HomeBlogsJulia Hoffman's blogTwo Part Invention: Deke and Julia Talk All-Womens' Groups

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[Julia Hoffman is CASA's President; Deke Sharon is CASA's founder]

Deke: So Julia, we've had many discussions over the years on a variety of topics, and since we're rarely in the same place, I figure we should just drag our conversation into the bright public forum of casa.org where people can listen to us blather...and then disagree with us both.

Topic number one that's been on my mind of late: Back in the 90s there were a number of very good all-female a cappella groups (Jezebel, All So Jimmy, 10fm...), and alas when they folded no new groups stepped up to take their place and there have been virtually no professional women's groups... until this year. The Boxettes, Musae, and Delilah, who have garnered perhaps more interest than anyone on the Sing-Off thus far (judging by downloads, YouTube hits and Twitter posts).

My question is: Why now? What's different? And how to we keep this movement from faltering?

Julia: I should probably start by admitting that I don't know the answer, and in so doing excuse any completely ludicrous theories that I may have.

Let's start with what I *do* know: collegiate female a cappella groups have been getting better and better within the past 5-7(ish) years. Why? Because in both recording and performance the ladies have been making riskier chances and growing a pair of... ovaries? Good pro (or semi-pro if we still call it that) groups have to come from somewhere. I would argue that the ladies' college groups upping the ante has made it possible for women to begin moving to the next level again.

If we take a second to call a spade a spade, there are some significant differences (sonically, visually, aesthetically) between groups that include men and those that don’t. For starters, all-female groups are more hard-pressed to create good bass and vocal percussion, both of which are pretty important for the pop/rock music most groups perform. Women also tend to have smaller, thinner voices. If you put a group of 16 men alongside a group of 16 women, you can guess who’s going to have a bigger, fuller sound. Until recently, there haven’t been great ways of compensating for these differences (or taking advantage of the unique benefits that all female groups bring).

The UC Berkeley California Golden Overtones won the ICCA finals in 2001 with a set that was very reminiscent of the all-female groups from the earlier era that you're referencing. I wasn't there, but if I had to guess I'd assume that the set list was something like: Walking on Broken Glass (no bass or percussion), some medium-old ballad sung extremely well, and then an En Vogue Medley (kickass choreography, awesome singing, no percussion, no low end of the arrangement, relatively few parts, sung with pretty vowels in harmony). Now granted, I could have the actual songs completely wrong, but my point remains the same: girls groups were choosing predictable, safe, girly songs and singing them like girls. And they could do that incredibly well, but the repertoire and range certainly was limited.

I think it took a few years and some female pioneers like Lisa Forkish, Evynne Hollens, Candace Hefland, some women whose names I will probably never learn from Duke and UNCG, and others to really sack up (so to speak) and figure out how to take collegiate female a cappella to the next level both in and out of the studio. 

University of Oregon Divisi's album, Red Hot, stands out to me as a pivotal album because it took so many chances: the arrangements made neither of the usual female group choices: either arranging with nothing below a A3 or using the 5th as a root to accommodate the women’s voices (GAHHHHH!! NOOOoooooo!). They used ugly (as opposed to pretty) syllables and interwoven lyrical lines. Their energy was incredible. They chose awesome songs (not awesome girl songs) like Usher's "Yeah" and then used layering and all kinds of effects to build it into an amazing final product. They went for it 100% both live and in the studio. That last bit is what separates the women from the girls.

I used to have to hold my nose to listen to the all-female albums every year for the CARAs, but thanks to various groups raising the arrangement and delivery bars, plus improved production (Dio and Gammon especially know what they're doing when it comes to the ladies ;-) ) there's no reason to worry about finding 4 or 5 great albums to nominate. And if you had told 2003 Julia that I would be giving my 2011 ICCA Finals subjective points to an all-female group I would never have believed it, but the FSU Acabelles deserved it.

Individual micing is a new trend that favors the all-female groups because a lot more can be done to address the sonic challenges with each member separately effected, eq’ed, and amplified. And the training of female VP’s – especially on the critical lip buzz – has led to a generation of women who aren’t afraid to build a kick butt rhythm section.

College women can now sound as good as (or better than!) college men. So, it makes sense that there would be some percentage of them that would want to keep that going after leaving school.
 
Deke: I agree about collegiate women's groups getting better. The pioneering women of Divisi changed the game for women's a cappella, and should have won the ICCAs (no slight to the actual winners - they just did it all, backwards and in high heels).
 
