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The Week In Pop: Goddamn, People Love Pentatonix
Dec 11th '14 by Chris DeVille @ 4:20pm16 Comments
Ever since Glee became a phenomenon in 2009, a cappella music has been building to a pop cultural renaissance of sorts. As that show’s cultural clout died down, Pitch Perfect picked up its slack. The 2012 movie made stars out of Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson and was instantly canonized as one of those films teens and college students watch on repeat. Pitch Perfect offered a fresh spin on a typical formula — predictable from start to finish but also charming, funny, and filled with memorable musical sequences that weaved remix culture into the movie musical. It will probably be a cable staple for the rest of our lives, and rightly so: It’s a compulsively watchable reminder of how much fun it can be to hear pop songs reinterpreted for vocals only. The sequel is coming soon, and you’d better believe I’m going to see it.
If Pitch Perfect is the definitive document of a cappella’s new wave, Pentatonix are its definitive group. Although they came to prominence in 2011 on NBC’s The Sing-Off — where they impressed a panel of judges including Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles, and Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman — they arrived on the show fully formed from Arlington, Texas. Their origin story is fascinating in that a trio of high school buddies (who recorded their first demo in an attempt to meet the cast of Glee) essentially recruited a rhythm section by bringing in bass and beatbox specialists, like an acoustic folk group teaming up with a drummer and bassist to go electric. The whole reason they expanded their lineup from three to five was so they could have enough members to compete on The Sing-Off, and the day before their audition was the first time they all sang together. Yet from their very first performance on the show, viewable below, Pentatonix had the judges rhapsodizing about their innovative approach to a cappella, which incorporates modern pop songs and a focus on tweaked rhythm and heavy bass. Later that season, Stockman told them, “I think you guys were sent back from the future to save a cappella and do it in a futuristic way.” Like Kendrick’s character in Pitch Perfect, they were breathing new life into a scene typified by the straitlaced traditionalism of Straight No Chaser.
There was a moment on The Sing-Off when Bareilles noted that Pentatonix could actually sell some records, and they absolutely have. Their new holiday album, That’s Christmas To Me, released in October, has been climbing the Billboard 200 and would easily be a multi-week #1 if not for Taylor Swift’s relentless 1989. With 616,000 in sales so far, That’s Christmas To Me is certified gold and will likely become one of 2014's only platinum LPs. PTX, Vol. III, the EP they released in September, debuted at #5; it features the original “On My Way Home” plus covers of 2014 hits “Problem,” “Rather Be,” and a mashup of Sam Smith’s Naughty Boy and Disclosure features “La La La” and “Latch” entitled, simply enough, “La La Latch.” But if Pentatonix’s chart moves indicate success according to traditional measurements, their most impressive numbers mirror their unconventional musical approach: YouTube is where they really shine.
Pentatonix started their YouTube channel in 2012 to promote themselves directly to fans. That approach is panning out for them: PTXOfficial now boasts 7 million subscribers, and it’s basically a viral video factory. Of the six clips Pentatonix released to promote That’s Christmas To Me, none tallied less than 37.5 million views. The visuals for their Daft Punk medley “Daft Punk” have accrued more than 107 million views since premiering 13 months ago. They routinely raise $15,000 per video through the crowdfunding site Patreon, allowing them to bypass their record label and self-produce each clip with high production values. By passing through the usual channels in reverse — from reality TV winners to crowdfunded YouTube superstars — they’ve become an intriguing model for 21st century success.
So, are they any good? Some pluses and minuses: Technically, there’s no denying Pentatonix’s prowess at singing and arranging. (Plus.) The whole package is trickier; they’re bright and bubbly to such an overbearing extent that I find their music more enjoyable without the videos that have made them so famous. (Minus.) You might have noticed by now that despite their cloying shiny-happy-people vibe and a lead singer who could pass for the lost Carter brother, the corniness doesn’t extend to their song selection; they’ve got great taste in material, even covering Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” on That’s Christmas To Me. (Plus.) The more polarizing thing is what they do with that material, often offering saccharine interpretations of songs that used to have some kind of edge. (Minus.)
Even if you were among those that winced at Pentatonix’s sugary take on Fleet Foxes, the group’s cheery disposition lends itself to traditional Christmas music, which somehow transcends the rest of pop culture’s need to unceasingly press forward. I like seasonal music just fine in-season — I’m actually sitting next to a lit-up tree as I type this — but unless you’re one of those people who blasts carols in July, That’s Christmas To Me is only worth your time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, same as any other holiday collection. As for the rest of their discography, I find it more impressive than enjoyable, but it’s definitely impressive. They’re their own movie-script ending, their groundbreaking a cappella somehow more hokey than the groundbreaking a cappella with an actual Hollywood script attached.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 remains at #1 for a fifth nonconsecutive week after tallying 274,000 units — or more than 10 times the paltry 25,000 managed by the Wu-Tang Clan’s #29-debuting A Better Tomorrow. Our own Tom Breihan tweeted that Wu-Tang’s latest was “not crushingly disappointing,” but those sales certainly are. Back to Taylor, though: 1989 has now sold 2.7 million in just six weeks, destroying all other 2014 releases. As noted above, even Pentatonix’s That’s Christmas To Me, which has been climbing the charts in a manner akin to the Frozen soundtrack, stands no chance against Swift; they moved 221,000 units this week to stay put at #2. Speaking of the Frozen soundtrack, it’s back to #10 with 43,000 units, giving it 3.7 million in sales on the year. Could 1989 make up the difference before January to become 2014's best-selling album? We’ll see.