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A Curious Genre

Arts & Culture | February 19, 2013

A cappella, especially college a cappella, has become unexpectedly popular in the past few years. If you haven’t seen this year’s comedy Pitch Perfect, maybe you’ve heard of Pentatonix or Straight No Chaser. If those names don’t ring a bell, perhaps you’ve watched a couple episodes of reality TV show The Sing Off. And if you’ve never watched The Sing Off, you must have at least heard of Season 2 runner-ups the Tufts Beelzebubs—because they go here, along with seven other a cappella groups.

So Tufts is pretty into the whole a cappella scene. As a member of Shir Appeal, Tufts’ Jewish a cappella group, our school’s enthusiasm for the genre is exciting, especially as this enthusiasm seems to have spread across much of the nation. But in stopping to think about what a cappella is today, the mainstream acceptance of what was once just a nerdy pastime is somewhat strange. Because aren’t we a cappella singers, at the most basic level, really just cover artists? Why are we being held up as an image of youthful creativity when, in some ways, a cappella discourages originality?

A Huffington Post blogger explains the problem some people have with a cappella, using her brother as an example. “To him, a cappella was an imposter genre,” she writes. Tufts senior and a cappella singer Emily Weinrebe says, “I totally see where [people like this] are coming from in that contemporary a cappella generally covers the work of other artists and emulates instruments instead of incorporating real ones.” This is true in the popular new movie Pitch Perfect, it’s true on a cappella competition The Sing Off, and it’s true for my own group and other groups at Tufts, with a few songs as exceptions. Very rarely do contemporary a cappella groups, even professional ones like Pentatonix, compose and perform their own music. In Entertainment Weekly, one University of Virginia singer explained their school’s process of ‘claiming’ songs: “groups definitely love performing current hits. At UVA, where there are several a cappella groups…they have an online system where you must claim songs you want. Once a song has been claimed, no one else can sing it.” The irony of this is that no group can truly claim a song as their own, no matter how exciting or different their arrangement, because someone else wrote those chords and penned those lyrics.

This is not an inherently bad thing, by any means. As Tufts Beelzebub Michael Grant says, “If you take a step back, it’s easy to see a cappella groups as glorified cover bands, and I mean that in both the best and worst way possible.” But looking at a cappella from this perspective makes it easy to see why some people—especially those who write their own music—might resent the popularity of a genre based on appropriating the songs of others. While Grant goes on to say that, “there’s a lot of room for creativity” in a cappella, there are also clear constraints. Even articles about the rise of a cappella sometimes refer to it as a less-than-legitimate musical genre—the New York Times wrote an article mentioning that, “some performers who make peace with their pasts in a cappella go on to become respected artists in their own right.” The article refers to a cappella as a “curious” genre, “one that makes sense under an ivy-strewn archway only to become inexplicable upon graduation.”

“Inexplicable” seems like a strong word, though, and in fact there now are successful a cappella groups who aren’t university students. Groups like Nota, the winners of The Sing Off’s first season, and Pentatonix, who won the third season, have used the money and exposure from the show to build a cappella careers. Pentatonix in particular have been lauded as taking the genre to another level, with incredibly innovative arrangements that bring in musical styles not usually done a cappella, like electronic and dubstep. Other groups, like the one in Pitch Perfect or Tufts’ own sQ!, create mash-ups of songs to make their arrangements more unique. Sophomore Shir Appeal member Ben Forster says , “I think there is potential for a cappella to become a much more original genre,” but explains that audiences, “still treat it like a way to re-imagine songs that are already well-known.” But even with these potential restrictions on innovation, more standard arrangements can be exciting, according to Weinrebe. She said that “when college groups execute their renditions well the product can be just as impressive as an original piece. It takes creativity and high degrees of musicianship to translate original pieces to just voices.”

Much of what makes a cappella impressive to audiences comes from the fact that it is characterized by singers’ imitating the sounds that instruments make. My group, Shir Appeal, often explains to audiences that when we sing background parts like “jen jen jen” or “doh doh,” we are attempting to sound like instruments from the original song; for instance, a guitar or a piano. This technique is what most college groups do, and what some become incredibly skilled at. Huffington Post blogger Marielle Wakim wrote about Pentatonix, “what’s really amazing is that they can imitate those [instrument] sounds in a way that a cappella barely did before. [The] rich, unrelenting beatbox and steady bass line ground the listener in a seemingly false reality: they are no longer human, they are the instruments they’re trying to emulate.”

This is what people often love about a cappella—it’s cool and very different from other genres of music. But at the same time, this once again raises the question of originality versus imitation. Trying to sound like an instrument, or doing what many groups do and getting a soloist to sound like the original artist, may not be the most expressive form of music. It can be hard to feel emotionally connected with the syllables “din” or “doh,” and singing these background parts are a far cry from performing an original, personal creation.

Contemporary a cappella, it seems, is in many ways in a league of its own. A cappella groups can be likened to cover bands, and they can be criticized as silly or unoriginal. But they also give people, like myself, who can’t play instruments or can’t read music, an outlet for a love of singing. Because they often focus on the imitation of instruments, each part in a group’s arrangement is important to their overall sound. And some people are extremely talented at playing with their voices—a capella is a unique way to showcase this.

So how to stay original and fresh? Grant advises that “a cappella only gets stale if a group’s cover does not add anything interesting to a musical or creative dialogue in the same way original tunes do.” He says that, “adding original flair and taste is what can set a cappella groups apart from traditional cover bands.” This is certainly true, to an extent. But whether you resent a cappella for a lack of originality, love it for it’s different sound, or don’t understand the hype at all, maybe it ultimately doesn’t matter whether instrument-less bands are artists or not. As Weinrebe pointed out, “Debates about whether a cappella is a legitimate art form all become moot when you realize that most people are just doing it because it’s a fun, creative, and often really weird musical outlet.”