You're right about what female collegiate a cappella has been, and how, even with top-shelf cheerleader choreo (I recall the Golden Overtones ended in a giant pyramid!), there were clear limits, and a predictable range of emotions and timbres.
 
And much of the driving force behind professional a cappella resulted from momentum carried forward from college campuses... but can that be it? The Boxettes have nothing to do with female collegiate a cappella, and they're making serious waves. I don't recall a British women's group getting this much attention since the Mint Juleps in Do It A Cappella. And alas they folded shortly thereafter.
 
Ok, so I'll consider the Boxettes a happy anomaly, and put all my chips in collegiate a cappella as training ground and launch pad. What can we do to get more pro women's groups forming, touring, inspiring young singers, recording? I fear we're looking at a blip resulting from the Sing Off (Musae was formed for auditions, and Delilah is spread far and wide...) how often will they get together, how much will they tour when reality sets in next year? The audience seems to be in place, and the various a cappella festivals will doubtless want a women's group every year. Will women be willing to make the sacrifices guys do when starting a group? There aren't many women's rock and roll groups either. Don't women like smelly vans and ramen?
 
Julia: Well, first of all, I'm not sure that the vans would be as smelly if they were full of women.

You bring up some important issues. To me, it seems like a bigger-than-a-cappella question about what our culture expects of women, which is obviously too big to get into here. The Cliff's Notes: men get away with a lot. They are "allowed" to be zany, dirty, directionless (for their 20's at least), and even weird looking. For women, the bar is generally much higher. Women are expected to be put together, sexy, and attractive at all times. The first episode of “The Sing-Off” this season had no less than 10 women in what were essentially sequined diapers. Now, maybe I'm old or maybe it's that 4 months postpartum I'm sensitive about the current size of my ass, but I found that to be a confirmation of some really unfortunate ideas that we push on women, namely: there is no amount of talent that can excuse you from the swimsuit competition.

And I don't mean to pick on TSO, it's just a convenient target since (a) so many people have seen it and (b) -- it's TV for crying out loud -- it's even more hotness-dependent than other live performance venues.

Thankfully, I think women in a cappella are finding ways to have fun, to explore the opportunities afforded to them by their natural range and talents, to wade into the more typically male parts of the art form (e.g vocal percussion), and to take themselves seriously without, you know, taking themselves too seriously. And hopefully, we are putting the message out there that women can be superstar performers even if they don’t have asses built for tap shorts.

What you can do for them and what I can do for our young women might be 2 separate issues. See this year's lineup at SoJam for some clear evidence of what CASA is trying to do: fully half of the headliners and half of the collegiate competitors were all female groups! Dio (Director of Events) has specifically articulated that this was intended to inspire young women to continue in the footsteps of these pioneering professional ladies. We're also publishing materials on our website about how to form and maintain all female groups.

And we might start selling plus size sequined diapers too. You know, to expand the playing field a bit.
 
Deke: You've got a baby at home; I trust your instincts around diapers.
 
Agreed about the double standard. Perhaps that's in part because a cappella has been almost exclusively defined by men over the past century, and the best women's groups (like Sweet Honey in the Rock) disregard any molds and forge their own sound/style/path.
 
When I think about a group like Sweet Honey, I realize a group of guys actually can't compete with them on their playing field, on their terms. Their arranging style, their lyrics... guys would just not be as effective. Women should indeed sing what women sing best, and sing about what women can best sing about, rather than another women's group singing songs written and originally performed by men.
 
Women's groups at SoJam is good, Delilah on “The-Sing Off” is good, publishing learning materials and sheet music for women, holding seminars... all very good. But is there more? Besides “The-Sing Off”, all of this was happening a decade ago (CASA has a long tradition of women's groups at festivals), and I fear in total it's still not enough to keep the fire burning.
 
If we look at the numbers, more women sing throughout their education, watch “Glee” and other singing shows, and so on. The potential talent base is enormous. What will motivate them to start groups, Julia? What's the deterrent? Is it the risk? The hassle? The lack of big bucks? Fear? Please, help us all understand what (a cappella) women want!

Julia: It’s possible that the talent base is enormous but that the audience just isn’t there yet. Did the general public (beyond the acaheads at our festivals) understand before they saw Delilah on TSO how a rocking all female group would look and sound? Did the acaheads get it before they saw Boxettes melt faces at SoJam a few weeks ago? My guess is that they didn’t. I’m hoping that this exposure will make more demand for what we are so ready to supply!
 
