Absurdist A Cappella

Fabricating an Inter-Group Rivalry

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss fabricating an inter-group rivalry to get the crowd behind you.

Setting the Stage: You want for your a cappella group to be loved. Sometimes the easiest way to get people pro-you, is to get them anti-someone else. Think about it. Would people love Rocky were he not matched against Apollo’s bravado? Would they get behind The Celtics were The Lakers not their foils? Would Batman be half as cool without a cast of cool villains like The Joker and Catwoman to thwart? Rivals inspire drama, give us sides to pick, and give fans more of a personal in what they’re watching because a victory for their heroes feels like a victory for them, themselves.

In the context of a cappella, you can garner more support for your group by painting another group as your archrivals.

Song Selection: Once you’ve identified the group you will oppose, your song selections should set you up as natural rivals. There are two main lines of thought here. You could perform the same type of music as your rivals to provide a natural basis of comparison and, in a sense, a natural reason why you would compete—who really covers The Script and John Mayer the best? Furthermore, it opens the opportunity for you to invent new drama. Keep an eye on your rival’s YouTube channel, wait for a new arrangement to come up, transcribe it directly and record your own version, then claim they stole it from you--the jerks.

The alternative is to espouse a totally different style from your rivals. They sing mainstream pop so you pick the most fringe alternative you can find. They sing jazz, so you focus on hip hop. This well help you develop a niche audience and may set you up as counter-culture to “the man” as represented by your rival (or as normal as opposed to those weirdos).

Setting: Use setting to create conflict. Book a show the same night, in the same building as your rival. The night of, post signs directing the audience toward your performance space with vague directions like “a cappella show this way.” Book the best lighting and sound people on campus and reserve the best equipment. If all else fails, send plants into their audience to stand up in the middle of show, complain loudly about how awful the harmonies were on the last song and announce that they’re headed to your show. The sheep will follow.

Choreography: Similar to song selection, there’s plenty of room to beat your rival group at its own game or to go in the opposite direction to assert your own authority. Particularly with the choreography, there’s also the opportunity to copy some of your rivals' moves in a mocking way to draw some laughs.

Other Notes: Outside of your actual performances, consider fanning the flames of rivalry through inflammatory Facebook posts and statements in the press. The key is to always make it seem like your group is innocent and the other is the aggressor. It may mean hacking into their accounts to start the flame wars, or it may mean concocting rationales for your “counter”attacks (“well, after X group said that we were completely out of tune every time we hit the stage, we felt compelled to point out they’re choreography is awfully lame”).

Establishing a Nation

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss how to establish a nation.

Setting the Stage: There was a stretch of decades for which The Boston Red Sox could not win a championships. It’s hard to be a once-great team in big sports city that can’t deliver in the present day. It’s hard to rebuild, hard to pick a direction, hard to retain a fanbase. And yet, somewhere amidst the championship drought, The Red Sox managed to assemble a group of fans of unparalleled loyalty, and that grew in number with each passing year. In 1986 , Boston Globe sports writer Nathan Cobb introduced the world to the term “Red Sox Nation,” and by the time the team was ready to win again in the early 2000s, the team itself had espoused the name, and the fan nation had swelled well beyond the city limits of Boston or the state limits of Massachussettes or even the region of New England.

A cappella groups, too, can develop interstate and even international followings. A cappella groups, too, can establish nations.

Song Selection: A group is mostly likely to attract casual fans through the performance of a combination of mainstream songs and songs good enough that they should be mainstream, but that they can espouse as their own (sort of like what everyone tried to do with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” in 2007-2008—until everyone did it to the point they rendered each other moot). There are two keys that follow: get there first, and there best.

In 2011 it became the thing to do for all-male groups to cover Lady Gaga. Sure it’s funny and entertaining, but it became a cliché. Just about the only all-male group that people decisively remember for going Gaga is On the Rocks. Why? Because they did so early—kicking off the trend. Why else? Because they had solid enough musical chops that it’s quite arguable none of their successors ever touched what they accomplished in the first place.
Be relevant, be cutting edge, and also be good. The fans will follow.

