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How ‘Pitch Perfect’ Helped A Cappella Hit a High Note in the Mainstream


By Jillian Mapes on May 14, 2015 12:45pm

If there is one thing you learn at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), it’s that there are a lot of ways to wear a vest. The vest, you see, is part of the changing uniform of the a cappella group. While perfectly matching (and perfectly dorky) bow ties, khaki pants, and suit jackets were once the preferred aesthetic of a cappella and its innumerable male groups from across the Ivy League, the sound’s “cool” new look involves coordinating trends across a singular color palette and a renewed sense of individuality. There were more pleather skirts on stage at this past April’s ICCA Finals than there are at a Forever 21. And don’t even get me started on the University of Michigan G-Men, who wear numbered soccer jerseys while covering Alt-J and employing mouth percussionists so frighteningly guttural, you’ll swear there’s some sort of woodland mammal among their ranks.

Yes, you will see the crowd go wild for a clean-cut young man in kelly-green suspenders belting out his “Uptown Funk” solo, Moonwalking, and casually grinding like he’s Bruno Mars all the while — but at least now he’s got nearly 3,000 screams behind him. In the early 2000s, the ICCA Finals barely sold a tenth as many tickets — and mostly to the parents of the kids performing. Now Varsity Vocals, the organization that presents the event, can barely keep up with the demand. This year, the Finals nearly sold out New York’s Beacon Theatre in just a few hours’ time. Likewise, the number of teams competing in the ICCA has increased tenfold, from around 30 in its initial year (1996) to more than 300 in 2015. They call this the Pitch Perfect effect. Even a cursory glance around the “aca” world will show you that “the real-life Pitch Perfect” is a popular marketing strategy (see, for example, the tagline of Pop TV’s new reality show tailing ICCA competitors, Sing It On).

Released in the fall of 2012 by Universal Pictures, Pitch Perfect took a while to find its footing, much like “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) — everyone’s favorite member of the film’s fictional ICCA underdogs, the Barden University Bellas — when she’s asked to complete cardio training and opts instead for “horizontal running.” But by 2013, Pitch Perfect had grossed more than $100 million internationally, spawned a Top 10 hit in “Cups” (a reworking of the Carter Family’s “When I’m Gone”), established a legacy as the millennial generation’s answer to Grease, become a bona fide franchise — and made the pun-filled subculture of a cappella seem sort of badass for the first time, well, ever.

“You think, ‘Well, how come a cappella needed a film to really launch it into where it’s at now, with a broad place in culture?’” Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 producer Paul Brooks says. “It’s always sounded great, it’s always been a thing, but back in the day it had a slimy, nervy, nerdy, corduroy jacket, Ivy League vibe about it — or a perceived vibe. That’s been blown out of the water now. Also, the reality is that any a cappella group that’s really competing was, and is, extremely good. I think part of [the genre’s] rise is, the quality of the work is getting better as well.”

With a cappella suddenly becoming “cool” — as the ICCA Finals’ hashtag-obsessed hosts continually reminded the crowd — the aca world is taking more risks than ever in order to keep the attention of its new fans. The question is, will these fans stick with a cappella after its current “moment” in mainstream pop culture has passed?

“I feel like it could go either one of two ways right now,” says Myles Nuzzi, a junior at USC, a baritone, and the president of four-time ICCA champs (including 2015), the SoCal VoCals. “A cappella’s getting this huge hype right now, and this is the peak. For all we know, in two years, no one could care anymore. Or, it’s going to go the opposite direction, which is that it’s going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

With Pitch Perfect 2 opening this Friday (March 15), it’s worth exploring how a cappella arrived at this crossroads in the first place.

A cappella groups had been performing, sans instrumental accompaniment of course, on Ivy League campuses for more than 100 years by the time Pitch Perfect premiered. Collegiate groups typically run eight to 16 members, while professional groups are more like four to seven people; mixed-gender groups are as common as all-male groups, while all-female groups are a rarer to see, at least among top-ranked teams.

Founded in 1909, The Yale Whiffenpoofs were among the first a cappella groups and remain the longest-running collegiate ensemble. They appeared on Saturday Night Live, had their signature song (“The Whiffenpoof Song”) covered by Sinatra, and were parodied by the first female collegiate a cappella group in 1936 (Smith College’s Smiffenpoofs). Around that same time, Barbershop music — which is marked by its four-part vocal harmonies — emerged in the mainstream and experienced a high in the 1940s, though a cappella as an unadorned vocal technique is the oldest form of music that exists (Gregorian chant, anyone?).

