Acapolitics- first I lived it, then I read it

Acapolitics, a term which is similar in function to “acadrama” or maybe just “college a cappella” more generally, is also now a terrific first novel by Stephen Harrison. The book, which is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, offers a snapshot of the routines, experiences, and relationships among and within college a cappella groups over the course of a single academic year. Told from a third-person narrative, the story primarily follows the introduction and then development of a group of freshman a cappella neophytes as they learn about, audition for, and then become immersed in the culture surrounding college a cappella groups.

I am not a literary critic, and I won’t pretend to be one in this “review.” I am more interested in telling you why you might be interested in reading this book. First and foremost, Harrison tells a timeless story- boy meets girl, girl is unavailable, boy befriends girl, etc.  That this story proceeds in the context of a larger story about the politics and drama of college a cappella does not dilute its appeal, and both times I read the book I found myself rushing to read faster as the story approached the end of the first year for these young men and women to see where they would end up. But it is ultimately the larger story which is more important, and that story which may reach more readers, particularly those who have experienced college a cappella firsthand.

I sang in two different college a cappella groups at two different universities, one small (Crane School of Music at Potsdam College) and one large (New York University). And while some of the particulars which Harrison describes regarding the organization or role of a cappella at his fictional Brighton University were not true to my own experiences, many others were. At his University, for example, there is a governing a cappella organization which creates rules for “drafting” singers into the various groups– a process which I have never experienced or even heard of. But I find it entirely believable that colleges or universities which harbor 6 (like Brighton) or more groups might resort to such structure. The smaller or “micro” details which Harrison brings to his story are far more familiar to me, however, and I suspect they will be familiar to almost anyone who sang a cappella in college. Some examples were the details for how a group chooses its soloists (auditioning in front of and voting by the remaining members of the group) and how a group ends up with a ritual which might seem silly but which nonetheless becomes integral to the members of that group. I’m not sure any other rituals out there involve physical contact with dairy products backstage, but there are surely some which are even more outrageous.

From the beginning, Harrison tells a story of competition and conflict, and it is certainly true that groups which share a campus, talent pool, and funding almost always engage in such conflict. But Harrison also shares the real respect and relationships behind those conflicts, describing afterparties where members from all groups mingle, dance (and drink) together, and harmonize together as well. Another truism which Harrison explores is the diversity of those who join college a cappella groups. In his freshman class of singers, he offers a collection of backgrounds from one extreme (the “theater” type) to the other (the athlete who has never sung in public before) with the middle well-covered (perhaps the most common, the casual, guitar-playing guy or gal who just loves music). To those who have never been in a college a cappella group, this range might be surprising; but to those of us who experienced it, this was familiar and honest.

Sure, there are a few clunky stereotypes, like the all-male group which strips down, sings the same songs year after year, and focuses entirely on getting the opposite sex in bed. Sadly, these stereotypes exist because there are groups and individuals who fit them perfectly at college campuses across the country, though it is unfair to suggest that all male groups harbor the same traits. Harrison covers up for this by offering another all-male group which gets far less treatment, unflattering or otherwise.

So, what exactly has Stephen Harrison accomplished with this book, and why should you read it? First of all, this book is a love letter to college a cappella, and his nostalgia is of the recent vintage (his bio says he attended Washington University of St. Louis where he was a member of After Dark, a mixed group, and that he published the book when he was 24 years old). With that in mind, the book was written for those who have experienced these feelings, these relationships, these performances, and who treasure and value their memories at any time at any American university. By covering some moments which non-acappella people might find tedious (e.g. the first rehearsal where the music director turns off the lights and the group sings in the dark), Harrison has made a direct and I believe successful effort to re-engage those memories in the a cappella alumni readers. But in telling a larger story of young relationships, both romantic and platonic, he also creates an interesting, engaging novel about that first year of college. So, while non-acappella folk may not understand the importance of competitions (ICCA, or what he calls “WAC”) to groups, they will surely remember what it was like to be young, uncertain, and curious.

If you sang a cappella in college and you have a hankering for nostalgia, get this book. If you didn’t, and you want a fast read about young people learning the type of politics, manipulation, and decisionmaking which lie ahead in varying degrees and scales for most of us, you should probably still get this book. Either way, you’ll enjoy it.

You can find out more by going to the website, http://www.acapolitics.com/.

What do you think?