Setting: There are two main platforms through which to build a fanbase without geographic boundaries. The first is the old school method of touring. Nothing sells fans on an act like getting to see it live—getting the full thrust of your personality, the full boom of your sound, the full visual of your choreography. It’s the kind of thing that sends fans rushing out to the lobby to buy your CD and/or rushing home to check out more of your stuff on YouTube.

And therein lies the second platform—the Internet. As On the Rocks, The Maccabeats, and others have proven, if you put out an entertaining enough video, the masses will follow you.

Choreography: Forget what you’ve heard about focusing on musicality, or what The ACB has written about not over-choreographing. Choreography is fan-friendly. If you can make it simple but distinctive, and unique to your group, you’ll have your fans repeating it long after the show. When their friends ask them where they got those sick moves, they’ll be sure to talk all about your show, and in turn, a new fan will be born.

Other Notes: There are plenty of ways to cultivate a fanbase. Start keeping a blog on your website or Facebook page, and be sure to create a mailing list (though don’t spam people—just report real news). Organize fan appreciation shows on campus, and stream them live through your website. Above all else, hang around after shows and talk to people. In short, love your fans, and they will love you back.

Psyching Out the Competition

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss psyching out the competition.

Setting the Stage: In Catch Me If You Can Christopher Walken poses the question and answer to young Leonardo DiCaprio (paraphraphrased): “Do you know why The Yankees always win? It’s because those the other teams can’t stop staring at the pinstripes.” The message is that the sheer badge of honor represented by that Yankees uniform is so awe-inspiring, so intimidating, that opposing teams are beaten before they so much as set foot on the field.

Musicality, showmanship and playing to your strengths are all great for a cappella groups, but what’s even better is that aura unbeatability that truly great squads bring with them to any form of competition. It’s about psyching out the competition.

Song Selection: If you’re concerned with beating groups before the competition starts you need not focus so much on your actual competition as the media you put online. Putting out great videos a surefire way to get attention, and all the more so if you send the videos of you’re group performing to other schools.

To maximize the effect, consider picking a key song from each group you’re competing against—their shining star songs that there’s no doubt that they’ll bring to competition this year. Invest the money to get it professionally arranged and invest all of your time for a week on learning that song perfectly. Record the video in the studio so you can have the greatest ease in remixing and mastering the audio afterward. Presto—you have a video of your group singing another group’s song better than the original group could ever hope to. That will get them second guessing themselves, and reverting to less stellar songs in their own repertoires for competition. That’s step one toward leading groups to defeat themselves.

Setting: Unless you’re competing at your home school, it can be a real challenge to have the crowd support behind you at a competition. ICCA crowds tend to consist of fans of the host group, fans of the competing groups, and sprinkling of a cappella fans or curious spectators who have come to their first show. So, you can’t really hope for a real advantage in audience support, but you can manufacture the illusion thereof.

Before the show, find the cheapest t-shirt supplier you can, and spend as much of your budget as you can afford printing cheap t-shirts that represent your group. Use any excess funds on poster board with which to make homemade signs. Distribute all of these materials free of charge in the lobby for the show. Everyone loves a free t-shirt, and before you know it, you can have half the crowd sporting your colors. You want to get in the competition’s head? Imagine how they’ll feel when they take the stage, look out into the crowd, and see their mommies and daddies wearing your shirts? Let’s see how they hold their money notes when their throats are all choked up with tears.

Choreography: Hand jives and box steps intimidate no one. Think power choreography—poses, slides, and perfect synchronization. Beyond that, when it comes to the intimidation game, you need not worry about what you’re actually going to do in performance, only what the competition can see you rehearsing. Rather than plotting choreography to match your music, learn your songs and, separately, learn the most impressive dance routine you can. Practice that routine where everyone can see it before the show, and everyone will assume you can pull off those top notch moves with your music and begin flipping out long before they piece things together.

Other Notes: Other modes of intimidation include style of dress (Men in Black style suits and shades don’t scream approachability); claims of celebrity alumni (advertise on your website that Michael Buble and Christina Aguilera found their voices singing with your group—hardly anyone will actually research the point); and general Internet buzz (start spamming the media local to the competing groups; create a bunch of doppelganger Facebook profiles to populate your fan page with thousands of likes). In general, scare groups off from dreaming they can compete with you, and coast your way to the next round of the competition.

Misrepresenting Yourself Online

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss how to misrepresent yourself online.

Setting the Stage: Some groups are just awesome. They're cool, they sound great, they win awards, they do community service.

Other groups are not so awesome. They look pre-pubescent, their tone is off, they can’t buy an award, and they’ve never sung a gig outside their campus’s walls.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it has transformed a cappella from almost exclusively a live performance art to a medium that people are accustomed to digesting via Firefox. Viral videos are a fixture in the a cappella world, and almost any group around has a website and/or Facebook page. Today, people’s identities in general are defined almost equally by their real life personas and the identities they establish online through social networking and blogs. Therefore, there is no better time to fake a more idealized image for your group online.

Song Selection: First and foremost, to optimize your image, you only want to include your very best material online. Better yet, consider including material that’s even better than your best. Rather than wasting time actually learning music, perfect a lip sync routine to a Straight No Chaser song, and perform it in an empty auditorium. No one but your group and the cameraman will be the wiser and you’ll come off sounding like a million bucks.

Setting: Again, the beauty of the Internet is that you can take the live audience out of the equation and develop a completely separate image. With that in mind, the only recordings you post come from performances in front of a large audience, in which the audience reaction is so overwhelming that it, itself, is what you’re showcasing in the video. Otherwise, choose the setting of a studio or empty auditorium, or consider setting your videos in unconventional settings like a local trail, or on public transportation.

Choreography: There’s no excuse for videos you post of yourself online to look anything less than perfect. Take however many takes you need and don’t be afraid to splice videos together. Just get the job done right.

Other Notes: While this article has focused on the audio/visual presentation of yourself online, don’t be afraid to get creative with your text. For example, if you’re heading into competition, you know that there will be people from competing groups stopping over to check your group out before the show. Psyche them out by claiming to have been to the ICCA Finals 27 times in group history. Never mind the fact that the ICCA tournament has been around for 27 years. Most visitors won’t take the time to check your facts, and you’ll psyche out your would-be competition long before you set foot on the stage.

Pandering to the Judges

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss pandering to the judges.

Setting the Stage: So you’ve put in the time, the work, and the energy, and yet you still haven’t managed to advance in the ICCA tournament. Your pitch was perfect, your song choices impeccable, your choreography the stuff of legend. What’s left to do, and how on earth are the judges still placing other groups ahead of you?

The answer is easy. Other groups are pandering, and you aren’t—yet.

Song Selection: Through a combination of schmoozing your show’s producer and host, there’s a fair chance you’ll be able to figure out who your judges are. Once you have this information in hand, you can use it develop a set list that will directly play to the interests and preferences of your adjudicators. Elements to watch for—are the judge a collegiate a cappella alumni? Have they sung barbershop? Are they making music now? What are their musical preferences, as expressed on Facebook? All of these tidbits can help point you toward their musical leanings, which will assist you in selecting genres and styles in which to perform.

With the judge’s musical preferences in mind, there is still some need to be crafty. Just because one of the judges loves Billy Joel doesn’t mean you should sing “The Longest Time”—the judges have all heard it before and it will likely be difficult to exceed the bar set by top notch groups who sang that song long ago. Instead, think about a lesser known Billy Joel song that will resonate more personally with the judge and offer less basis for comparisons—a “Summer, Highland Falls” or “This Night.” You’ll win the judge over with your musical sensibility, and be forgiven some of your musical transgressions seeming innovative or unique with your song choice.

Setting: Though it’s not a universal rule, for most ICCA shows, the judges are local to the show setting, so you can use that to infer some things about the judges. If you’re performing in New York City, amp up the urban chic of your outfit choices, if you’re singing in South Carolina, don’t hesitate to let your southern drawl shine through. Keep in mind that, although the very topic of this article is pandering, you don’t want to come off as pandering—know your own limits and play to your surroundings the extent that your group is going to feel comfortable.

