In an effort to keep the length of this post down, I’m leaving out my thoughts on how to move forward from here – the tips and tricks section basically. Undoubtedly, this is a juicy topic, and can definitely be written about more. If you guys like this post and want to hear more, let me know and I’ll be happy to write some more.
I consider myself lucky. I was born at a time when the top songs in America included the likes of “Careless Whisper” by George Michael, “Like a Virgin” by the inimitable Madonna, and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” Luckily for me, I didn’t grow up listening to any of this crap. My mom was a big fan of classical music, and my dad to this day only listens to music from the 40s and 50s, the era that Naturally 7 sings about in “Back to the Essence” – “When singers were gifted […] If it ain’t broken, no need to enhance. Choose a subject: life or romance.”
Yes, I believe that the 80s were just a gateway to the kind of terrible music that is now constantly regurgitated out of the top-40s radio station on my co-worker’s desk. I’m forced on a daily basis to ingest songs whose melodies are bland and lyrics are tasteless. The rhythms and progressions are leftovers from last year’s top 10; really, it just leaves me wondering why I keep consuming the same over-cooked garbage when what I really crave is steak… a big, juicy, bone-in ribeye au poivre with a creamy bernaise.
We can see this sort of diluted music in the a cappella world, too. Oh, yes! Don’t think we get off so easily. Let’s ignore for the moment replicated covers of popular songs (I mean, if a pale, homely person looks in the mirror, they’re not going to see Fabio staring back), though there is something that should be said about overly generic covers as well (*cough* Viva La Vida *cough*). This conversation, instead, is about the lack of substance – the lack of ribeye – in original songs in our community.
I have a saying – “Poetry is the soul of man put to words; Song is that poetry put to music.” What I mean by that is a song should have a point, some greater meaning that stirs the listener (or at least the player/singer) to some emotion – love, desire, enmity, joy, pain, warmth, grief – the options are endless. To put it bluntly: if you’ve taken the time to write lyrics, put those lyrics to music, teach the song to your group, practice for hours to get it ready to perform in front of me, you better have a pretty damn good reason for it.
When I was asked to write this piece, I found myself immediately drawn to the past few Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) lists for Best Pro and Scholastic originals. I was even in Boston for the first ever live CARAs at BOSS a few weeks ago. The CARAs are supposed to be the best that a cappella has to offer every year as determined by people who should know – leaders in the a cappella community. I say this so you’ll see that I didn’t go looking for examples of weak originals; they found me.
I’ve never been a fan of Street Corner Symphony. I thought they barely scraped by during their stint on “The Sing-Off,” and the whole “Unpracticed,” “we got lucky” persona that was served to me when I met them last year at a festival in Virginia put a really bad taste in my mouth that still lingers. All personal feelings aside, their original song, “Most Of It,” left me wondering what “it” was. There is a distinct lack of movement throughout the song, no journey taken, nothing gained. The solo is insipid – no herbs or spices to liven things up. And though it might be an unpopular view, Nina Beaulieu said the same in her review of their album late last year. Though she liked the background vocals (mostly noting affectations rather than actual chord progression or harmonies), she hinted that the solo itself was boring. But even so, it was in the running for Best Professional Original.
Likewise, Duke Out of the Blue’s “***” was up for this year’s Best Scholastic Original. It’s a really interesting song with some cool background vocals that are reminiscent of a Gaelic choral piece. But the lyrics not only leave something to be desired, I can’t even tell what they’re saying throughout most of the recording. All the whispering is a cool effect, but most of the time it’s just noise. And believe me, I tried to figure it out – I’ve played the track on half-a-dozen sound systems including my crappy laptop speakers, my Skull Candy earbuds, and the 6.1 JBL system in my car. I still have no idea what the song is about – and the title of the song isn’t much help.
And generally speaking, when it comes to original songs in the a cappella world, this is what we have to work with. We get songs like “Most of It” that lack substance, or ones like “***” that are musically elegant and interesting, but where lyrics are almost an after-thought, or at least not meant to be important in the overall arc of the song. It’s like drinking a Sauvignon Blanc with Lasagna – the strong flavors of the food overpower the wine, making it taste like water. And it works the other way too. Powerful lyrics can be left wanting when paired with a melody or vocals that uninspired.
This, I think, is the root of the issue. As a cappella people, many of us trained musicians, we tend to hear music differently than the popular world does. Personally, I’ve always been one to listen to the music first and lyrics second, and I have a feeling that many of you reading this do the same. Growing up listening to Classical music, my mother trained me to understand the mood of a piece just by the notes and inflection. She showed me how to feel the pain in specific chords and how that pain was released through the piece. To me, lyrics are unnecessary to understand the will of the music.
As a cappella people, our life is singing in harmony, whether on words or “dum dums,” “jzeh dets,” and “doobie doos.” Most of us are able to do the same thing my mother taught me – play a chord and feel the emotion, some maybe on deeper levels than others. The point is, by the very definition of what we do, we hear notes first and lyrics second.
However, Song does something incredible. When harnessed, we are able to take an expression of words and couple them with a powerful musical line that, in the end, creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the food world, they say that the perfect pairing of wine and food is when you take a bite of food and it makes you want to sip the wine; and when you sip the wine, it makes you want to take a bite of the food. A Song has that same relationship between the music and the lyrics – it’s not only complimentary, but both parts are enhanced by being together. The chords and textures in the vocals wrap up the story tightly, allowing each part to flow with the other on the temporal journey.
This year, at BOSS, Adam Levine was awarded “Best Scholastic Original Song” for his work on “Phoenix” by Brandeis VoiceMale. This song is perfect example of what we can strive to do with our music. Individually, both parts of the song can stand on their own. The words tell the story of a fall and rise and are passionately expressed by the lead vocalists, each word seasoned to perfection. The music itself ebbs and flows dynamically and rhythmically, creating a flavor that changes throughout. But together, the two parts fit and create this sort of magic – the phrasing in the lyrics allows for a natural flow in the music, while the vocals are able to build up the words to create something new and interesting with each bite.
And this is where we can go; this is where we should strive to be - a ribeye au poivre with a cabernet sauvignon, a perfect pairing of music and lyrics. Of course, some days, I’m just in the mood for a McRib with a Diet Coke (gotta watch my figure). Oh, I’ll eat it, and I might even enjoy it, but in the end I know it’s terrible for me and I’ll wake up tomorrow with eaters' remorse. The point is, as we start to move towards more groups writing original music, we need to hold ourselves to the highest standards - five star ratings from even the most seasoned critics.
About the writer:
Jeeves Murphy: "I've only heard the a cappella version of that song before." If Jeeves had a nickel for every time he's said that, he'd be a rich man. Jeeves has been singing ever since he can remember (even before he was "Jeeves"). He's performed in classical and renaissance a cappella groups, as well as contemporary groups and barbershop quartets. He helped found multiple groups while he was in college, including the first of its kind at UMBC (The Mama's Boys) where he graduated with a degree in English Literature. Jeeves currently works in Columbia, MD as an ITS Engineer. In his spare time, he is an all around musician - playing piano, bass guitar, cajon, and of course singing Tenor (high-tenor), arranging, and vocal percussion. He's the Maryland State Ambassador for CASA and writes semi-regularly for the site (or at least when the mood strikes). Jeeves' articles focus mainly on performance and CD reviews.