For this Round Table, we pose the question:
What are some songs you would you be most interested in hearing a group cover (well) in 2010 and why? What should groups be mindful of in considering these songs?
The particpants for this session of The Round Table are:
Mickey Rapkin, the author of Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory and GQ senior editor
Genevieve Chawluk, alumna of University of Rochester Vocal Point
Mike Chin, content manager of The A Cappella Blog
I’m a big proponent of collegiate a cappella groups performing songs that the audience is intimately familiar with, songs their fans can name within two jeer-neers. I don’t have a lot of patience for collegiate originals, or obscure indie rock tunes. Not even your friends (or your parents) love you enough to sit through two hours of that.
A guideline: I think, too often, groups fall in love with a song, arrange it, learn it, and only then realize: Crap, none of our 16 members can actually sell that solo. Inevitably, you award the solo to the best of the worst, perform it once in concert, and then shelve the song indefinitely.
It’s a waste of (beer) time.
And so, the songs I’d want to hear in 2010, in no particular order:
1. “Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson
The onslaught of Michael Jackson tributes is coming. So wouldn’t a Janet retread be a nice surprise?
2. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” Michael Jackson
Because Michael Jackson deserves every last tribute.
3. “Anna Begins,” Counting Crows
I’ve never seen a band fall so out of favor with college kids so fast. But this song is a gem.
4. “Uptight,” Stevie Wonder
Long live Motown.
5. Anything by Alanis Morissette
While reporting Pitch Perfect, I remember watching an all-female guest group perform an Alanis Morissette cover. Some girl sitting me snickered at the song choice, leaned over to her friend, and said something rude about how “tired” the song was. She literally said something like, “It sounded as if it was lifted from a late 90s BOCA album.” The truth is, don’t hate the song, hate the arrangement. I’d love to see a group go back to the Alanis oeuvre, or the Coldplay catalog, and re-arrange one of those overdone songs, making it new again. That would be progressive.
6. “Relator,” Scarlett Johansson and Pete Yorn
Within the a cappella community, there is some hatred of co-ed groups that I never quite understood. I think people just assume these co-eds are more interested in giving each other back massages than making good music. Whatever. The Scarlett Johansson/Pete Yorn album of covers, “Break Up,” is pretty dope. And a co-ed group should get on this song—the album opener—now.
7. “Rosalita,” Bruce Springsteen
Best second set opener ever.
8. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Tears for Fears
When I was singing in college, the 80s was the nostalgic go-to decade. Nowadays, I suppose it’s the 90s. But if there was one 80s song an a cappella group should resurrect, it’s this one. It’s so repetitive you could learn it in a single rehearsal. And it’s so good you could sing it until people get nostalgic for the aughts.
9. “American Idiot,” Green Day
Not the song. But the whole album. I recently saw the rock opera/stage adaptation of Green Day’s “American Idiot” album out in Berkley. I was sitting in the audience thinking: Some adventurous a cappella group (with way too much time on their hands) should attempt this same thing.
10. Whatever Beyonce’s next monster hit is.
Don’t fight it.
I was in an a cappella group for all four years of college, so it goes without saying that I have put in many, many hours at “listening parties”--where group members would bring in a song (or five) to suggest to the group, and we’d discuss whether a song was “arrangeable”, and more importantly, whether we could pull it off. Things we learned: you have to jump on a popular song quickly, if you love an obscure song that doesn’t mean the audience will, and there has to be at least one person in your group who can tackle a song with a challenging or unique solo (if you have Mariah’s range, congratulations! Not many do.)
Given my “experience” (which besides the aforementioned just involves hearing songs on the radio and thinking “this might sound neat a cappella”), I've chosen a small handful of possible songs I’d want to hear this year. I hope I get to hear at least one!
1. “Uprising” by Muse
Driving beat. Intense. This song would be best for an all-male, or maybe mixed, group. The VP has to deliver. The background chords have a repetitive, driving rhythm, and I have to admit, not much else, but a creative arranger could definitely beef up the song and make this a really full, exciting show opener. If you’re thinking, “yeah, we’d like to try Muse but we’re worried that everyone will be doing the first single from the album,” then another suggestion is the track “MK Ultra.” Same idea (intense, driving, complex), maybe a bit more challenging, but done well even audience members who have never heard of Muse will be blown away.
It is possible to tackle Muse and do it well, as demonstrated by the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers:
2. “I See You” by Mika
I have had the pleasure of hearing Mika’s song “Happy Ending” performed fabulously by an all-female a cappella group that shall remain nameless lest I seem biased, but what this ultimately proves is that Mika songs translate very well to a cappella arrangements. His sophomore album was released in September of this year, and he doesn’t disappoint. For an a cappella group looking for a slower number that still has that pop appeal and full-group sound, I recommend “I See You.” Added bonus: it was recently featured on a Gossip Girl episode, so even though it’s not the album’s first single, I can state pretty confidently that people will recognize it (do I download music after hearing it on Gossip Girl? Am I admitting to watching Gossip Girl? Guess so.). This song is beautiful, and offers interesting parts for everyone—solo, duet, overlaid vocal melodies in the third chorus, strings and piano, and (if you so choose) some well-placed clapping. Dynamics are a must in this song—the shift between full choruses and sparse verses adds to the drama of the song. I would be so psyched to hear this song performed this year. I think it would fit best with an all-female or mixed group.