A number of musical cultures had a hand in establishing a cappella’s contemporary style, which highlights complex vocal harmonization as well as emulates instrumental sounds via mouth only. These reference points include but are not limited to hip-hop beatboxing and other forms of vocal percussion, barbershop quartets, African call and response, doo-wop, South African Mbube (as first established by Solomon Linda’s 1939 folk song “Mbube,” later adapted into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), and pop music, where a cappella finds the bulk of its current material.

A cappella’s relationship with pop music has been mutually advantageous over the years, as Mickey Rapkin points out in his 2009 book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, which served as the inspiration for the film franchise. A few highlights include: Manhattan Transfer’s 1981 Grammy win for “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square,” Billy Joel’s 1984 hit “The Longest Time” (which actually includes a string bass), Paul Simon’s 1986 classic album Graceland (which highlighted the talents of South African Isicathamiya-style vocal group Lady Blacksmith Mambazo), Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 No. 1 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Rockapella’s Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? success in the early ‘90s, and Boyz II Men’s 1991 No. 1 hit (a cover of the Motown classic) “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” And though aca has never been about making individual pop stars, a few — ranging from John Legend to Art Garfunkel to Sara Bareilles — cut their teeth singing in collegiate groups.

Though the boy bands of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s flirted with a cappella techniques, this era was all about innovation from inside aca. Producer Bill Hare, whom Rapkin refers to as the Dr. Dre of contemporary a cappella recording, had changed the game by being the first to mic individual voices while recording, and to mic singers as one would instruments if they are indeed singing instrumental parts. The influence of Hare’s first attempt at these new techniques, as heard on the Stanford Mendicants’ 1989 album Aquapella, would sink in more and more throughout the ’90s and ’00s. With 2003’s Code Red, the Tufts Beelzebubs took what their group’s forefathers had established with 1991’s influential Foster Street one step further with regards to instrumental emulation through voice: the group applied identical production techniques to the originals they covered, spawning eerily similar sounds.

Still, a cappella had not experienced a mainstream surge in years when Rapkin — then a senior editor at GQ and a former member of Cornell’s oldest a cappella group, Cayuga’s Waiters — was first approached by a book agent.

“The only thing I wanted to write a book about was college a cappella groups, and he thought it was a terrible idea,” says Rapkin, who went on to release his second book, Theater Geek, in 2011. “I was fascinated by the idea that a cappella was the coolest thing in college, but as soon as you graduated, you never wanted to admit it. Of course, now it’s a totally different world.”

Still, Rapkin sold the book in the fall of 2006 to Gotham Books and reported it during the 2006-2007 school year, when he tailed a few groups that would later become the loose inspiration for the Bellas and the Treblemakers of Pitch Perfect: The Hullabahoos of UVA (“the upstart bad boys”), Divisi of University of Oregon (essentially, the Barden Bellas IRL), and the aforementioned Beelzebubs (the old guard). Pitch Perfect co-star, producer, and now director Elizabeth Banks and her producer husband Max Handelman — both U Penn alums who had been aware of the a cappella scene there — got their hands on Rapkin’s book proposal and kept tabs on him as he wrote and reported. “The two of them [Banks and Handelman] are a force of nature, and they totally saw the book when very few people did,” Rapkin recalls. When Banks was in New York filming the 2008 Eddie Murphy movie Meet Dave, Rapkin met with her for lunch and discussed “the beloved absurdity of a cappella groups singing Justin Timberlake music without instruments, and how undergraduates on campus would treat these singers like rock stars.”

Rapkin remained skeptical that his book would not only make it to the big screen, but that the film would become a success. It took a visit to the set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to convince him of the latter. “The ‘transpo guys’ on set were these grizzled, Louisiana dudes,” Rapkin explains. “They could not have been further from the audience that people would expect for this movie [indeed, 55 percent of those who saw Pitch Perfect opening weekend were under 25, and 81 percent female]. They asked me what I do on set, and I explained that my book is being adapted into this movie. And these guys start oozing with sincerity. They fawn over the actors and say, ‘We really want this movie to be huge.’ That’s when I knew it would be something.”

