Monday, January 14, 2013

A Cappella Gives Me the Blues

It’s weird.


Folks my age (36) get stuck in ruts.  That’s just kind of a fact.  We’ve heard the music we like, we know “our” kinds of movies, and, you know, we pretty much want more of the same.


Much the way people the generation above me go out and buy new Paul Simon albums, I go out and get the new Ben Folds.


And there are things that are even more distressing than realizing you’ve only discovered, say, two new musical artists you like over the last year.  Like when I sat down last night at the piano, and I was playing a song I really love, and then I realized the song is 21 years old.


The song is old enough to drink.


It is, in fact, probably old enough to be on the “Classic” rock stations.  Much the way the music of my very young childhood is slowly creeping onto the local oldies station.




So of course there’s something to seeking out the pleasures of your younger life.  You get to pretend that song you like isn’t 21 years old.


Lately, though, one of the things I kind of dug 21 years ago is now slowly creeping back into my life by no fault of my own.  A Cappella music.  Or, perhaps more specifically, Rock-Appella music.


(MS Word is puking on itself over that one.  I’ll try to avoid using it again.)


What I’m getting at here, kinda, is the idea of hipsterism, wherein the thing that you liked that no one else had heard of suddenly becomes a THING, and you find yourself going, “Wait, since when do OTHER people know about this?”


So let’s go back to not-quite-20-years-ago.  I was in college, and the one thing you should know about college is that your college is constantly throwing free stuff at you.  This is because they have the justify how much it costs you to go to college for four years, despite the fact that you could probably pack the same information into one or two years of schooling if they didn’t make you take a bunch of credits outside your major.


But that’s my advice to you, if you’re in college.  Go see everything.  If it’s cheap or free, go.  If it sucks, leave.  You’ll be out, like, two dollars.


So one of the free things I saw was a little A Cappella group that called itself Blind Man’s Bluff.  It was four guys and a drum machine, and they prided themselves on the fact that they did something unusual: Pop songs.


I’m not talking about, say, 1950s doo-wop, or quiet ballads, or whatever.  They worked up an arrangement of Under the Bridge by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example.


And this is the thing: at the time that was kind of a big deal.


I’ll grant you, they weren’t the only guys doing it (I’ll come back to that in a bit) but they were certainly early adopters.  The guys who started buying Blu Ray discs when everyone else was still sticking to DVDs.


More to the point, they captured that sound on a disc.  They released their first CD when I was in college, and in fact our college was the first place that you could buy one of them.  Remember, this is more than a decade before iTunes would mean that you could buy their music WHILE watching their show.


I still have that CD.  I pull it out once in a while.  Overall, there’s a lot to like about it.  Five guys can be a little thing on the ground, performance-wise, and the drum machine sounds fakey.  But their version of the Indigo Girls song Galileo is probably my favorite.


They even have a solid original song on there, called Chase the Dream.  I once wrote a movie with that title, and I thought it would be awesome to have that song under the end credits.


Of course, by the time I wrote it, the band was mostly dead.


Google was still a pretty primitive thing back then, but I got an email from a friend the year after I graduated.  The band had already lost two members, gained a new one, and the show wasn’t quite as good.  I hunted for them online at the time and couldn’t find any other information.  Today, a search shows that they made four CDs before disbanding forever.


The second time I saw them in concert, an on-campus A Cappella group had sprung up, and opened for them.  That was my first real taste of collegiate A Cappella.


It wasn’t bad.  But it wasn’t one that had experienced the A Cappella revolution.


Hold that word in your brain as we zip forward in time.  Somewhere in the middle of the fast-forward, there’s a short pause for The Gilmore Girls, which made a joke about collegiate A Cappella.  And a slightly longer pause for Scrubs, which had an A Cappella band.


Which was, and is, kind of a real band.  They’re called The Blanks.  They made me happy every time I saw them, for reasons I couldn’t quite explain.  Though I figured it out.


Glee added an A Cappella band to their roster: The Warblers, who became so strangely popular, they’re the only Glee band to get their own release.  Think about it.  There’s no “Best of Rachel,” but there’s a whole CD of Pop-Appella.  (Once again, I’m sorry.)


I loved that CD.  Loved it.


Then we bump up against last year.  The Sing Off. 


I don’t know that there’s much to say about it that I haven’t already said elsewhere and at length.  It was the third season, and as it turns out, it was also the final season.


Bands came out and performed, and while none of them were bad, it was a truly mixed bag.  The prize was, supposedly, a bunch of money and a recording deal, but I could see that the real prize was being on TV, starting with the first episode.


