Originally published in Slate.com , July 15, 2008
Last Night a Beat Box Saved My Life: Pitch Perfect and the strange allure of a cappella
When I heard that GQ editor Mickey Rapkin was writing a book about college a cappella, I was thrilled.
When I heard that GQ editor Mickey Rapkin was writing a book about college a cappella, I was thrilled. I hoped that the book, Pitch Perfect, would serve as a decoder ring: Something I could read—something I could make all my nonsinging friends read—that would explain why I’d spent so much of my life standing in a half-circle and snapping on the downbeat.
Yes, that was me, step-touching in your dining hall. That was me, closing my eyes at the climax of the Indigo Girls ballad. I was an a cappella nerd, and I loved every minute of it—but, even so, I didn’t show my boyfriend the videos until we’d been dating for a year and a half. Nothing from my past evokes quite the same derision, and I say that as a former debater, mock-trial lawyer, and mathlete.
The crimes of a cappella, after all, are legion and well-documented. The dumb outfits. The dm-dm-ka-cha’s that are supposed to approximate the sound of drums and hi-hats. The fact that on many college campuses, it’s always being shoved in your face. (Your roommate might have been a Level-20 Wizard in Dungeons & Dragons, but he wasn’t constantly sprawled in your entryway, forcing you to watch him roll his 12-sided die.) It remains unclear whether the people involved even like music. The bands most frequently covered on the circuit are uniformly schlocky: Coldplay, Maroon 5, Billy Joel, Journey. Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that a cappella is so painfully earnest, so distressingly eager to please.
But numbers don’t lie. There are now more than 1,200 college groups across the nation—with an average of 10 to 15 members per group, that’s as many as 18,000 singers. So clearly, something draws people to a cappella.
Unfortunately, Pitch Perfect does not explain what that something is. For one thing, Rapkin spends too much time on shop talk—there are long digressions about recording sessions and the inner machinations of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. (“Competitive a cappella” being a fringy sub-subculture that makes even other singers shudder with disdain.)
There are also too many characters. Rapkin spent a year trailing three different college groups whose members together make almost 50 students, and he also includes dozens of alums and other peripheral figures. Rapkin tries to give his subjects color by detailing various “wacky” adventures, but none of the garden-variety college escapades are all that interesting because we barely know the people involved. I feel bad that the University of Virginia Hullabahoos missed their chance to sing the national anthem at the Staples Center because they spent too long eating lunch and then got stuck in traffic, but I didn’t need to read a chapter about it.
Successful dork documentaries like Trekkies, Spellbound, and Darkon demonstrate that a handful of strong, charismatic characters are essential for grounding skeptical nondorks in the subculture in question. Rapkin fails to do this. Perhaps more important, he hasn’t absorbed these films’ most persuasive tactic: They made it clear that the activity in question really stands for something else. Spelling bees, in other words, aren’t actually about orthography—they’re about young, dedicated immigrants achieving the American Dream. LARPers—that’s live-action-role players, to you—aren’t just running around with plastic helmets and Nerf swords; they’re creating organically engaged communities. In the best dork documentaries, audience members realize that they want the same things nerds want; they just look for those things in different places. Rapkin doesn’t locate the deeper, human story of this subculture, and the book lacks emotional heft as a result.
For me, and for most of the former singers I know, a cappella offered fellowship. Of course, that’s precisely what so many people find off-putting about the whole thing—the insularity, the cultishness. There are many similarities between cult members and a cappella singers: Matching outfits. Frozen smiles. Intense recruitment tactics. Obscure traditions. (“No, no, no—for 15 years we have been stepping on the one and snapping on the two!”) But what is cult if not another word for community? I arrived at Yale fresh from the suburbs, terrified of all the chic city kids I imagined would be roaming about, ready to mock me because I didn’t smoke pot or know all the bylines in The New Yorker. A cappella gave me something to belong to. Rushing singing groups—a complicated, monthslong process involving hundreds of hopeful freshmen—meant that, suddenly, dozens of upperclassmen were going out of their way to say hello to me on campus. Later, when I spearheaded rush efforts myself, I realized that these seemingly casual encounters were as carefully planned and executed as a military bombing campaign. But it feels good to be wooed, even if the seduction is a little canned.
Once I was actually tapped to join a group, it was like gaining membership in a sprawling, hilarious family. This was a heady thing for an only child like me. Suddenly I was spending my weekends in a station wagon with eight other people, watching miles of highway unspool in front of me as everyone in the front seats squabbled about radio privileges. (As the shortest member of the group, I was always relegated to the way back.) We spent our vacations visiting members’ hometowns, singing for elementary schools, charity functions, business events—anyone who would pay us, really. Sometimes we were put up in fancy hotels; sometimes we packed in eight to a room. I once spent three days sleeping under a piano in Nashville. It was the closest thing to a family I had in college.
I wasn’t the only one who found affirmation and fellowship in the dorky arms of a cappella. My best friend in the group had formally come out just before he arrived on campus. He recalls, “I’d had very little social contact with gay men in high school—you steer clear of each other for safety’s sake. So it was great to have all these interesting upperclassmen that you could sort of look up to and feel comfortable around.” Like drama club in high school, a cappella is a safe haven for gays and the girls and straight boys who love them.
And while no one would ever claim that a cappella approaches high art—though some professional groups, like Take 6 and Sweet Honey in the Rock, have been critically acclaimed—there are pleasures to be found in the music itself. If you’ve ever sung around a campfire or joined a drunken round of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” you know what I’m taking about: Singing with other people is fun, even if you’re not very good. What many people don’t realize is that, for singers, there’s an extra, physical dimension to that pleasure. Belting out a clean high C is like executing a slam-dunk or a crisp pirouette—there’s an exhilaration that comes with feeling your body reach its limits. Singing with a group—especially if you’re lucky enough to have some true musicians in the mix, as I was—is as gratifying as playing on a sports team. Plus, there’s always the thrill of stepping out in public and having lots