By the time Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect was released in 2009, optioned as source material for the movie, went into production, premiered in late 2012, and took its subsequent victory lap in 2013, Glee had experienced its rise and fall in the zeitgeist. Though Ryan Murphy’s Fox smash — which finally ended this past March — focused on competitive high school show choir instead of collegiate a cappella, the series “reminded people of the joy of singing,” Rapkin says. (He rightfully adds that Glee’s “humor is very different” from Pitch Perfect, whose funny and bawdy screenplay by 30 Rock and New Girl writer/producer Kay Cannon is a big part of its appeal to non-aca fans; see also: Rebel Wilson’s physical comedy acumen.) With a record-breaking 207 entries on the Hot 100, Glee also blurred the lines between on-screen fiction and real-world hits. Pitch Perfect, not to mention Nashville and Empire, would reap the benefits of this model.

Propelled by “Cups,” the folksy number Anna Kendrick uses to try out for the Bellas, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack has sold 1.3 million copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Cups,” meanwhile, has sold nearly 6.5 million downloads worldwide, according to Universal Music. Though the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack, released just this week, hasn’t spawned much in way of a hit yet, it took the first film’s soundtrack nearly a year to reach critical mass.

The original’s music supervisors, Julia Michels and Julianne Jordan, returned for what Brooks calls a “very collaborative and fun” experience of plowing through tons of potential hits for inclusion in the groups’ arrangements. (Some big gets this time: Muse’s “Uprising” for competing German group Das Sound Machine, Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” for the Green Bay Packers (!!!), Snoop Dogg’s general on-screen presence.) From there, a cappella heavy-hitters like Beelzebubs alums Ed Boyer and Deke Sharon, who respectively helmed the aforementioned Code Red and Foster Street albums, help to lead the musical direction, arrangement, and production of the movie’s many covers. (Sharon, it’s worth mentioning, also established CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society), in the early ’90s; the organization remains integral in the community, presenting various awards and programs.)

What will be even more impressive than its box office gross or soundtrack sales, at least to those who live and breathe aca, is how Pitch Perfect 2 tackles the community’s biggest hurdle in its finale and setup for the third film: how does original music factor into a cappella? In the film, new Bella member Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld, auditions with an original song that — spoiler alert — features arrangement and production know-how from edgy mash-up queen Beca (Anna Kendrick), and becomes part of the Bellas’ redemption set at the international a cappella finals, alongside Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls),” Pitbull/Kesha’s “Timber,” and other hits. This “Firework”-esque ballad, titled “Flashlight,” even appears on the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack as a cover by Jessie J, whose over-the-top diva vocals were particularly popular among this year’s ICCA competitors (she is to 2015 what Sam Smith was to 2014, in terms of aca worship).

The jokes about “girls who are too ugly to be cheerleaders” are easy to make, but knowing that original music remains a cardinal sin in a cappella requires insider knowledge. Rapkin has helped in this way on both films, consulting Cannon on matters of aca accuracy via email. (That said, those “riff-offs” that Pitch Perfect fans are so fond of — in which groups compete impromptu style by matching words and subsequently interrupting one another — are incredibly difficult to pull off unless a group has a vast catalog; subsequently, they’re not nearly as common in aca as they are in the films.)

“People can only become so popular off of their covers,” Nuzzi says. “We can do the most innovative arrangement of ‘Bang Bang,’ and people would rather listen to the original than the a cappella cover, in most instances. It’s going to take doing original songs to make a cappella actually enter the true mainstream of music. That’s the next step for Pentatonix, and I think that’s the direction that we’re headed, too.”

When discussing modern a cappella’s role in pop culture, the Pentatonix factor cannot be underestimated. The Texas-bred group, also known as PTX, are not only the world’s most popular a cappella act at the moment, they’re charting new territory when it comes to the mainstream heights achieved by the genre. This includes winning a Grammy for arrangement earlier this year and touring alongside Kelly Clarkson this summer. More importantly, they’re the group positioned to lead the charge when it comes to aca’s next step in changing its novelty perception: original music. (Of course, some of PTX’s less popular pro-original contemporaries, like the Swingle Singers or ARORA (formerly known as Sonos), also could be of assistance in this fight down the line.)

PTX is at a unique advantage in that the Texas-bred group does not face the constraints of a collegiate a cappella environment, where competitions dictate who gets the attention and turnover is constant. Still, its members — Scott Hoying (a SoCal VoCal alum), Mitch Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Olusola — recognize what mainstream listeners want most and pepper original songs throughout their EPs alongside innovative pop covers.

