Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Art / Music / Theatre

Pitch-slapped: when a cappella singing becomes cool

by Nikki Lusk , December 4, 20124 Comments

Until the last few years, a cappella singing had never been cool. Even the 80s – the spiritual home of leg warmers and jazz ballet – did not attempt to pass off vocal arrangements as hot property. This is hardly surprising, given the origins of Western a cappella singing in religious ceremonies, most notably Gregorian chanting during the Middle Ages. And there it stayed, hovering in the wings as the dorky cousin of pop groups and rock bands. Even Alanis Morissette at the height of her powers wasn’t prepared to put her a cappella where her tracklist was, surreptitiously including ‘Your House’ on Jagged Little Pill as a secret track.

When I joined my college choir in the late 90s, I knew instinctively that this was a hobby I should not broadcast to my friends. Our maestro gave us little hope of transcending social awkwardness when she limited our repertoire to such cringe-worthy numbers as ‘Seasons of Love’ from the musical Rent. As Nina Rastogi, another former a cappella nerd, confessed in a piece for Slate: ‘most damning of all is the fact that a cappella is so painfully earnest, so distressingly eager to please’.

Yet if I were a student today, my desire to sing would be embraced as part of the post-Glee reality, in which vocal groups are not only received with rapturous applause, they also provide catharsis for the social anxiety of young adults. Into this brave new world of harmony struts the inevitable college a-cappella-battle film Pitch Perfect. No longer quarantined to discreet rehearsal spaces, these all-boy and all-girl groups stalk the campus, remixing songs on the fly.

The choir nerd in me is thrilled that a cappella is on trend this season. But before you grab some doo-wopping friends and take to the streets for a five-part sing-along, let me issue a warning: the mere act of singing without instrumental accompaniment is not sufficient to earn you cool points. The a cappella group The Idea of North, for instance – while winning ARIAs and my mother-in-law’s heart – can’t break the mould of earnestness that constrains so many vocal groups.

Song selection is important to your credibility: the songs that drive the crowds wildest are those that you’d never expect to be given a choral arrangement, with Pitch Perfect’s track list ranging from Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ to Pat Benetar’s ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’ by way of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Party in the USA’. Mash-ups are encouraged, with one memorable Glee performance melding Beyonce’s ‘Halo’ with Katrina and The Waves’ ‘Walking on Sunshine’.

But the key ingredient for making a cappella singing a desirable commodity is attitude. Hitting the right notes is of course essential, but dramatic flair is the true way to impress the musically hip. Flash-mobbing choirs, such as a guerrilla tram choir I once sang with, use the element of surprise to earn their accolades (or, occasionally, abuse – not everyone likes to be serenaded while commuting). Simple choreography goes a long way. The choir I perform with these days, Just Holler, works hard to win audiences over: we wield cleavers during The Decemberists’ ‘Shankhill Butchers’, don daggy knits for a Fleet Foxes mash-up and perform acrobatic lifts while warbling Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’.

This summer, though, the coveted badge of A Cappella Sass is rightfully pinned to the chest of Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick, who leads the Bellas to victory against the Treble Makers in a ‘riff-off’, with the inspired song choice of ‘No Diggity’. A cappella has never looked as cool as girls who like the way you work it and aren’t afraid to harmonise about it.

Pitch Perfect hits Australian cinemas on 6 December. If you just can’t wait, you can sample the cast’s a cappella hits with an online listening party.

Nikki Lusk is a Killings columnist and an editor based in Melbourne. She matches books to music at The Book Tuner.




  • http://mulberryroad.tumblr.com Genevieve Tucker (@mulberry_road)

    HEH. I have a family member eagerly awaiting this film
    ‘s release, thanks for the post and previews! lovely.
    I think she’d agree with me, though, that Idea of North could do a hiphop album standing on one leg. Have you ever seen them live? they are a lean, mean singing machine (and their album with James Morrison swings.) And quite funny people, too.

  • http://mulberryroad.tumblr.com Genevieve Tucker (@mulberry_road)

    …and I don’t know how that possessive got into the next line like that. oh dear.

  • http://www.thebooktuner.com Nikki Lusk

    No, I must admit I have not seen the Idea of North live, and I no doubt harshly prejudged them from YouTube videos and my mother-in-law’s enthusiasm for the group. I promise to give them a chance, especially if they branch out into hiphop!

  • http://mulberryroad.tumblr.com Genevieve Tucker (@mulberry_road)

    Their percussive effects guy is terrific. Low, low bass and snappy beats.

9781847086273

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their picks

Is your to-read pile looking particularly uninspiring at the moment? Or maybe you’ve just finished a novel and aren’t quite sure what to read next. Never fear! The staff from Readings bookshop have your back. Here they share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

anchorpoint_cover-hi-res-2

James Tierney

Unblinkingly Into Harsh Terrain: Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point

The Australian landscape is much traversed in our national imagination, yet rarely entirely comfortably. For the 85 per cent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of the coast, the continent that lies at our backs that is emptier, hotter, and remains haunted by the circumstance of its possession. Read more »

loitering-cover-cmyk-570

Sam van Zweden

The Writer at the Centre of the Essay: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering

Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit. Read more »

6314976-3x2-940x627

Rebecca Shaw

Out of Alignment: Religion, politics and priorities

Throughout your (hopefully long) life, you will often be forced to prioritise one thing over another thing.
Because we make these decisions based on what we personally think is important or morally right, the things other people choose to prioritise can be confusing or upsetting to us. I find this happens regularly when bearing witness to what some religious people or religious groups choose to place importance on. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

every-day-2012-005_cmyk

Anwen Crawford

Being Boring: Passing time with the films of Michael Winterbottom

Early in 2013, a feature film slipped quietly into cinemas; a film that had been recorded in short intervals over a five-year period, and which featured four young real-life siblings cast as their own fictional equivalents. The film was Everyday, by English director Michael Winterbottom, and it … Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

2011 Jesse Knish Photography

Katie Williams

Pilgrimage to San Francisco: Power and Privilege at the Game Developers Conference

Attendees talk about the annual pilgrimage to the Game Developer’s Conference with the same reverence as a child’s first trip to Disney World. It’s the Magic Kingdom for adult nerds. The weeks leading up to the conference are full of discussion about which parties to attend, and how best to make an impression on people who could be useful in furthering your game development career. Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »