In 2009, NBC debuted The Sing-Off, a short-run reality show in which competing a cappella groups drew as many as seven million viewers. In 2011, the show launched Pentatonix, a YouTube juggernaut that has taken to routinely accruing over a million viewers to their infectious covers of music by acts like Beyonce and Daft Punk, en route to winning a Grammy. In 2012, the crown jewel of the a cappella media empire settled into place—Pitch Perfect, a movie very loosely based on a book by the same title, which grossed over one hundred million dollars, added terms like “aca-scuse me” to the cultural vernacular and produced the best-selling movie soundtrack of the year.
Before any of that, I discovered a cappella for myself.
It was spring 2005. I sat in a pew at Sage Chapel on the Cornell University to attend what was only my second International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella show. Like so many in the crowd, I came to a cappella as a boyfriend. I knew that singing pop lyrics over backing harmonies and vocal percussion was important to my girlfriend, so I went to these shows to support her.
After my first ICCA show, I told that girlfriend that I loved her. There was something ineffable about seeing someone I cared about excel at something that she was so clearly invested in. Watching her and The Syracuse University Mandarins perform “Accidentally In Love” (including choreography that saw them spell the word “LOVE” with their bodies, YMCA-style, on each chorus) felt transcendent. It was no surprise when they won first place.
After my second ICCA show—a tournament semifinal—I loved a cappella. I had observed not only The Mandarins repeat their set, but I also heard Rutgers University Casual Harmony—a group that had first formed only one year earlier—perform a raucous set that featured music by System of a Down, and featured an impossibly high falsetto lead for Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” I felt changed.
I started a blog about a cappella music, and went on to attend as many as eight ICCA shows a year, writing a detailed summary, analysis, and review for each twelve-minute competition set. It became a point of contention between that girlfriend and I—particularly after she finished her MBA and, after a prolonged career of six years, could no longer justify singing with her college group anymore. She found herself without a place in the a cappella world. Her appreciation of my appreciation of a cappella transmogrified into resentment at stealing the form from her.
We broke up. It wasn’t about a cappella. Not really.
I went years without seeing her. But at least once a year, I saw Casual Harmony—a regular competitor from 2005 on. I saw them through covers of Muse, Kanye West, and Pearl Jam, in addition to more standard fare along the lines of Gnarls Barkley and Jason Mraz. I even got to the point of befriending a few group members, most notably co-founder and one-time director David Rabizadeh.
Ten years removed from my first encounter with Casual Harmony, David and I get to talking.
Some things have changed for him. He graduated from Rutgers with a BS in Information Technology and BA in Economics, and moved to Philadelphia to work for a marketing research firm. On the side, he has earned his real estate license and he owns a sports bar. He is a self-described CrossFit addict who has lost weight since college and who finds that daily exercise gives him the energy to pursue so many other endeavors.
Some things have stayed the same for him. He still spends an inordinate amount of his would-be spare time working on a cappella. David hardly sings anymore, but rather is finishing his fifth year heading up the ICCA tournament. “After college, I tried to keep singing,” he says. “But I also kept pushing Amanda to let me produce events.”
The Amanda he’s referring to is Amanda Newman, the Executive Director of Varsity Vocals who bought the a cappella competition and recording brand in the mid-2000s, and has overseen ICCA, it’s sibling International Championship of High School A Cappella, and two annual Best of… recording compilations ever since. In 2015, it’s an anomaly to see her at a live competition, but she does grace the stage in New York each year—despite her disarming, self-deprecating brand of humor, still as close as the scholastic a cappella world has to a monarch—to crown that year’s world champions. She has made Varsity Vocals her full-time career, a undertaking that started with her working from bedroom and with an avalanche of CDs covering her dining room table, and has matured to her working from a dedicated office space from which she is the leading force in coordinating and arbitrating the fates of thousands of young a cappella singers.
David built a relationship with Amanda over a period of years and progressed from teaming with Varsity Vocals staff as his group’s liaison to host events at Rutgers, to traveling up and down the east coast to produce events, to earning the title of Regional Producer, before Amanda appointed him to the role of Director of ICCA.
