HomeBlogsjduchan's blogCollegiate A Cappella: The Singer, the Group, and Campus Musical Economics

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First, let’s consider collegiate a cappella’s repertory of covers. In the process we can also think about musical quotations, one of the techniques of originality I proposed. Effective emulation (and quotation) provides opportunities for audiences to find something familiar in the performance (especially in case of quotations, where the total number of songs referenced increases). By trading on what is already known, a cappella performances enable a shared pleasure as audiences “discover” which song the group is singing. A repertory of covers also provides constraints or conventions for expression—the audience already knows how the song goes, so the thrill comes from how the group will do it creatively in this new, vocal-only medium. This dependency on the familiar comes partially from a cappella’s economics: groups have to compete with other arts offerings and social activities for audiences, concert ticket and album sales. And this competition extends, importantly, to recruiting potential singers. What you sing and how you sing it says something about your group to your audience, and suffice it to say: attract talented musicians and you snag show-stopping soloists and the opportunity to breed talented arrangers and future group leaders, ensuring the group’s continued survival and success. Each time you cite or quote another song, you create an opportunity for recognition, for connection.

Techniques such as musical quotation or formal expansion, especially when they involve more soloists, can function as a way of sharing the spotlight among multiple singers. This is important because a cappella is a voluntary activity, and in an affinity group members have to feel valued in order to participate. As popular music scholar Simon Frith writes, “Even when treating the voice as an instrument…it stands for the person more directly than any other musical device.” With a share of the spotlight comes the social implication that your voice is important—not only your singing voice but you as a person.

More soloists means more recognizable faces in front of the audience, allowing the group to access individual members’ social networks. One music director explained: “Ideally, each group member’s solo is an opportunity for the audience to sort of get to know them. It’s for us to introduce each member. And if everybody has a solo, the audience gets to feel like they’ve met everybody, and that’s a better performance. That makes them feel closer to you than if two people are singing all the solos and the rest of the guys are just faceless, nameless guys in the back singing ‘doo-wop, doo-wop.’” This also has the perceived benefit of bettering ticket and album sales. But accounting for the lived experience of a cappella singers, it also suggests a value placed simply on sharing the spotlight among members so that it is the group that succeeds in performance, not just the individual. The self- and group -actualization that accompanies the valuation implied by the spotlight is a critical component underpinning very basic musical choices made in the a cappella context.

These techniques are also important for some singers because it allows them to tap into the powerful cultural archetype of the “rock star,” if only for a moment. The power of this gesture derives from the process Frith and other scholars have defined as “identification,” in which a fan desires either the popular artist or desires to be the popular artist and enacts that desire through mimicry. As one singer told me: “Every girl secretly wants to be like Britney Spears. You see someone dance—and I’m not saying risqué—but you see someone be so confident and dance like that and sing and really belt it out, and have so much energy, and you’re just like, ‘I want to be like that.’ And, ‘if I join that group, I will be.’” One can see how repertory choice and the recruitment of potential singers plays a role here, too. If playing the role of “rock star” is a benefit or goal of (at least some) a cappella singers or potential singers, the selection of songs that enable this sort of behavior is necessary.

My central argument is that two principles—emulation and originality—underlie the collegiate a cappella aesthetic. Emulation is necessary but not sufficient. What makes the a cappella version interesting to listen to and to sing is what makes it different. If part of the thrill of a cappella is performing for your friends, or seeing your friends perform, then techniques enabling a sense of individual performance, a sharing of the spotlight, help to attain that pleasure—as long as they don’t disturb the expectations of the song so much that the performance becomes incomprehensible. From an audience’s point of view, then, an interruption in the form of a song (such as “Let Me Entertain You” or “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” examples from part 1 of this article) is acceptable as long as the group eventually returns to finish the song. For the performers, the musical citation of the former or scat break of the latter is a chance to step out of the usual role of background instrument. As one singer said, “you can sing doo’s and da’s only so long before it stops feeling fulfilling.”

The principles of emulation and originality are, of course, neither unique to collegiate a cappella nor new to music history; the negotiation of tradition and innovation has been a constant. My research suggests that musical aesthetics are the result of individual musical choices made to meet the demands of practical necessities. In a cappella, these choices are caused in part by the crowded marketplace of student activities. But the case of collegiate a cappella also shows that the needs of the individual musician are as important as those of the group and the campus market. To be sure, there’s a balance to be struck, and the techniques used to meet stylistic goals, in the end, serve the purposes of both sides. What we find, then, in collegiate a cappella is a practice shaped by forces internal and external, individual and collective, artistic and practical. Yet in all cases, the results are decidedly musical.

Joshua S. Duchan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan.  He is currently writing his dissertation on collegiate a cappella.  But hes not just an academiche also sang with and directed the University of Michigan Amazin Blue and the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts, and his arrangements have been featured on the Best of College A Cappella 2004 and 2005 albums.  He can be reached at jduchan@yahoo.com