“We talked about it [incorporating original material into the SoCal VoCals set] before the ICCAs, but we ultimately decided that it would be a risk just because, as far as judging goes, they don’t have anything to judge you against,” Nuzzi continues. “Something that could sound really perfect to us could come across the wrong way to the judges, even though that’s how we intended it. But then it’s a matter of, are we doing this for the art or are we doing this to win the competition?”

“Now that a cappella has been brought a little more into the mainstream light, I think there’s a bit more of a demand for it,” Pentatonix’s Mitch Grassi says. “Well, maybe not demand, per se, but a bit more of an interest in it. The next step is original material.”

PTX’s 2011 win on The Sing-Off, NBC’s continually on-the-bubble aca competition show that ran from 2009 to 2014, may have coincided with a cappella’s perfect storm in pop culture, but the group’s hard-earned success owes much to the power of YouTube, specifically the creative cover gone viral. Their Sing-Off win came with an Epic Records deal, but after the label dropped them, the group found a fan base on YouTube that even the majors couldn’t ignore, signing to RCA in 2013.

“I could not have imagined a world where Pentatonix would be opening for Kelly Clarkson, where they would blow up on YouTube, and be on Ellen, and not be viewed as a novelty act,” Rapkin says, excitement audible in his voice. “And now that Pentatonix has done it, I totally believe it’s opened the door for other groups.”

Regardless of your feelings on mouth percussion, Pentatonix’s most popular covers — like their Grammy-winning Daft Punk medley that has accumulated 134 million YouTube views and 20 million Spotify streams in less than two years — are feats worthy of total awe. The things that have to happen to make a swooping beat drop in a cappella covers of big EDM-pop hits are staggering, and with a tight, fast group like Pentatonix, every computer-generated sound remains intact.

“[With YouTube], a cappella groups have a great way to get their material out there, and the cool thing about not using instruments is that it can be totally on the fly,” Grassi says. “The general public loves creative, interesting covers of pop songs, and that just so happens to be a forte of a cappella groups.”

Pentanonix took a thoroughly modern path to popularity — one that past generations of a cappella groups didn’t have at their fingertips — but there’s also a bit of aca tradition peppered in as well. PTX might not have quite as much leverage going into their proper full-length debut for RCA if it weren’t for Christmas music. Historically, the holidays are the busiest time of year for a cappella groups, both in terms of performances and releases. The bulk of traditional carols and Christian hymns were written using only voices, so it makes sense that people — more than a million of them, to be sure — would want to hear PTX sing these well-worn favorites. The group’s That’s Christmas to Me reigned as 2014’s best-selling holiday album.

“We have achieved so much success, and the numbers are insane, but still we don’t really feel like celebrities,” says Pentatonix’s Scott Hoying, a SoCal VoCal alum. “People in the mainstream music industry still say, ‘I don’t think they are really anything special,’ ‘They are just a fad,’ ‘I don’t get it,’ so I think we are still the underdogs despite all that has happened. We love it, though. It really lights a fire in us to work harder, and prove them wrong.”

“Proving them wrong” may just include their label as well, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out last year in mentioning that RCA execs suggested adding instruments to PTX’s sound for radio appeal. Pentatonix are working on their new album, which Grassi says “definitely stays with the ‘no instruments’ policy.” In the immediate, the group is gearing up for the Pitch Perfect 2 premiere; PTX appears in the film’s finale as the Bellas’ Canadian competitors at Worlds, singing Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.” Hoying describes PTX as “obsessed with Pitch Perfect and the attention it has brought to a cappella.”

Nuzzi and others in the a cappella community are not quite as zealous about the movie, but find its cultural shorthand helpful in bringing non-believers to the aca cause.

“I’ve only seen Pitch Perfect once or twice, back when it came out, and don’t really know too much about the movie, but the most random of my friends back home are obsessed with it,” Nuzzi says. “When I come home and say I sing in an a cappella group, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ These friends would never have appreciated a cappella otherwise.”

“A cappella can definitely be campy, so a lot of people will always say it’s ‘not cool,’” Hoying admits. “But through a combination of a cappella groups changing their style and sound, and mainstream audiences starting to crave something more organic, I think a cappella truly is on the rise.”

With the aid of a summer blockbuster (and a third Pitch Perfect film still to come), the perpetually underdog, underrated, uncool world of a cappella music may finally reach mainstream musical legitimacy — and stay there for more than a fluke hit.