Sonos is a new a cappella group from Southern California trying to break away from the labels of average doo-wop groups. On an NPR interview, the announcer called them “not your average barbershop group” and added that a cappella has really come a long way over the years. Hearing this, I’m thinking, a cappella groups have been deviating from tradition for ages. The deviations have just been hiding in obscurity.
However, the mainstream media is pulling the genre into the popular scene, much to the chagrin of those transcendent groups like Sonos who want to keep the “kitsch” out. But the new Fox show Glee uses a cappella melodies to transition scenes and build dramatic tension. NBC is showcasing an a cappella reality series, which Entertainment Weekly believes is “not as lame as it sounds.” Many do have a connotation with the genre as being lame or cheesy, but my association is just a little bit unique.
My dad introduced my sister and I to the genre in the summer of ’98. A group he knew was singing in Hershey Park in Hershey, Pennsylvania. And we thought we were going to the park for the rides. Turns out for a cappella fans, they might just see their favorite group perform. The group’s name was the Trenchcoats, an energetic and joyful group of gentlemen from Seattle. Unfortunately that little thing called the mainstream media falsely labeled the quartet as having affiliations with the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” The following summer at Hershey, the lead singer told their story, how their website crashed from the hate mail and they had to change their name to just The Coats. This was especially sad for a singing group that harmonized about trust, equality, and “brighter days.”
This was of course just a prologue to the many groups that would enter into our lives through concerts and the ever-popular Harmony Sweepstakes A cappella competition, which we went to for four consecutive years. Groups with names like the “Tone Rangers,” “Toxic Audio,” and “Minimum Wage” performed in fifteen minute sets and the audience chose their favorite, most of them not barbershop groups. Of course many of them brought out their best renditions of “Come Together” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The avid fans laughed when one member would say, “We’re about to perform a song, never performed a cappella” and then they would burst out with the “wee-ma-ways.” We always went home with one or two new a cappella albums and pictures complete with group signatures. Even though they weren’t famous and no one at school would know the group, it still made me feel special to have a stack of pictures personalized and signed by the musicians.
Over the last ten years, I have gone through stages where I stayed away from a cappella music. There have been times when I want only the original classic rock versions of songs and times when I listen to only instrumentals. My sister has also gone through a similar stage, since she had to experience the college a cappella on a regular basis. College a cappella means a huge group of eager 20-somethings bounce happily with the consistent “do-do-do”s - with the beat boy off to the right with a microphone in one hand and his other stuffed in his pocket - while one soloist belts a rendition of a Madonna, Britney Spears, or Kelly Clarkson song (of course plenty of college groups have transcended this stereotype too).
My sister and I joke about how the mockumentary A Mighty Wind, while being about folk music, resurrects the spirit of a cappella concerts for us. It probably has to do with groups booking gigs at theme parks with roller coasters whooshing through the melodies.
The media is starting to invest in it. NBC wants to make a franchise competition of the genre, so my sympathies go out to the people who audition. I hope they can leave the conflict at the door because a cappella groups promote harmony, not the drama of the average reality series. While Rockapella had their Folgers coffee commercials (I can sing the whole ditty on cue), Toxic Audio went to Broadway, and Justin Guarini jumped from the Midnight Voices to the American Idol stage, a cappella has largely stayed away from the mainstream. Part of me wants it to stay that way, but I will be fascinated if the obscure groups my dad exposed me to ten years ago suddenly become part of everyone’s Itunes playlist.