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The Sing-Off: What Went Right, What Went Wrong, and More

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The Sing-Off’s four episode run is behind us, which means that it’s now time to take a look back what the show did right, what went wrong, and what we can take away from this experience.

The good news, right off the bat, is that several million people tuned in to the show. This is big because it affirms that a cappella can appeal to the masses when you offer it up to them. It remains to be seen if people will listen to a cappella if they have to track it down for themselves, if they will attend live a cappella shows or if they will actually spend money on an a cappella recording. These are all areas in which to grow and test the waters. Nonetheless, this does establish that a cappella is palatable to a larger audience than has ever tried it on for size before. What’s more, this show has offered millions of people a frame of reference—the next time they hear of a Sweet Adelines completion in their area, they can connect that to MAXX Factor. If there’s a newspaper blurb about a native son competing with his collegiate group, the reader’s mind can go from the abstract to The Beelzebubs.

With greater exposure for a cappella comes the chance that more people will take part in it. Over the last four years, I have interviewed dozens of leaders from collegiate groups across the country and abroad, and one of the questions I often ask is how they got involved in a cappella. One of the most common answers is that they saw a cappella in action at a younger age—be it when a collegiate group came to perform at their high school, or when an older sister invited them to come up for Family Weekend. With millions of people watching, there’s the hope that that many more people are getting their first taste of a cappella, and will be that much more driven to try it for themselves.

Moving ahead, I would like to take a closer look at several areas of the show.

The Judges

The long and the short of it is that the judging panel for this show was not good. The theory behind the judges was OK—you have Ben Folds, a likeable semi-star with a good ear for music and a basic familiarity with a cappella. You have Shawn Stockman who has sung a cappella professionally. And you have Nicole Scherzinger to score the hat trick of celebrity notoriety, a pretty face, and a reassuring voice to support the contestants (despite not really knowing a cappella).

Putting this all into practice, it was exceptionally rare for Shawn to put his expert knowledge to use, generally offering guidance and insights that were as prosaic as could be. Placing all my most vitriolic bile aside, I’ll just say that Nicole was scatter-brained enough not to contribute anything of value to the panel. And then there’s Ben.

Ben Folds was so likeable on this show, and demonstrated a level of technical music knowledge that was really impressive. The problem was that—especially for someone who hasn’t performed a cappella—Ben was called upon to wear too many hats for this show. He had to be the a cappella expert, the music expert, the wacky comedic voice and the harshest critic, offering most performances honest and meaningful feedback. While I respect him for being so game in taking on each of these roles, I can’t help thinking both he and the show would have been better served had he been in a more refined role.

Were the show to return, I would like to see Ben stay on as a judge. Beyond that point, there are a lot of folks I would be interested to see join him. For one, I would love to have a legitimate a cappella person on the panel—Deke Sharon, of CASA, House Jacks and ‘Bubs fame (who already worked with the show) comes to mind first. Other than Deke, Amanda Newman from Varsity Vocals could add some real clout; someone like Christopher Diaz would provide a spicy young voice, so recently removed from the collegiate scene and so actively involved in the a cappella community now.

If the producers wanted to go for a bit more celebrity appeal, they could turn a member of Rockappella or Straight No Chaser and, ideally, have one of those full groups join in for guest spot like the ones they had on the finale. If the show sought to really amp up the celebrity factor, but still have some a cappella cred, another option would be to recruit a notable a cappella alum. Ed Helms seems like the most obvious option, given his unabashed espousal of a cappella on The Office, and the fact that The Office, too, is an NBC show. Other folks to consider might be a Sara Bareilles or a John Legend—folks who are fairly famous musicians in their own right. One more option, and perhaps the most sensible of all, would be to find celebrity a cappella alum who really just don’t seem to be doing anything better right now—James VanDerBeek or Peter Gallagher (who attended the live finale) come to mind right off.

The show could also look into niche judges. Bill Hare could offer insights from a recording perspective. Alternatively, you could find the ‘Average Joe’ who is at least familiar with a cappella. Think Nicole after she’s watched a season’s worth of ICCA shows. We don’t need for every judge to have experience arranging or performing a cappella, but there would be value in people who really know about the art form—who have seen enough shows to have a real frame of reference. If anyone from NBC is reading, feel free to drop me a line if you need a judge for the next go-round. Give me some notice and I’ll clear my calendar (*wink*).