Other than that, I wish I knew the answer to your question! I guess we should just ask them! For now, I can only hope that if we continue to build it, they will come…

Deke:
Agreed. The audience is ready, the format proven, the stars have aligned. At this point, the people who need to start building are the female singers and music directors themselves. Let's hope dozens of new professional women's groups are being formed right now, some of which will become full time. Only time will tell.

[photo: The Boxettes]

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Comments

lip buzz

can anyone give me clear examples of someone using lip buzz the way it's described, either via moments in the sing off, or anything. I keep hearing/reading the term, and I'd like to know about it.

Re: lip buzz

Check out the Boxettes' video for their song "Free":  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht8WP-W8KfI

You'll see Bellatrix (the group's beatboxer) doing the lip buzz.

wow, she's nuts. I need to

wow, she's nuts. I need to learn that kind of lip control!

What DO women "best sing about"?

Hi there. I'm the Music Director of an all-female a cappella group at UChicago, Men in Drag. I agree with, and appreciate, a lot of this article, ESPECIALLY Julia's "You bring up some important issues" paragraph. That one really nails it.

However, I found this comment from Deke very arresting: "Women should indeed sing what women sing best, and sing about what women can best sing about, rather than another women's group singing songs written and originally performed by men."

I don't really understand this (the article was headed in such a great direction before and after that comment!). This seems to be confining women to the traditionally girly music that Julia describes well in her potential 2001 all-female ICCA set. If this comment were taken literally, Delilah should never have expanded their repertoire to include "Grenade" or "Dream On" - songs that they OWNED, and that were written for and originally performed by men. It looks like this comment is limiting repertoire choice for women, rather than expanding our boundaries. And I think that tendency to choose songs written for/by women can really be a hinderance. Think of how many all-female groups have covered Sara Bareilles and Adele in the past year. Or how many have done En Vogue medleys in the past decade. Too many.

The approach that I've taken with Men in Drag is to try to stretch beyond girly, into the realm of songs that are traditionally considered more masculine. I think yes, women can really own songs written for women. But just as all-male groups don't limit themselves to songs by men, I see no reason for women to limit themselves in that way. And I think the collegiate arena especially is the place to try new things and push those boundaries.

-b

i fully agree.  Women singing

i fully agree.  Women singing women's songs has been done way too much. (while that can be taken snarkily, it's not meant to be at all, sorry). Also, women know the words to songs performed by men, sometimes more than men do. I think any song can be done by anyone, and if you fully commit to it, and just go for it, you can make it work.

 

Ex: Pentatonix doing..hell, most of the songs they've done, were men doing female songs in a 'not for laughs' way. As such, women can do the same going the other way.

...and made it better without copying men.

Uhoh - sexist alert!

I'm not saying women shouldn't ever sing songs by men. Annie Lennox's version of "Keep Young and Beautiful" was a fantastic track as well as a powerful statement. Aretha sang "Respect" better than Otis. Endless list.

What I'm saying is that women should sing their truth in their way instead of singing a bunch of cover songs by guys while trying to sound like a guys group.

Caveat: I'm not talking about female collegiate groups - that's all about cover songs, and just fine. I'm speaking specifically to new professional womens groups who want to make an impact on a cappella and the music industry at large.

Being a cover band relegates any a cappella group to second class status, with rare exception. Heck - it relegates any band to second class status. How many major pop artists from the past 30 years can you name that only sing other people's music? Tony Bennett... and he was grandfathered in (literally) from the days of the great American songbook. Britney might not write her own music, but she's singing first releases.

Kahlil Gibran (a man) wrote the words "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself." - a lovely statement. And when Sweet Honey turned the poem "On Children" into a song, they took it to another level, speaking truth and experience into those words as women and mothers. This is what I'm talking about. Man wrote it, women made it better, and made it better without copying men.

No, I don't think women should only sing about reproductive rights and cheating husbands, lest anyone get the wrong idea. But neither do I think they should try to be like guys (a problem that is still being wrestled with in the female collegiate community) (uhoh - that statement's gonna get me into more trouble!)

Delilah has over 1 million views on their Sing Off performance of Grenade. Excellent! But Sam Tsui has over 100 million views... and no recording contract. A cappella cover songs are fun, but still seen as a novelty in the music industry. To follow that path is to ensure obscurity.