David describes his movement between these positions as seamless, given that so many of the tasks have carried over from one role to the next. While the details of producing a show may not have changed all that profoundly over the years, the scale has increased. From my own experiencing reviewing shows, I recall that when I started blogging about a cappella in 2007, it was not unusual for a show to feature as few as five or six groups. Now it’s difficult to find a quarterfinal with fewer than eight, and most of these shows at the first tier of live competition feature ten-to-twelve competitors. Not only are individual shows bigger, but most regions have added an additional quarterfinal to accommodate increased interest.
David recognizes the importance of Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off in broadening the field of competitors. “Seeing how incredible these groups are encourages more people to participate,” he says. He goes on to clarify, “groups that competed every other year or every three years are now competing every year. And then maybe ten to fifteen percent of the groups are brand new.” With additional groups and greater notoriety, Varsity Vocals has also seen larger audiences attend each show. For 2015, the ICCA Finals moved to the Beacon Theatre, with over one thousand more seats than any previous Finals venue. Tickets to the show still sold out within hours of becoming available to the public.
Amanda notes that the crowds have changed, too. Whereas past audiences numbered in the hundreds, and tended to consist of hardcore fans, the parents of group members, and loyal significant others like I had once been, the tournament now has more mass appeal. “The big thing is there are a lot more people going to shows with no experience with ICCA besides having seen Pitch Perfect,” Amanda says. “There’s a broader audience, and more of a need to explain how things work, and where information is available.”
Varsity Vocals is anticipating even larger numbers of competitors and fans in attendance after the launch of Sing It On, which she describes a docu-series. Representatives of POP TV have stationed themselves in rehearsal rooms and been in attendance at selected Varsity Vocals events collecting footage for the show which debuts a month after Finals. While Amanda and David agree that the a cappella community’s overarching response to news of the show has been positive, they did hit one bump in the road early on. No Comment, a co-ed group based out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that had won the Midwest region of ICCA in 2013, is among the show’s featured groups, and became the center of Sing It On’s first controversy.
The official ICCA rules dictate that “Each group has 12 minutes” and that “Groups who exceed the time limit—if only by several seconds—will be penalized by one place.” To put it in plainer terms, if a first-place group’s performance lasts any longer than twelve minutes, the group is to be automatically demoted to second place; if the group that was supposed to place second went over time, they would be moved to third, and so on.
On January 24, at the very first ICCA quarterfinal of 2015, and the first show at which POP TV camera crews were in attendance, No Comment did run several seconds over their allotted time on stage, and yet still finished in first place. It didn’t take long for questions to surface about how Sing It On may have affected the integrity of the competition—wasn’t it convenient that a group featured on the show would happen to win its way to the tournament semifinals, despite what appeared to be a clear cut case they shouldn’t have even been eligible for first place on account of the time penalty?
“Criticism started coming from the peanut gallery on Twitter,” Amanda says. “I should have said in advance that groups on TV show are not getting any preferential treatment.” She goes on to explain that she put language into all of the TV contracts “to ensure they cannot interfere with how the tournament happens, they can’t change results, they can’t know results before the time, they can’t put judges on the panel, and everything happens the way it had before.” In regards to the specific case of No Comment, Amanda notes, “groups often go a couple seconds over time. The spirit of the rule is for groups to not have an unfair advantage; we have never been too strict in enforcing it.” Amanda elaborated on these points in an official statement on the Varsity Vocals website, noting, “we have historically offered all groups a grace period on that rule, to account for the human error of timekeeping or the audience applauding excessively.” From my own experience, I’ve never observed an overt case of judges penalizing a group for going overtime, though I have speculated as to whether it might have been the case in a handful of particularly close competitions, during which the second-place finisher did seem to be pushing twelve minutes.
By the time that ICCA Finals roll around, Amanda’s point has been shored up in practice. POP TV elected to follow five historically strong groups on their ICCA journeys. Though their TV cameras loomed on the periphery of the stage at The Beacon Theatre for each set, only one of those featured groups had made it to the last stage of the competition.
That group didn’t win. In fact, despite a unique, almost monstrous swell of sound and the emotional story of having lost a group member to suicide between semifinals and Finals, The Nor’easters out of Northeastern University did not place in this competition.
