As we broach the halfway point for the fall semester, college a cappella groups are gearing up for the spring competition season. In the US, most eyes fall on the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA). In this edition of The 5s, I’m looking at the five songs you shouldn’t bring to the ICCAs.
1. The song that was hot in 2013. Examples: “Too Close,” “Radioactive,” “Some Nights.” In fall 2012, a cappella pundits pegged “Some Nights” to be the most over-covered song in collegiate competitions for the year ahead, and they were more or less on point. “Radioactive” and “Too Close” may not have been quite as readily predictable, but still quickly became radically over-exposed. There’s a point to which that’s excusable. Groups picked songs that spoke to them, and just didn’t foresee that so many other groups would see things the same way. It happens. But a group that picks an overplayed song from the year before can’t justifiably claim ignorance—at that point they are positively daring audiences and judges alike to compare their interpretation of the song to every other version that came out a year before. Competition is hard enough without setting up your own hurdles.
2. The radio song that seems really obvious. Examples: “Brave,” “Royals,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Roar,” “Demons.” A rule of thumb: if an uber-popular song sounds like a natural fit for a cappella, you’re probably not the only person to notice that fact. I don’t expect I’ll escape any ICCA quarterfinal next year without hearing at least one of these songs. Predictability grates on fans and adjudicators alike. Think different.
3. The edgy crowd favorite. Examples: “Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines.” Varsity Vocals explicitly markets its competition as family friendly. Groups that challenge that line run afoul of judges, besides inevitably making parents in the audience squirm. Songs like “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” are fantastic for campus shows—the raunchy sensibilities resonate with a college audience and subvert the stereotype of the goody-two-shoes a cappella choir. When it comes time for competition, though, you’re performing for mass consumption. Moreover, comedy—and particularly edgy comedy—sends a mixed message about how serious you are about winning a competition. Plenty of judges write off comedy groups, assuming all they want to do is make the audience cheer rather than advance in the tournament or take home awards.
4. Anything from Pitch Perfect. Leave your cups at home. Not only does every song the Bellas sung have the risk of getting over-exposed this competition season, but more so, choosing music from Pitch Perfect puts your group in direct competition with the best known, most professionally produced a cappella tracks of all time. Worried your rendition of a song might not live up to another group’s interpretation of the same piece at your quarterfinal? Then you shouldn’t even think about setting yourself for comparison to the music from Pitch Perfect.
5. That quirky, esoteric song no one else will think to compete with. Example: “The Fox.” Whether it's “Gangnam Style” or a track from The Lonely Island, hip, college comedy has a way of surfacing at many ICCA shows. Sure, these songs electrify a segment of the audience, but the choice to sing them is rarely as unique as a group hopes it will be, besides which the songs tend to lean heavily upon inside jokes that will connect with a particular population and alienate the rest of your audiences (and the judges). It’s fine, and even a good idea to choose music from outside the mainstream, but keep your inner hipster in check and don’t give in to the temptation to tell the audience what the fox says.
With all of these songs put forth, let me address the dissenters now, including those who might turn back to this article after the 2014 ICCA season is done. Yes, there probably will be at least one group that fares quite well in competition, singing at least one of the songs listed above. All in all, groups should remain true to their identities and choose the material that best suits them, regardless of what I or any other know-it-all might say. Just the same, groups that buck the wisdom above set up themselves for uphill battles in which success will be the exception, not the rule. With more groups than ever competing at each quarterfinal, the wisest groups will circumnavigate obstacles and strive for success on their own terms.