a question, a movement, a capella

11 09 2007

It is 2004, and a cast of college students sit in a amply tapestried hall in Boston University’s George Sherman Union. It’s Wednesday, circa 8 p.m., and the lights are a dull orange. The people are there, ostensibly, for reasons charitable. But some have come to serve more immediate, more personal, purposes. It is, after all, a date auction.

As the night matures, it proceeds like a multi-course meal. First comes, the salad and bread, the basic and wholesome and not entirely fulfilling fundamentals brought to you capably by members of WTBU, College of Communications Deans Hosts, religious clubbers and various dorm RA’s. Average price range: $5-$15.

Later, the soup. A bit more spicey, more substantive. Now you’re drawing from people involved in clubs with a bit more intrigue, like the handsome devils at the Daily Free Press, the undersexed officers of Young Democrats and Republicans clubs and a few other semi-acceptable societies. Average range: $10-$20

You pick through the different club and marginalized varsity sports, from ski to frisbee to crew, in the pasta portion. Average: $15-$25, with some correction for facial bone structure.

All the while, the main course remained in the back, suits as stiff as their poses. But when they stepped out from behind the curtain, wallets that had until then been clamped shut flew open as priced raced to the sky. Out they came, the Dear Abbeys, who showed themselves to be the most popular five men on the Boston University campus. That night, the Abbeys — BU’s it a capella group for boys — went for about a year’s tuition. Four of the top five earners were Abbeys, with a high tally of more than $200 for one especially upright and melodious man.

The night attested to two of the most fascinating and mystifying trends currently circulating around America’s campuses: the proliferation of a capella, especially male a capella, and its ability to convince girls to separate themselves from their money and their pants. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 1,200 college a capella groups nationwide, a number that has burgeoned from about 300 in New England in the past 25 years. More than 13,000 Youtube hits for a capella. Even a national championship for it.

That’s a hell of a lot of pants hitting the floor.

You have to wonder about an undertaking whose artistic zenith is a song about coffee — the best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup. It’s as if a rock band’s highest aspiration were to jam out for you while you’re munching on Raisin Bran.

A capella is, at first glance, the competitive walking of music, a scaled-back version of the real thing. It’s the white zinfandel, a hybrid designed for popular consumption that emulates and yet reduces the real product.

A bunch of white men — it’s still the preserve of almost exclusively whites — standing straight up, rocking back and forth awkwardly like men do, only highlights the stiffness that playing with instruments covers up. It’s music, naked. And it’s not usually pretty.

It’s been beaten up, to some extent, in pop culture. American Pie juxtaposed singing in a choir with playing lacrosse, with all the requisite emasculating connotations. McSweeney’s did virtually the same thing with this list, which replaces the names of both teams in famous rivalries with an a capella group from each school. Just imagine the way the crowd would pulse as the KopiToneZ broke it down, C-minor style.

“Oh, it’s lame as hell,” said former Abbey and 2007 BU grad Scott Williams. “It’s kind of like Seth Cohen.”

So why join a group?

“Chicks,” Williams said immediately.  

He did, of course, meet his girlfriend via the band.

“[Girls] love it because they have visions of the dude serenading them into bed,” said 2006 BU grad and Boston Globe writer Mike Lipka. “And they think they are all John Mayer. That part makes me sick.”

“Girls love to be serenaded, so if you date a guy who’s in a capella, the thought is that he’ll sing to you,” said Tay McEvers, a 2007 BU grad who will not be serenaded by me.

Bewitched by the sweet harmonies of the modern barbershop quartet, women  

But not everyone gives himself to repeating shoo-bop shoo-bop shoo-bop, mmmhmmm ad infinitum simply because he can make female (or male) loins hum in harmony with his vocal chords.

“Some people do it for the love of singing — about 50/50 — as I do,” Williams said.

“Obviously I’m not in it for [girls],” said Brendan Reilly, 2007 Villanova grad, now a member of two a capella groups in DC. “I also like to sing.”

(He has a girlfriend. Ordinarily he would be in it for girls, he claims. This is something we’ve disputed.)

But there’s got to be more to it. Why a capella and not a real band? Is it why soccer and basketball are more popular in poor places than, say, hockey? Less need for equipment, more reliance on what’s around?

“I always look at people doing a capella like I look at people doing backflips: they are doing it at a show and I think ‘Man I would do that all the time if I were able to do it,'” said 2007 BU grad Steve Macone, a comedian and writer. “I’d backflip to work if I could. Or maybe not all the time, but large percentages of it. Same thing with a capella. I’d be ordering my McDonald’s in song”

Now, singing well — personally or in a group — is a talent. One that I don’t possess. And the arrangements of the songs requires more than just wearing color-coordinated sweatbands and aesthetically ripped t-shirts.

But why do a capella groups fill lecture halls and Boston University date auctions with ease when rock bands struggle to convince anybody they’re actually a band?

Maybe a capella is popular for the same reason that cover bands are: Because they play popular songs. People will flock to unforgivably bad bars to see overweight, overaged and undershaven bands play songs by more famous bands. Why buy the cow when you can get the imitation cow for free?

“You play to a bigger audience,” Williams said. “You can include more songs and styles in your rep, whereas with a rock band it’s more about what the band wants to do.”

“Obviously there is such a thing as bad a capella, but if someone does a cool variation of a song I like, I love it,” Lipka said.

But something has transformed a capella from the hobby of the New England bland bourgeosie — it’s no coincidence that BU and Cornell have about 30 established groups between them — into a national craze. And it’s the same thing that de-lamed traditionally white music to begin with: traditionally black music. After all, the same force (blues, etc.) ushered in rock music.

“There’s something romantic about the transportability of it,” said Steve Macone, comedian, writer and 2007 BU grad. “It’s cool to think of men just sitting around, bursting into song on a stoop. I’m not sure how much that actually happens, but it’s kinda related to freestyle in that regard.”

Beat-boxing, freestyle rap and R&B vocals added layers and complexity and that one elusive element — Cool — to a style of music that rivaled gardening and bobbing for apples in terms of attractiveness. When you can do this with just a permutation of voices, essentially re-inventing the way people interact with a song, there’s more than enough to admire.

Is it simply the evolution of music, another example of the expansive democratization of media, in lowering music to the common, instrumental-less man? Or is it a dumbing-down, a novelty and nothing more?

And if that’s the case, can we ever see a capella as a true musical genre, or just a hobby and a ploy to pick up a mate?

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One response

13 09 2007
Sasha Fraine

Fabulous, I love this as you know, I am an a capella enthusiast!

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