How could I tell?  A lot of the groups were people returning for a second shot, often with a new band.  Some bands were newly formed, a few weeks or months old.  Several of the groups were collegiate A Cappella bands… groups with rotating casts, at best.


And there were a few bands who… how to describe it?  They were professional A Cappella groups.  It’s what they DID.  It was like having Justin Bieber audition for American Idol.  It just didn’t make any sense.


Which I guess tells you how desperate they were for contestants.


The thing of it was, I could tell out of the gate who deserved to win.  Pentatonix. They came out and performed ET, which was an actual on-the-charts song.  And they didn’t make it all A Cappella-y.  They did not adapt it for five voices.  They adapted their voices to perform the song the way it sounded on the radio.


I spent weeks listening to it, tearing it apart in my head, trying to work out how they did it.


When they won, it wasn’t  a shock. The top two was them, and a collegiate group.  And the head of that group said, out loud, on TV, “I never really thought about a career in music.”


Well then, my friend, why in the world are you missing school to be on a musical TV show? 


Therein lay the charm of Pentatonix.  They were an actual band, and they were trying to perform actual music they way music is played today.  Remxied.  Mashed up.  With the bass and drums cranked up to the point where you can barely hear the melody.


Even more interesting, to me, was the fact that they won a record deal, which they then turned down to release their own EP.


Yes.  They actively ran away from a major label.  And now they’re on tour, and it seems like they’re doing pretty well. 


Their releases were probably my biggest happy of last year, five voices doing super-fun acrobatics, and to be honest there’s a certain “Best of” quality to their releases.


It was when their EP was released that I realized for the first time what makes A Cappella so fun.  It’s stuff you ALREADY LIKE.  And then you add in SOMETHING I LIKE DOING.


I liked being in college, and hanging out with people, and then with just the parts of our body that God gave us, we’d make really fun music.  Often arranged on the fly.  With harmonies and solos and just plain fun.


I heard there was a movie called Pitch Perfect coming out, and that it was about collegiate A Cappella.  It made sense.  I figured it was probably greenlit during the seven seconds it looked like A Cappella might become a thing.


And then… then I found out it was based on a book.


The book is a bit like Moby Dick, in that half of it is story.  It follows three college groups doing… stuff.  One is trying to recover from losing a bunch of members.  One is trying to make a new CD.  And one… I don’t even remember.  That’s how low-stakes it is.


The other parts talk about the history of A Cappella music in colleges.  Some of the details are great, like the story of the first guy to go, “We should sing the GUITAR part.”  Which is obvious, but someone had to be that guy.


Often, however, it’s depressing, because you realize these people are busting tail trying to put on these great performances… for no one.


The bestselling A Cappella CDs sell, no lie, a thousand copies.  Which is what makes the book funny, or horribly depressing.  These people are killing themselves to be the best at something that no one cares about, to be the top of the pile that no one remembers.


The movie, of course, doesn’t mention that.  It pulls the idea of a female group trying to recover after losing a bunch of members, and made a pretty standard, though very funny movie out of it.


People wondered why the judges in the movie were making fun of the singers as they performed, and I think that’s your answer: to keep the audience from doing it.


Because who cares?


Because who, besides me, still owns a Blind Man’s Bluff CD 15 years later?


I bought the Pitch Perfect soundtrack, and it is both glorious and sad.  The movie is nearly 1 hour and 50 minutes long, and the movie has about 30 minutes of music in it. 


And I sit, and I wonder how much longer this happy little bubble can survive.


The movie was a hit, and the soundtrack is selling well, and that’s nice, I guess.  But the happy of A Cappella is, I think, built on top of the happy of hit songs performed in a fun way.  It isn’t original.  It doesn’t change the world.


It is, mostly, about being a great wedding band: able to perform the hits.


I have seen the enemy nostalgia, and it is reminding me that I am older now, and my brief little happy flickers and feels the cold hand of despair.




Guess I’ll go listen to No Diggity again.  There are probably a couple solid hits of happy in there somewhere.

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled across this blog and thought I would post. My name is Brian Michaels and I started hosting an a cappella radio show in 1997 and still do, I actually own over 2500 a cappella CDs including many by Blind Man's Bluff. I was lucky enough to see them numerous times between 1999 and 2002 when they broke up. In 1998 they dropped the drum machine and added a vocal drummer, Paul Donnelly.

    Just curious your thoughts on the newest Pentatonix CD, both Pitch Perfect movies, the group Home Free, the TV series Sing It On and if you heard of the new show coming out called Pitch Slapped and of course Pitch Perfect 3 in 2017

    Brian Michaels