Don’t Be Afraid to Break Bad

Not So Different

Life is full of lessons to be learned. When we’re thinking about how to best lead, promote, sing, or otherwise operate within the context of an a cappella group, it’s worth looking beyond the realm of a cappella itself to what other walks of life can teach us.

Note: If you are not caught up on Breaking Bad and intend to watch it, I discourage you from reading further. This post contains spoilers.

Vince Gilligan’s television masterpiece Breaking Bad comes to a close this Sunday night.

Fans of the show celebrate its journey. The remarkable transformation of protagonist Walter White from milk-toast high school chemistry teacher and loving husband to premier meth cook to drug lord to an outcast with an M-60 in his trunk, hitting the open road for New Mexico with vengeance on his mind.

In most dramatic forms—lesser TV shows, films, or books—such transitions would read as absurdist fiction. The beauty of Breaking Bad is that few to none of its major plot points come across as contrivances. On the contrary, like a series of chemical reactions, each turn follows logical—sometimes coldly logical—decisions that the characters would believably make. An underachieving cancer patient decides to manufacture crystal meth so he can provide money for his family after he passes on. When everyone from his partner’s meddlesome girlfriend, to major players in a drug syndicate, to a rival chemist get in his way, he lets these people die, facilitates their murders, or just plain kills them dead. He grasps at the threads of loyalty to his wife and children, DEA brother in law, and a former student, but is equally guided by his hubris and unshakeable sense of pragmatism.

Breaking Bad’s unshakeable continuity, boldness, and internal logic have a lot to teach a cappella groups about how they make their own creative decisions, shape group identity, and set goals.

Too often, a cappella groups lose their way because they get too caught up in “what they’re supposed to do.” You have to compete at ICCAs. You have to wear black and red. You have to use a three song set with two upbeat numbers bookending a ballad. You have to cover a song by Mumford and Sons. You have to record an album so you can submit it for recording awards. In order to fund that album, you have to run a Kickstarter campaign.

If your group chooses to do all of the above, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it—just like there wouldn’t have been anything inherently wrong with Walter White carrying on as a chemistry teacher, begging his rich college buddy for chemo money, and dying a quiet death. But those choices were definitively not Walter White, just like the conventional steps for a college group delineated above are not by any stretch “one size fits all.”

Maybe your group finds its niche in the form of executing flash mobs. Or covering death metal. Or churning out material via YouTube and never recording a full-length album. Or singing whilst dressed up like clowns.

One creative decision leads to another, and to another after that. If a group follows its own logic, it has every opportunity to wind up in its own unique place.

The bottom line is that if your group embraces its own unique identity and vision, there’s no such thing as “doing it wrong.” If, however, you play it safe or choose to follow the herd of the a cappella masses, you’re only limiting your own potential to be great on your own terms. Sure, making decisions that diverge from the norm has the potential break bad. But even if the group goes down, it has the potential to do so in blaze of glory.