Aaron at Acaville Radio, the winner of our first CD giveaway contest, who will receive a signed copy of the new Ball in the House CD. More on why he was selected in a minute, but first let me just say how exciting and rewarding it was for me to take a look at the cross-section of respondents to this contest.
We had pure fans, folks who run a cappella-related websites like Aaron and Trevor (from Popappella), performers like Daniel Alan (from The Edge Effect), and folks who inspired me to start this blog like Chad Bergeron from The Acapodcast.
Thanks to all who submitted responses, and I have to confess I am not surprised it came out fairly even in the PRO and CON camps regarding the use of instruments or backing tracks on The Sing Off.
I chose Aaron as the winner because of the depth and consideration of his responses, even if I don’t necessarily agree with his position.
As Aaron points out, language carries significant meaning. As someone who spends every day writing for my professional career and then spends more free time writing for this blog, I fully appreciate the power of word choices. I acknowledge that “a cappella” conveys something very specific to many people- vocal music performed without instruments. I appreciate that the distinction between unaccompanied and accompanied vocal music seems like it should be a natural line in the sand, one being “a cappella” while the other is not.
The problem from my perspective is that the last time we really truly had all “a cappella” in any kind of traditional popular music context was probably street corner doo wop. In the decades since, we’ve added microphones (which allow for direct manipulation of sound- try making an effective guitar fuzz sound with your mouth and no microphone), and more recently pedals. The last time I saw Arora, when they were still Sonos, Katharine Hoye sang half the basslines with an octavizer pedal. The show was still awesome, but is that the kind of a cappella Aaron suggests? I don’t know. There are no right answers.
It gets even murkier when you talk about what can be and frequently is done in the studio. I listen to well over 100 a cappella albums a year (between my responsibilities at RARB and Voices Only), and it is increasingly rare that I get a sense the group sang much of what I am hearing anywhere close to the way it comes through my speakers. Groups of 5 members are recording songs with 30 different vocal parts. Their parts are being chopped up and tuned, moved around to the point where they barely resemble a single performance.
Does this bother me? Not really. I still enjoy knowing that it derives from a human voice, but it generally doesn’t give me the chills that I get from a beautiful chord ringing in an acoustically pristine room, where overtones are winding their way into my ears. I think this is what Aaron is getting at- we who are especially enamored with or inspired by a cappella music often appreciate it most in a room, with those chords hitting us in just such a way. Does the addition of instruments or backing tracks reduce the enjoyment in that kind of setting? I suspect it does, at least for many of us.
However- The Sing Off is a television show. The vast majority of us were not in the room when this was taped, and we’re not getting the same feelings as the people who are there for the taping.
There’s also the angle of how the show affects the public perception of a cappella music, and yes- I have reservations there too. If we want people to get into a cappella music for the same reasons we love it, the show loses a little bit of its value as Exhibit A if there are backing tracks or instruments.
Nevertheless, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for the reasons I expressed in the original post and for reasons referenced by Trevor and Chad.
Here is Aaron’s original comment. I encourage you to go back to the original post and read all of the comments, and then maybe take the time to weigh in with your thoughts. Do you agree with these folks? Why or why not?
Thank you all for submitting responses, and please let us know if you’d like to see more album giveaway contests in the future!
Aaron from Acaville Radio wrote:
Language is an amazing thing. It is among the best (though by no means the only) way for us to communicate meaning to one another. Every language is shaped by what’s important to the culture that speaks it. In Japanese, for instance, there are an order of magnitude more ways to describe fish than in English. Descriptive words for snow are more plentiful in far-nothern indigenous peoples’ languages.
When we call something a cappella, we should know what that means. It’s the voice. It’s not the voice and a piano. It’s not the voice and a flute. I think it can be argued about whether it means the voice and a fancy set of engineering effects, but that’s a discussion for another time. It’s not necessarily that something a cappella is better or worse than something ‘vocal’ (here used to represent a broader swath of music that features the voice, but potentially with instrumental accompaniment), but for clarity of definition, can we not all agree that it’s different?
One of the reasons we founded Acaville Radio was that none of the music discovery services or radio out there classified a cappella separately from ‘vocal’ music. So you might start with the Bobs or Bubs, and then it was a Norah Jones bluesy track with piano. We’re not anti-Jones, but it’s a different thing.
You raise the point about a cappella groups doing albums that are accompanied, or that have accompanied tracks on them. I’d submit that this means they’re not purely a cappella groups. AND THAT’S OK. Look at Groove For Thought – they turn out some amazing a cappella songs, with lush harmonies and blend – and on the same album, have great jazz tunes with instrumentation and … lush harmonies and blend. For years, they have been very clear that (despite being on the Sing-Off) they are not an a cappella group. They’re a vocal group that does some a cappella songs. Makes sense to me.
Which brings me to the Sing-Off. Nowhere in the name or other external indicia of the show does it imply a cappella. Were this the first season, and we learned there were going to be instruments or backing tracks, it probably wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. What I suspect we’d all think was that the show was going to be another iteration of America’s Got Talent or The Voice, but with groups instead of individuals. Fun, entertaining – but not directly relevant to a cappella.
So color me cynical, but that’s sorta what I expect. Amazing vocal groups (though none in high school, apparently, since the cutoff is 18 years old), bands, and some judging/feedback. Will I watch it? Sure – I also watch the other shows I mentioned. Do I expect it to be jaw-dropping a cappella? No.
A cappella as a genre is a funny thing, and in a funny place right now. It’s constantly growing in wider acceptance and awareness, and largely I think that’s happening because fans of ‘vocal’ music are discovering a cappella. Yet I think there are fans of a cappella that allow their personal preference become a sneering superiority – instruments aren’t a cappella, therefore groups with instruments are a lesser form. Over the long term, an attitude that denigrates the genres that the masses are using as “gateway genres” to a cappella will significantly slow the rate of a cappella adoption.
Better to embrace the wider field of ‘vocal’ music, recognize the wonder of the voice wherever it’s found, and then, for a cappella advocates, gently point out the idiosyncratically amazeballs things that can be done with voice alone. Because that’s something a bit different from ‘vocal’ music. Something a bit trickier. Something a bit, to my ears, cooler.
It’s a cappella.