Is This the Dawning of the Age of A Cappella?

America's next pop heroes?

Straight No Chaser: America's next pop heroes?

Yesterday, The New York Times featured a story about the founding members of the University of Indiana’s all-male a cappella group, Straight No Chaser. The group, composed of ten men, most of whom are in their early 30s, recently scored a five album record deal on Atlantic’s Atco imprint based on the success of a YouTube video, posted last December, of them singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” back in 1998.

As a former college student (and, yes, former member of an a cappella group myself), this news came as an overwhelming shock.  Yes, a cappella is a prominent part of the performing arts scene on a host of college campuses across the nation (there are more than 1,200 college groups nationwide, according to the Times), and yes, many a cappella groups may even be regarded as “cool” on some of the aforementioned campuses, but a major label record deal? Preposterous!  As I can tell you first hand, while you might be inclined to mention your beat-boxing skills during a conversation with a sorority girl at the Keg of Evanston in the midst of your ruddy-cheeked undergraduate years, you don’t talk about it once you get your diploma. No one outside the world of midterms, date parties, and refilling your student ID with Munch Money points wants to hear about your pitch pipe-blowing prowess.  A Cappella, in a post-collegiate universe, is decidedly lame-ass.

That said, it was all the more astonishing to me that Atlantic decided to invest in these dudes, most of whom haven’t been college students for over a decade. Craig Kallman, the chief Atlantic executive who “discovered” the group, envisions Straight No Chaser finding their niche alongside such light fare as Josh Groban, Manheim Steamroller, and novelty holiday acts like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (famous for their big-nutted heavy metal reimagining of “Carol of the Bells”).  I mean, maaaybe. But even if Straight No Chaser scores fleeting success as a slightly gayer version of Manhattan Transfer, are they capable of sustaining five albums worth of crowd-pleasing vocal stylings?

Probably not.  The fact is, there’s a reason why a cappella has yet to break out of the realm of student center basements and dormitory common rooms.  As a genre, a cappella is cheeky, ironic, heavy-handed, and self-conscious.  Sort of like most college students.  It’s also, and I resisted the urge to say this, but ultimately gave in to the part of me that thinks most eighties pop hits sound better when performed by the 1999 Dartmouth Aires, potentially really incredible to listen to when expertly arranged and performed by talented singers.  Even so, what seems transcendent at a Parents’ Weekend show in Tech Auditorium isn’t necessarily going to fly with the American public at large.  Add to the equation the fact that the members of Straight No Chaser are essentially old enough to have fathered today’s college students, and the whole thing doesn’t exactly sound like a surefire recipe for success.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, with the economy being the only thing failing worse than the music industry at the moment, I can see where Craig Kallman is coming from.  Try out some all-male a cappella, see how it goes.  The worst thing that happens is that Atlantic continues to sell no records.  And with a budget of only $200,000 (which is very low by major label standards, but fantastically extravagant to anybody who’s ever tracked mezzo-sopranos singing “Since U Been Gone” in Freddie Feldman’s basement), the label’s hardly taking an economic gamble.  It’s just like, come on man, if you’re going to tap college a cappella for a major label release, don’t put all your eggs in a ten-year-old-novelty-YouTube-video-shaped basket.  Craig Kallman has obviously never seen legit college a cappella if he is so moved by annoying physics majors weaving “Africa” into a Christmas carol.  That shit’s old hat, dawg.  If you’re trying to put out a cappella that has any potential to be cool to anybody, you’ve gotta appeal to the people who like it in the first place: college kids.  That said, why not pick one of the best current groups in the nation, and spend two hundred grand on them?  Give me a major-label, polished, glossy release from the SoCal Vocals, or Off the Beat, or the Beelzebubs. Or Purple Haze. That shit would be siiiick. And so what if the group changes every year when members graduate?  Market that shit right, and you’ve got yourself the next Menudo.

The other problem with collegiate a cappella is that it’s primarily composed of covers—half the fun of going to a cappella shows is seeing how groups are able to recreate your favorite tunes, using only their mouths! While this is indeed really awesome, the integrity of such an art form would likely not hold up if treated as an actual, nationwide release.  Would a cappella cover versions of slightly older hit singles begin taking over the airwaves?  Would already-established artists release a cappella b-sides to keep up with the burgeoning trend of instrument-less music?  Would a cappella groups find minor, but not insignificant pseudo-pop stardom along the lines of groups like O-Town, Dream Street, and BBMak?