What professional women's a cappella groups need:

* Original sound

* Original music

Yes, cover songs can sometimes be done, but the sound has to be so fresh and the performance so compelling that people feel like it's 1990 and they're hearing the Take 6 debut for the first time. 

It can be done. It will be done. 

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

Well...

Let me preface this by saying that I heavily considered a gender studies major. With that, I've just lost everyone's attention. ;)

 I think we're in agreement about professional women's groups. Just like any professional groups (a cappella or not), the best ones will have an original sound, and will write/sing mostly original material. But as you acknowledged in the article, a lot of the American pro groups stem from the members' collegiate experiences, which is why I wanted to focus on the problems there.

My biggest issue is with the contention that women somehow have topics that they are more or less qualified to sing on. I see no reason that women can't "try to be more like the guys" in terms of song content. That's totally a personal choice, and making the blanket statement that women can't/shouldn't sing "masculine" songs doesn't make sense to me. And that works both ways: I don't see, for example, why men should be excluded from being able to express nurturing feelings about children in an effective/emotionally powerful way... Maybe that could be considered a traditionally "womanly" topic, but I think that heternormativity is the problem. Why in the world would we want to limit ourselves to tradition?

So anyway, musically: I'm going to take Delilah as an example again (even though they are not technically a collegiate group, so many of their members are still in collegiate groups that I think they can basically be regarded as a collegiate group themselves). The constant criticism they received was that their low end was lacking, which is partly the fault of their arranging style (and partly a feature of the show in that they were unable to compensate for that as all-female groups often do by using effects like an octave pedal). But the point is that what the judges wanted to hear WAS for them to be more like guys. They wanted that fuller, richer sound that can only be attained through an arranging style that is currently most prevalent in men's groups. And I'm still talking collegiate, here, cause groups like Sweet Honey with their bass who can hit an F2 or something ridiculous, are totally different creatures.

But to bring it back to pro groups: Sweet Honey has its niche as a powerhouse, and the Boxettes have their niche as an alt-indie group. And both groups are game-changers for all-female a cappella. But to get to where they are, both of them have had to overcome typical all-female obstacles (complex vocal percussion, relishing in the low end of their sound, etc), BY "trying to be more like the guys." All-male groups have paved the way for a long time; in order for all-female groups to get up to speed, I think adopting some practices of all-male groups is not a terrible idea. And while I love groups like Delilah and Musae, who are fierce as all hell, I don't know that they are (yet!) pioneering new things for all-female groups, and I wonder if they've really (yet!) stepped out of the all-female box in a way that will change the game for women. Delilah is sexy and they know it, their arrangements are creative, their leads are phenomenal, their block is solid, and yes, they sometimes push to be less pretty and more gritty (which is good). But this can be said for a lot of impressive groups that aren't game-changers.

I guess I'm just waiting for a modern American all-female group that is exciting in a way that would still be exciting if they weren't all-female. But I'm afraid that until the standards for all-female collegiate a cappella change, the semipro/pro all-female groups that form out of college will remain second-tier to mixed and all-male groups.

-b

 

So...

Make that group happen!

It's really easy to say "someone should do X" - we need women to start groups, explore, see what works and what doesn't. Right now very few groups even exist, and the level to which they're actively exploring is not making significant waves (yet). We need more fuel on the fire, more fires. 

Find new sounds. Sing guy songs better than guys. Be so good that people don't think of you as a women's group but just as a group.

The way to change people's minds, and the landscape in general, is quality. 

I'm all for it!

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

VP

Oh my.  This topic does sound terribly familiar.  (10fm.  Hot damn, people.)

I don't know how I found the spare time to write this, but I like to think I put the female percussion-disadvantage issue to bed in this r.m.a-c thread from April 2000.  My treatise is post 15, but it's a good thread to read through from the beginning, as it covers frightening similar ground as Deke & Julia's article.  Sad that this issue keeps coming full circle.  I just hope we're not considering the novelty of all-female a-cappella again in 2022!

(Remember when the ICCA started with a N?  Those were the days.)

I also think that Courtney

I also think that Courtney Jensen's and Geena Glaser's performances on The Sing-Off make the female VP issue moot.  Courtney even refers to the fallacy of the "female disadvatage" in her video featurette from season 2.

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