happens for weeks on end. There are a lot of other reasons nothing happened, of course, like entering my senior year of college. This piece I've finally managed to get up is actually something I wrote on deadline for a campus magazine. So we'll see how things proceed as far as timeliness. No promises.

With regards to fat & happy, I forgot to mention that I went and saw Heavy for research purposes. It's a movie about a fat guy who likes a girl. I guess it was pretty interestingly made and managed to avoid being completely melodramatic. It got annoying after a while to watch the lead actor do his schtick of basically walking around being afraid of everything around him for no reason. Also notable is the appearance of the Culinary Institute of America ("CIA" for short), well known at Vassar for being the only nearby dining establishment good for going to on a fancy date. Anyway I mention this movie now because I think I've noted all the other films I saw this summer in Tales somewhere, and I didn't want to leave any out because for once I'll actually remember everything I saw over the summer when people ask. I also saw Trainspotting, which I enjoyed and thought was much better than Kids. Haven't seen anything else since.

Soul Coughing, greatest band in the world, playing campus tonight, I'm gonna fuckin explode all over this place, will report any interesting details.

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Primarily A Cappella (They stock 400 albums and other things, including a large variety of college group albums. It ain't right that the girl who lived down the hall from me freshman year can cut a CD and I can't. This shop actually stocks a lot of great stuff - no samples, though, so I can't prove it, and I can understand how you'd be suspicious.)

Fundamentalist Religion


Yale Student Organizations (I was terrified that the Whiffenpoofs were going to have a page on Yale's official site - it turns out that they don't have a page at all, but this page I did find is pretty amusing. Here's a glee club if you wanna know what that's all about.)

Daniel Clowes - Eightball (Fantagraphics needs a new web site, badly)

Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated Oct 5 1996