Choreography: This is where it becomes especially important to familiarize yourself with the judges own history performing in a cappella. We’re reaching a point at which a lot of collegiate a cappella alums are entering the judging mix, which means you can research what they used to do—see if their group choreographed, and if so, how. There’s nothing throwing in a judge’s signature dance move to warm the heart and sure up some favoritism.

Other Notes: Pandering to a judge with integrity won’t get you first place votes right away, but it is effective as a tie-breaker, or a way of standing out enough that the judge can more easily remember you when it comes time to make subjective rankings. Remember that subjective rankings play a huge role in final scores, so even getting multiple third place nods, while other groups’ votes are more scattered, could elevate you to a top two position for your overall finish.

Of course, when it comes to pandering, your actual performance hardly scrapes the surface of what you can do. Behind the scenes, don’t hesitate to have flowers or a batch of home-baked cookies sent to deliberation room. Even if the judges hated your performance, if you’re the one footing the bill on their deliberation time snack session, it can go a long way toward some sympathy points.

Staying in Your College Group Forever

Absurdist A Cappella

This time we discuss how to stay in collegiate a cappella forever.

Setting the Stage: Let’s face it, the hardest pil to swallow about the collegiate a cappella experience is that it has to end. People graduate, go on to get jobs. If they’re lucky, maybe they find a post-collegiate group in the area, but it’s never quite the same. You don’t have that same feeling of formative years, that same social acceptability over going for a diner run after a late night rehearsal, or the same access to population of co-eds with whom to party after a big show. No, collegiate a cappella is where it’s at, and it’s totally unfair that performers only get to sing with their groups a few short years. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some a cappella groups may welcome their members to stay on board indefinitely—be it while you pursue your PhD, or while you keep taking no credit basket-weaving classes each semester to retain your official status as a student. Other groups may start to push their veterans toward the door which requires a bit more craftiness, along the lines of leaving a group for a few years, then rejoining after the membership has turned over sufficiently. Regardless of the strategy, it’s doable.

Song Selection: To quote the great Randy Pausch, “When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it.” There’s no use in hiding the fact that you’ve been in the group a little long, so embrace it by celebrating your tenure. Song picks might include Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” The Orleans’ “You’re Still the One.” Beyond the thematic message of the songs, the old school nature of the songs themselves is a nice nod to your own ever increasing age.

Setting: As you grow older, you should be able to network and help your group develop and maintain connections at your school and surrounding the community that will, ideally, open different doors to performance venues. When selecting from your palette of stages, you may want to start thinking about ones with particularly dim lighting, which allow you to best hide your advanced maturity and blend in with the group of college kids all the more effectively.

Choreography: As your collegiate a cappella career stretches from years into decades, you’ll have the benefit of all those years of institutional memory. Groups phase through all sorts of a cappella from year to year, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call on your catalog to assemble a “best of” collection of ideas to deploy during a creative dry spell.

Other Notes: Collegiate a cappella may not be quite so fun if you stick with it into your geriatric years. But then, maybe it will be! To my knowledge, no one has really tried it to any drastic extreme. Be the first, and maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Fabricating an Inter-Group Rivalry
Establishing a Nation
Psyching Out the Competition
Misrepresenting Yourself Online
Pandering to the Judges
Staying in Your College Group Forever
Faking Your Way Into an A Cappella Group
How To Make Your A Cappella Group the Coolest Student Org on Campus
Using A Cappella on a Job Interview
The Break Up
Making Your Show One Big Musical
Using A Cappella To Take Over the World
Keep Your Secret Aca-Romance Vibrant
Picking an Alumni Song
Creating the Next YouTube Sensation
Using Pyro
Getting Aca-Action at the After Party
Provoking a Holiday Revelation
Air Guitar Solos
The Dramatic Use of Props
Stealing Another Group's Material
Staging a Dance Number
Learning a Song in One Day
How to Stave Off a Zombie Apocalypse
How to Propose
How To Serenade