3. “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga
Okay, I totally realize that this song might be overdone this year. But, I love it. Sorry. First and foremost, I’d love to see an all-female group tackle this, because I see Lady GaGa as a strong, creative, confident woman, and even if you don’t want to admit it, a few Youtube searches will show that she is actually a very talented musician (if you caught her SNL performance from October 4th, you know it’s true). This song needs insane percussion, energy energy energy!!!, and could definitely benefit from some sick choreography. The soloist should totally wear sunglasses. So, this is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, but you know you’d get an audience response.
4. “Your Love” by The Outfield
Awesome solo, awesome song, awesome decade (the 80s - which I actually remember, but if you're in college and reading this it terrifies me to think you most likely don't). If I heard this song, I’d probably jump out of my seat because I’d be so excited. If you’re looking for a song for an all-male or mixed group that has a soloist with an amazing upper register, then this would rock. The guitar chords in the middle, the percussion that comes in during the second verse, the opportunities for fun back-up vocals—this song has it all AND it’s a “classic” (at least compared to the other three songs I’ve suggested), so you don’t have to jump on any bandwagon or assume that “everyone” will be covering it this year. If your group decides to do this song and you are coming to Baltimore, please let me know because I will be there with bells on. And by “bells” I actually mean legwarmers and blue eye shadow.
As an added bonus, I’d like to throw out a few suggestions of what not to cover this year (or ever, preferably). All-female groups, please don’t do Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift. You know that you’re going to hear those covers at every a cappella jam or fest or –ooza that you attend, and you can come up with much better popular songs to entertain your audience (see above). And (shh) you’re probably much more talented than the current pop princesses, so why put yourselves in the same category? Challenge yourselves!
All-male and mixed groups: I predict that Kings of Leon songs are going to be this year’s Coldplay. The songs have potential, but you also have the potential of sounding like everyone else. Dig around, and you’ll find something unique and fun to show off your talented soloists.
And, as always, under no circumstances should anyone cover Nickelback. But you already knew that.
There’s a lot of great music out there, ripe for a cappella translation. One of the great things about collegiate groups is that they can get away with all sorts of different genres and styles, mixing it up between the bubble gummiest of the pop to indiest of rock, and all points in between. With these points in mind, I give you a shortlist of songs I would love to hear done well this year.
1) “With You” by Chris Brown
After David Archuleta ventured a try on this hip hop love song on American Idol, I thought for sure I would be seeing it on the collegiate scene. Alas, no dice last year. Maybe Archie’s borderline embarrassing performance scared folks off, or maybe Brown’s poor decisions in his personal life steered groups away from it. In any event, this has tremendous potential for a crowd pleasing, sweet song for an all-male or mixed group. I especially love idea of working in body perc and stomps. Sure, this wouldn’t be overly complex, but it would be a great song to win some hearts and have some fun on stage.
2) “The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson
Besides crooning songs about sweaters for Old Navy ads, Michaelson has putting together some truly inspired melodies, and this is perhaps her finest work. One of the things I always try to tell all-female groups is that they need to use their natural abilities to their fullest advantage. The thing is, only a very small handful of women’s collegiate groups can hold their own when it comes to the sheer volume, energy and aura of their male counterparts (groups like BYU Noteworthy and Oregon’s Divisi would be examples of the exceptions). But where most female groups can match, if not exceed the field is in making us feel songs written for and by female artists, and nailing it with musical precision. “The Chain” boasts, among other things, all sorts of nuance and a nifty three part round at its close. In the hands of an able all-female group, this could be a real masterpiece.
3)“1492” by Counting Crows and “Stuck Between Stations” by The Hold Steady
I lump these two together as a pair relatively recent, seriously rocking songs that I’ve never heard a group dare to try. True, they would each be tremendous challenges in their own rights, but I just love the idea of an all-male powerhouse sinking its teeth into one or the other. Each are up-tempo, lyrically complex, and just downright exciting. Among the challenges in mastering either one would finding a soloist who can put his own spin on the solo—-the guy isn’t going to match the original in either case, but if he can put just the right spin on it, there is absolutely room for him to sound better than the original lead.
4) “Under the Surface” by Marit Larsen
Like the Michaelson song, I think this is a song for which all-female groups have all the potential in the world to steal the show with an emotional winner. Larsen’s Norwegian song-stylings aren’t unheard of in the States, but aren’t exactly mainstream either, making this a good pick to wow audiences by giving them the sense you’re telling them an original story. I would especially love to hear what groups do to interpret the string section.
5) “Gives You Hell” by The All-American Rejects
This would be your barnstorming, sing-along, get the crowd clapping closer for any group under the sun. While the original, of course, features a dude singing, it could easily enough transition to a female soloist as well (and may actually fit more comfortably in a woman’s range). Not terribly complex, but tons of fun guaranteed.