Celebrating The Sing-Off


Since word came out that NBC cancelled The Sing-Off, plenty of folks in the a cappella community have condemn ed the Peacock network. The more productive segment of this population has taken to Twitter with the #SavetheSingOff campaign and even a new website devoted to the cause here.

I’m not one to diminish these efforts. I hope they work, and let me remind y’all that I made my own proactive statement for the cause back in December:

But putting all that aside, and assuming that The Sing-Off is indeed, no more, I wanted to take this opportunity look back on the show that was, and pay NBC and Sony their proper respect for exposing this crazy little thing called a cappella to millions of viewers over the last three years.

What made The Sing-Off great?

How about diversity? The show shattered stereotypes of the prim and proper glee club-style a cappella kids in favor of revealing new dimensions. Nota, the inaugural Sing-Off champs, brought an infectious Latin flavor to their a cappella groove, exposing casual fans to a style of a cappella that encompasses a distinct cultural heritage, while at the same time appealing to a general audience. But in a mixed field of contestants, could a scholastic group ever measure up to the pros? Season two answered this question loud and clear, as Committed, a small group (6 members) which took shape at a small university (Oakwood, with around 1,800 undergrads) laid claim to being not just the top group on that season of the show, but one of the premier a cappella groups in the world. I’ll say more about Pentatonix later on, but for now, let me just point out that 60 percent of the season-three- winning quintet wasn’t legal to buy alcohol when they became, arguably, the best-known a cappella group in America.

While diversity and innovation thrived, the show did not turn a cold shoulder to tradition. The Sing-Off exposed a new generation of fans to the sounds of yesteryear, with Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town harkening back to Lawson’s younger days with the groundbreaking Persuasions. Then there was North Shore, a group of aca-elderstatemen who won The National Harmony Sweepstakes 20 years before they performed for their biggest audience on NBC. Season one boasted the then-reigning queens of barbershop, MAXX Factor. The cumulative effect of these groups was to instill a sense of history and permanence to the a cappella genre, demonstrating that the style of performance is no passing fad, and representing the very best of the generations that paved the way for today’s younger stars.

In addition to opening a veritable a cappella time capsule, The Sing-Off also introduced national treasures that too few of us had heard. Groups like The Beelzebubs, Whiffenpoofs and Aires have such long histories in collegiate a cappella that there’s a sense of them having little to prove—they don’t participate in the ICCAs or SoJam competitions. If you’re not lucky enough to live in their immediate areas or in the path of one of their tours, it was easy to miss them altogether. The Sing-Off brought these extraordinary groups into our homes. The show directly led to The Beelzebubs’ vocals later getting featured on Glee under the guise of “The Warblers.” It was a platform for Michael Odokara-Okigbo’s national coming out party as a major American vocalist of the future. It introduced us all to perhaps the quirkiest a cappella act to ever grace network TV, in the straight-laced ‘Poofs’ electric take on “Grace Kelly.”

When it comes to breaking down boundaries, the show also dared to feature Urban Method. Before the critics weigh in and call me out as a hater, I’ll admit it—I was very critical of this group’s run on the show, and disagreed with a number of its artistic decisions. With that said, I have nothing but love for the ideas this group brought to the stage: all about pushing the limits of contemporary a cappella and making rap more than something they happened to do for one song in their repertoire, but rather a fundamental part of their idenity. Urban Method sold the nation on the idea that a cappella is big enough and diverse enough to support sub-genres—where there’s a hip hop a cappella group, who’s to say groups devoted to alt-rock or electronic music won’t follow. The possibilities are limitless, and that is very good for a cappella as a form.

In an age when acts like Lady Gaga, Adele, and Florence and the Machine are taking over radio waves with creative new sounds, it’s only fitting that The Sing-Off would highlight the evolution of the all-female sound over the course of three seasons. Noteworthy introduced us to the best of collegiate all-female a cappella at the time in season one; Delilah fully realized the concept, fusing talents from Noteworthy, Divisi and Pitch Slapped for an estrogen-fueled super group that could just as easily nail a soulful rendition of “If I Die Young” as explode in a pastel flourish on “Heat Wave,” as completely reimagine songs like “Grenade” and “How to Love” to make them epic and intrinsically feminine. Around the country, the emergence of groups like Musae, GQ, and the version of Vocal Rush that won ICHSAs this year is telling us that all-female a cappella is on the rise. The Sing-Off offered America the face of that movement.

But speaking of Noteworthy and Pitch Slapped, let’s not forget groups like On the Rocks and Vocal Point, and the power of this show to bring the ICCAs into the mainstream consciousness. Watching alongside upwards of eight million others as these groups did their thing, I couldn’t help feeling the sensation that I was on the ground floor of an enterprise ready to take flight. The Sing-Off shared what a cappella die hards have been hearing and seeing for over a decade—that intercollegiate a cappella competition leads to some of the most breathtaking performances to grace any stage anywhere in the world. Like many long-time fans, I balked a bit at The Deltones’ debut performance on the show (“Feels Like Home”) because as pretty as it was, it didn’t feel fresh to me. But then I checked myself, realizing that what I’ve heard a few dozen times is still very, very new to the general public, and that as emissaries from the aca-world, the kids from Delaware were sending an introductory message full of love and hope to everyone in TV land.

And then there was Pentatonix. While I was lukewarm on the quintet their first few weeks on the show, by the time the season reached its midpoint, and the young guns were firing on cylinders, there was no question we were watching the next generation of a cappella. It’s a group that dared to take chances, crossing genres and artists, spotlighting three sensational singers from Texas, anchored with what may very well be the best two-man rhythm section a cappella has ever seen. The group has defeated the myth of 15 minutes of fame, using social media to their advantage to keep the new music coming, while, just the same, maintaining an aggressive touring schedule to show their faces to the world by traditional means. The Sing-Off was probably the only show that could have launched this group so fully, and so readily to the waiting arms of an adoring public, and it’s scary to think of the Pentatonix-less a cappella universe we’d like be looking at had it not been for the performance platform of NBC. It’s scary to think of what we might miss out on in the absence of this show.

But for now, let’s not linger on loss. In a time when negativity is an easier sell than positivity, let’s, instead, stand up for the same values that The Sing-Off espoused—community, art, beauty, and gratitude for getting to share the music we love with the largest listening audience in history. While I hope the network executives change their minds, in the meantime, I want to say thank you to NBC for giving a cappella its biggest stage for three years. Thank you to Sony, Deke Sharon, Ben Bram, Rob Dietz, Christorpher Diaz and everyone who worked behind the scenes. Thank you to Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles, Shawn Stockman, Nicole Scherzinger, and Nick Lachey for lending the form legitimacy and star power. And, most of all, thank you to each and every performer who represented a cappella so proudly for the world to hear. The show may be over, but the music will live on.