There was a little bit of fuss made over Linda Holmes’ recent NPR piece reviewing the ICCA Finals last weekend. Of course, we did also get the BIG ANNOUNCEMENT that apparently there’s to be a reality show based on the ICCAs coming out, combined with the prior announcement of the sequel to the Pitch Perfect movie.
So while my question is “Can we please stop sending Mickey Rapkin checks?” apparently the public’s question (as presented by Ms. Holmes) is “Hey Reality! Y U NO LIKE THE MOVIEZ?”
Indeed, there were several places in the review where I simply laughed out loud as I watched Holmes seemingly get more and more confused and angry that the 2013 ICCA finals didn’t meet up to the expectations that Hollywood and TV had given her. And as she is a member of the media, really, this should be embarrassing.
“This is the real Pitch Perfect”
The big lie, perpetrated by the movie — aside from the fact that nobody wears precisely matching sparkly costumes like that — is that college a cappella is dominated by mobs of twee goobers standing around singing cheesy ’80s/’90s music with enormous grins on their faces.
Okay, so here’s what I loved about Pitch Perfect The Movie - it’s duality. Here was a movie that pandered heavily to the expectations of the general public, both in its framing of the culture of college a cappella and hitting many classic romcom and college party movie tropes along the way. But at the same time, it was a movie for acas, turning the funhouse mirror on us and lampooning us in ways that we could really understand and relate to.
(I frequently pictured Deke Sharon looking over the screenplay and saying “Put this in - trust me, a cappella people will love it.”)
But it’s still a movie. To say that the movie perpetrated a “Big Lie” is to completely ignore the fact that as a consumer of media, we choose the amount of veracity we ascribe to the portrayal, knowing that the point of the portrayal is to entertain and not inform.
Marshall McLuhan clarified his famous statement “The Medium is the Message” to “The Medium is the Massage.” The movie itself doesn’t portray the message, it just takes the existing one in your consciousness and works it.
(But you know what? I shouldn’t have to delve into mass media communication theory as part of my response to an article by a member of the media.)
“This whole scene has gotten a lot more into sad music since I was in college”
So rather than pay attention to “the three fingers pointing back at her,” she ascribes this dissonance to collegiate a cappella culture having what amounts to an identity crisis. And surely, as an aca, I can say that there is some grain of truth hidden in amongst this. There is an ongoing process of self-definition that our community is undergoing, but it’s been undergoing that since the beginning, and it will continue to do so forever.
I am a big proponent of looking at contemporary a cappella music for what it actually is - a mode of creative expression shared by a progression of constantly diverging and evolving micro art movements. Sure, there is a main route that continues in the macro-direction of the “art form”, but at the same time, the bus only gets you part of the way home. We all have to express ourselves in a way that’s true to what we want to express.
The very nature of the ICCA is to act as a place where groups and performers come together to share their own experiences of what it means to be part of collegiate a cappella. It is a forum for a passive (and sometimes active) exchange of ideas. It is a competition, only in that in our American culture, this compels everyone to bring their best to the table.
Adjudication plays a major role here, and the development and steering of the overall collegiate a cappella “bus” comes, in part, from decisions made in the Judges Room. Over the years, the manner in which the adjudication happens has changed from a purely subjective rubric (and many fabled battles among judges) to something that mixes the objective (musicality, performance effectiveness, professionalism) with the subjective (impact).
The repertoire of collegiate a cappella competition sets also changes. Non-professional groups are urged nearly every day in different ways to connect more with their music. Sure, perhaps there is some reactivity right now to the idea of the “shiny happy college glee club” stigma coming from history and popular culture, but at the same time we’re dealing with last of the millennials here (and the generation to come) who are extremely aware of the disconnect between promise and reality.
Huh. Interesting how things come back around.
“…screaming solos have become too prominent at the expense of ensemble singing.”
Of course, there’s always the routine trotting out of “but if you are a group of singers why aren’t you more like a choir” to bring us back to the real core of public perception versus the reality of our music. And this is something we may never entirely surmount. But it is going to be a hell of a gear change for the public perception, it’s been a hell of one for us over the last 10 years.
We have been moving away from the church choir model as we deconstruct a cappella, with its rich history and a strict literal definition, to the fundamental level of this mode of expression that bears only a slight resemblance to the classical one.
Those of us who have seen Postyr Project can attest that their music is categorically not a cappella in the strictest sense, and they will even deny themselves being an a cappella group. But watching them, it is hard to say that they cross the line entirely. The fundamental parts of a cappella and vocal harmony are definitely there. And in a way, their technology truly is a member of their group - lending it’s own unaccompanied “voice”, it’s own limitations, it’s own skills to the group to form a cogent whole with the five human vocalists.
I could riff on and on about why Postyr is and is not a cappella (and why that makes them such an important influence,) but I’ll save it for another time. I bring them up because our subculture’s reactions to them is kind of a corollary with the general public’s reaction to the reality of collegiate a cappella. Despite the best wishes of a public that wants to categorize us, stereotype us, and interface with us only on their terms, we keep evolving, keep refining, and leave them struggling for a “box” to put us in.
Where the rubber meets the road
As much as I hate to disappoint our adoring public, The ICCAs are not for them. They are distinctly a celebration of us, for us. So they shouldn’t expect we’re going to do it according to their framing. If adhering to a more traditional, touchy-feely, outsider-friendly aesthetic that remains rooted to upbeat vocal harmony and heritage is what you’re looking for, may I recommend any show of the Harmony Sweepstakes tournament (oh yeah, I went there.)
I can agree with Linda on one thing though: The reality show will be interesting.
Lots of stuff going on here behind the scenes, but the big one thing we’re ready to put out there is this:
Yup. AcaGeek Lindsey’s gonna be on Jeopardy! You’ll need to check your local listings for specific time and channel, but the show airs on Monday, March 11th. We’d love it if acas everywhere were cheering her on from home!
By now, many in the aca-community (with iPads) have seen this video and been beside themselves with WANT.
ThinkMusic, the company behind it, is currently running (what else?) a Kickstarter to help keep current development records running, and give the community that is clamoring for it a sense of ownership and avenue for true early adoption.
According to the campaign, the app is slated for release this fall, and will cost $30, but the first 300 early adopters can get it for a $20 donation. Higher tiers will also net backers a Jot Stylus, which is already very popular input device among iPad digital artists.
You can find out more, and donate at the Kickstarter Project page.
Once again, I have had the pleasure of working with Corey Slutsky on developing the Digital Booklet for the latest installment in Voices Only A Cappella’s compilation catalog. The Voices Only Forte series is the non-scholastic counterpart of the long-running collegiate compilation series that was Voices Only’s namesake.
Above, you can see the cover artwork, which I really thought captures the idea of capturing the “pulse” of non-scholastic a cappella. Of course that’s just my cheesy artiste-speak. :)
The compilation will be available for digital download in the next few days. This year, the tracklist once again distinguishes itself with deep dives into international group recordings and more diacritical marks than the inaugural. Of course, that’s just my esoteric typography-speak. :) There’s also more originals.
Congrats to all the groups selected by this year’s expanded selection committee!