Structure

With eight groups and just three nights for competition, The Sing-Off did a fully serviceable job managing its eliminations in such a way to keep the show engaging and whittle down the field in an efficient manner. There were, however, some issues.

My biggest gripe is that I see no reason for the structure to have been as nontransparent as it was. Until Nick Lachey announced it, I don’t know of anyone who knew the structure for the first night—four groups perform, one gets booted; four more perform, another goes home. Then we lost just one group the second night, and two more on the third. All in all, I don’t think any of this was particularly bad (though I also would also have liked to have known how the seeding worked, particularly for the premiere), but I do think it really hurt the show that viewers didn’t know what to expect.

On the note of transparency, I would have also been interested to have seen more of that from the judges. The panel, as a whole, wasn’t too critical after most any performance, and yet still managed to make, for the most part, the right decisions when it came time to make eliminations. While I don’t need to see an official scorecard or get a point breakdown, I would have liked to have at least heard the judges discuss why they were the kicking off the groups as they went.

This was obviously outside the show’s control this time around, but I would have been interested to have seen what could happen with a longer season. While I don’t think it would have made much difference for groups like Face and Solo, it is a bit harsh to send a good group packing after just one off performance. That’s fine for the audition process, but presuming they were legitimately good enough to make it to this stage, I would have liked to have heard them sing at least twice on the show before passing judgment.

A longer season also could have been interesting for the addition of more theme nights. The signature songs, big hits, guilty pleasures, medleys and judges choice songs all made sense enough to me. But just think of the other possibilities. A cappella standards night, country night, love songs, the best of System of a Down—I’m just throwing ideas out there. I think what I’d be most interested in of all coming out of these nights would be pushing the groups to arrange and/or learn new material. For The ‘Bubs, the group has a deep enough historical catalog that I doubt they really learned anything but “Sweet Caroline” for show—and even that may have been one they knew.

On top of all of this, there’s a fundamental aspect of a cappella competition at stake when you consider a show like this. While this will seem like a strange analogy, I sort of liken this brand of competition to sports. In sports like basketball and baseball, you have a regular season of frequent competition, culminating in playoff tournaments. Meanwhile, in sports like mixed martial arts and boxing, your competition is centered more around big shows, with a lack of formal schedules and structures. For a show like The Sing-Off with it’s very finite timeline, the competition seems a lot more like one of the fighting sports, an intense spotlight shining for a just a few nights, with each loss meaning a lot (for a cappella, that the group is out of the competition altogether).

While it may not be as commercially viable, I would be fascinated to see The Sing-Off get more of a full season of competition. It could be like the ICCAs with groups competing by region en route to an national or international final. Alternatively, they could go by style or type—say a professional, a barbershop and a collegiate champion emerge from their respective sectors to compete for the top prize at the end of the show. There are a lot of possibilities, but, ultimately, I think a more sharply defined, sporting set up could go a long way toward making this competition feel more objectively viable than it does now.

Group Selection

A lot of my comments on group selection were sort of imbedded in the previous section, so I’ll hold back from repeating myself.

Over the course of the last two weeks, I have been communicating with a lot of a cappella enthusiasts, and one question that just about all of us have in common is why this combination of groups was on the show. The general consensus seems to be that the competition was designed to represent as many demographics as it could, ranging from collegiate to adult, all-female to all-male to mixed, barbershop to contemporary, religious to secular, all-white to Latino to black to a diversity of races within. This all makes for a nice PR statement and sort of gets at the ‘best of each type’ idea I was getting at above, but in the end, it seems that, for at least some of the groups, the show went with human interest stories and diversity over musical ability. Not to take anything away from the competitors, and, in full acknowledgment of the fact that I didn’t see the auditions, let’s be honest. Anyone who has been to at least one ICCA finals show (or even some of the better semifinals) has seen numerous groups that could sing circles around the lower echelon of this competition. I’ll also concede that it probably wouldn’t be so much fun to see The ‘Bubs versus Rochester’s Midnight Ramblers versus Ithacappella versus BYU Vocal Point versus the UVA Hullabahoos and so-on, because the mix of styles did have merit. With all of that said, it’s a shame that more top-notch groups didn’t have an opportunity to demonstrate their craft to this national audience.

These are just a few ideas in response to The Sing-Off. What do you think? What worked? What would you change about the show?

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