The group that did walk out victorious was the University of Southern California’s SoCal VoCal, who earned their fourth world championship in as many tournament bids over the last eight years. If The SoCal VoCals’ triumph was not altogether surprising, their song selection was. A glance at the group’s set list would reveal to dedicated ICCA fans that they chose to bookend their performance with a pair of competition faux pas. Their opener was Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”—a fifteen-year-old party anthem that is beyond played in a cappella circles. They dedicated their finale space to Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”—a popular contemporary track that was covered into oblivion in the 2015 ICCAs.
All of this conventional logic doesn’t apply to a group as innovative and thoroughly talented as The SoCal VoCals. They reinvented “Crazy” as a slowed down jam, lingering soft and slow on the “I remember when” lyrics to create a retro feel before exploding into motion and pushing the tempo on the first chorus. While their take on “Bang Bang” was, superficially, more straightforward, the group nonetheless varied its dynamics and assaulted the song with palpable energy to create an irresistible sound and stage show.
The truest highlight of the set, however, came with the middle song, a cover of Tori Kelly’s “Paper Hearts.” At this juncture of the set, the group called back to an old trick from their playbook that helped carry them to championships in 2011 and 2013—rotating between lead vocalists from one line of the song to the next. This maneuver not only depends upon having a deep roster of talented soloists, but also calls for impeccable mechanics on the part of the ensemble to maintain blend and compensate for constantly gaining and losing parts in the background harmonies. It’s a technique that no other group really brings to competition for the simple reason that no other group can pull it off on a consistent basis.
But lest fans wary of the same group playing the same tricks to hog the championship glory, Amanda is quick to point out, that this year’s iteration of The SoCal Vocals “had no direct connection to groups that had won in the past,” meaning that none of the current group members were members of any of the previous championship-winning incarnations of the group. Moreover, she recounts that she spoke with Juliette Goglia, whose older sister Emily had previously won a championship with The SoCal VoCals. “Juliette was eleven years old watching her sister compete, and dreamed of getting to do that,” Amanda says. “For the students that made it happen this year, it means every bit as much to them as it would for a group that never competed before.”
And one has to wonder how many similar stories might emerge in the years ahead—not necessarily of little sisters looking up to older siblings, but in a nation full of young singers who are increasingly exposed to the realities and potentialities of high-level vocal music.
A month after the dust has settled from Finals, the premiere of Sing It On airs on PopTV. This episode focuses on the audition process—a bunch of starry-eyed college students singing for spots with established groups, interspersed with segments of those groups performing their signature songs, sans post-production effects or even particularly flattering acoustics. The episode captures moments of in-fighting and a mesmerizingly intense inter-group tussle in which Florida State University’s All-Night Yahtzee and AcaBelles squabble over which group should have dibs on a particularly talented sophomore who auditioned for both of their ensembles. But in the end, the show comes back to the core principles of competitive scholastic a cappella. The parties featured are invested in making music together, sure, but also in selecting group mates who will be their new friends, while simultaneously building a collection of musical talents who will make them competitive in their bid for ICCA glory.
I watch the show with my fiancée. For a moment, I consider texting the girlfriend who introduced me to a cappella all those years ago. I’d like to hear what she thinks of the show (because of course she’s watching, too). Is it true to her experience? Does it bring back memories? Does seeing this segment of her past life play out on the small screen feel like a celebration? Or does this show steal and cheapen what she had once worked so hard on, just as she had suggested my blog did in one of our last fights?
I opt not to text.
It’s with all of these a cappella experiences—both live and filtered through a TV screen—fresh in my mind that I go to see Pitch Perfect 2 in the theater on opening night. In small town Corvallis, Oregon, I don’t recognize anyone else who was in attendance for ICCA Finals. The local college a cappella groups (Outspoken and Power Chord, both based out of Oregon State) failed to advance from the quarterfinal round of this year’s ICCA tournament.
Just the same a group of girls, high school aged, walk into the theater with their arms linked together, singing a surprisingly on-key rendition of “Cups,” the song with which Anna Kendrick’s character auditioned for the fictitious Barden Bellas in the original Pitch Perfect film. And I think that perhaps these girls—or girls just like them—will be a cappella stars in a year or two. Maybe tomorrow.