Nah.  It’s just too dorky, and Straight No Chaser’s thirty-something chic is not likely to improve that perception.  Still, I will say this: it is possible, in the years ahead, and if more dudes like Craig Kallman are willing to put a cappella in a major label spotlight, for a highly-talented, innovative songwriter who uses a cappella as his/her medium to rise to some sort of well-respected prominence.  Remember a little Imogen Heap ditty called “Hide and Seek”?  All a cappella, baby.  What about the intro to “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes”?  No, there isn’t even a stray djembe in there.  The point is, while a cappella does indeed have potential, there has yet to be a significant contribution to the world of pop music that would elevate the genre above the something-you-hide-about-your-past-when-trying-to-seem-hip level.  And while Straight No Chaser is not likely to change that with their upcoming disc, “Holiday Spirits,” don’t be surprised if all of a sudden some all-vocal jam from four kids in Bedstuy becomes the sleeper hit of summer 2012.  Right before the apocalypse.

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11 Responses to Is This the Dawning of the Age of A Cappella?

  1. Low Ryder says:

    Straight No Chaser is just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. We also have the (quote-unquote) pro group “Mosaic” winning MTV’s “Top Pop Group,” therefore destined to all of the fame and fortune that comes from winning a low-rated reality show. Move over O-Town. “Naturally 7” (http://www.myspace.com/naturally7) toured nationally, opening for the delightfully mediocre Michael Buble. And GQ editor Mickey Rapkin even wrote a fairly enjoyable book examining the college a cappella trend: “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory” (http://www.amazon.com/Pitch-Perfect-Quest-Collegiate-Cappella/dp/159240376X).

    Now, I’ve been an a cappella geek since I was fresh-faced young middle-schooler, and Straight No Chaser was the first group that I ever heard, and I still occasionally play their albums on iTunes. Considering that they were recorded sans all of the pitch correction and processing that are on today’s collegiate recordings (including even our beloved Purple Haze), SNC’s recordings are extremely impressive and set a high bar for the a cappella “art form.” And I was pleased to hear that these gentlemen are getting a chance to reunite, and I gave a hearty thumbs up to the image of group founder Dan Ponce when I next saw him on Chicago’s ABC 7 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEouZa64qrY).

    But a Christmas album? Really? Is this the way that Atlantic plans to break a cappella into the mainstream? They’ve effectively condemned the SNC disc to a hobo life of hopping from bargain bins, to thrift stores, to ill-advised eBay listings (http://cgi.ebay.com/Show-N-Tell-Dicks-and-Janes-A-Cappella-CD-RARE_W0QQitemZ160289441544QQihZ006QQcategoryZ307QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem).

    Honestly, I’m pretty sure that the only way that a cappella has a chance of achieving post-collegiate street cred is for some group to release a slick, tight CD full of WELL-WRITTEN original music. Not covers. Not “The 12 Days of Christmas.” And sure as hell not “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

    New life plan: you and I co-write a kickass CD, get Purple Haze to record it, and spend the rest of our life living off the residuals from our new a cappella revolution

  2. Rob says:

    Im not sure if any of you have read the Times article, like actually read it, but this original version of Straight No Chaser is not a college group. College groups like the Purple Haze or the SoCal Vocals or the Beezebulbs are absolutely AWFUL. They try and make themselves sound like instruments. Who wants to listen to that? No wonder why a cappella is made fun of so much, because of groups like that. Kallman has obviously seen college a cappella and has decided, smartly I might add, to STAY AWAY from college groups. If anything, Straight No Chaser is the antithesis of a “college” group. Craig Kallman found them. They didn’t go around to labels seeking out a deal. Most of them have moved on with their lives and are past the whole reliving college days bullshit. If the head of a major label came to your group, the original members mind you, not the current college group, and offered you a deal, what would you say? No? Probably not. If you know anything about the group, (I went to school with one of the younger guys who replaced an original member) half of them are still involved in music. One of the guys was a lead on Broadway. Three others have released original music independently. This is NOT a surprise. College a cappella is terrible. No wonder why Kallman decided on Straight No Chaser, the original, non collegiate version.

  3. Yeah, I don’t know where I stand on the whole issue. I agree with both previous commentors that the Freddy Feldman fingerprint on most BOCA standouts, with hyperprocessed vocals (is that a flanger?!) and “beats” that sound synthetic, is bad for a capella. I think you’d agree too since it seems like you still prefer the airy sound of the Dartmouth Aires (were they on the West Wing?!) to Freddy Feldman’s one man crap machine.

    But I think everyone here is arguing the same point. There is no “monolithic” understanding of what a capella can and can’t be. It’s not either “college” or “not college.” I think Boyz II Men would scoff at that suggestion. As a genre, a capella can be both Straight No Chaser and this new Menudo of which you speak.

    Personally, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a Penn Masala CD (or maybe I just Napstered a bunch of their songs and burned them on a Maxell). There’s a market for a capella, but I don’t see it becoming the genre you imagine. I think a capella groups will have massive followings and succeed under the radar like Christian bands and other niche groups and that in itself will be a success.

    As for SNC, that record is going to debut in the top 50. And I may or may not be scouring Napster for a taste.

  4. lily says:

    your article reeks of a cappella envy and a desire to return to your own glory days as a collegiate a cappella member…what you fail to recognize is that the 10+ years spent away from the college scene will yield a more mature sound that doesn’t even fall into the same category as the common notion of cheeky a cappella. i think it would be wise to wait for the release of the album before attributing to SNC’s sound your inaccurate assumptions based on your own collegiate a cappella experience.

  5. i believe it was the yale whiffenpoofs that were on the west wing, during the christmas episode when josh is having post-traumatic stress from the assassination attempt. awesome.

  6. rockahella says:

    i’m astounded that this apparent a cappella-maven of an author failed to highlight “rockapella” as a group of thirty-something-year-olds who came out of the a cappella closet post-college and beat-boxed their way to PBS. did you people not watch where in the world is carmen san diego? granted, maybe it says something success was found wearing bold-colored vests and suspenders on a gimmicky children’s game show, but y’all know you know the lyrics to that theme song and would bop your head to the beat if you heard it now. don’t fight it.

    in case you’re curious, they can currently be heard on a nationwide television ad for Astelin nasal spray as “The Astelins.”

    where in the world is their dignity?

  7. well played, rockahella. while i did indeed think of these theme-song-singing balladeers while writing this piece, i avoided bringing them up, for fear that i would ramble incessantly for another thousand words or so. but yes, you’re right- perfect example. touché.

  8. rockahella says:

    awwyeeuh.

  9. Also, let’s not forget, that a cappella probably comes from the italian or latin or something “from the chapel” or whatever that portion of the Church is referred to. I don’t have any research to back this up other than a sign I saw in a Church in Barcelona I think that intended to guide me through the halls with an arrow and a sign that said “a cappella.” Or maybe I was in Italy? I travel lots. Sorry.

    My point is, why NOT Christmas music? Why not CHORAL tunes? Maybe that’s what this a cappella business is all about and Straight No Chaser are leap frogging over all our ignorant heads and being like, “Yeah, we’re going to put on for a cappella and make the first major disc (specifically for the a cappella movement in a post rockapella world ’cause let’s admit the world wasn’t ready for rockapella in ’93) of a new age of a cappella by starting at the beginning, specifically with the Church and the original etymology of our genre.”

  10. I think you’re on to something with the “a cappella is the new acoustic” idea… maybe more bands will start doing “a cappella” versions of their songs instead of “acoustic”. Jack’s Mannequin for one recorded an a cappella version of one of their songs (Holiday from Real), although it’s not readily available for purchase: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRWqhOndZDU

    keepin’ it real in a post-collegiate a cappella group in Chicago, and fully accepting of the dorkdom that comes along with it… along with the amazement of friends and co-workers who, despite not being in college anymore, still love this shit.

  11. AuntySocial says:

    rockahella and Sadman hussein, Rockapella is still very much around and is far more than Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. I just saw a concert last night. They were brilliant! And those guys on the Astelin commercial are really The Groovebarbers, who are three of the original members of Rockapella, and only one of which was on Carmen Sandiego (Sean). Sean is also the only one who is a full-time singer, The Groovebarbers is more a bit of fun rather than a serious group. There is such a thing as professional a capella. They just don’t get record deals, well Rockapella had one but they didn’t like it. They certainly don’t need (or possibly want) one, they do a masterful jub on their own. I’ve heard quite a few college groups open for Rockapella, and not one came even close to the skill, unique arrangements, style, and depth of sound Rockapella has, even with 2 or 3 times as many members.

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