HomeMale Call: The Mixed and Female Group Dilemma

Matt King's picture

I went to a Gavin DeGraw concert recently.  Now, he’s hardly the stereotypical dreamboat that graces the covers of TigerBeat magazine, nevertheless there were women (dare I say, grown women) standing in the front row with glazed over looks on their faces like they might cry at any moment, reaching out to him, breathlessly mouthing the words to all of his songs.

That is not an isolated incident.  We’ve all seen it happen with The Beatles, Elvis, N’Sync, etc.  There is just something about a guy or a group of guys singing to them that women go wild over.  It doesn’t work the other way around either.  Take any popular female artist and at their concerts you won’t see any (straight) men exhibiting the same behavior. 

I was in an all-male a cappella group for four years and even though we never had quite the adoration that professional artists enjoy, we still had our share of ardent fans and sororities that would squeal as we sang and beg us to come back.  That was the majority of our fan base: women who loved to have guys sing to them (and of course whatever poor guys got dragged along.) 

The whole Gavin DeGraw experience got me thinking about a cappella.  Since all-male groups seem to have a built in fan base, how do mixed groups and all-female groups build up an audience without the use of a handicap like that?  From what I’ve gathered as a general scope of the a cappella world, there are two ways that groups have separated themselves from male groups.

1. Choreography.

This is the most obvious one.  If male groups use choreography, 99% of the time it’s for comedic effect.  Female group and mixed groups have taken it to a whole new level, using choreography with military-like, dance team precision or going for a more showchoir-esque feel to add to their songs. 

2. Alternate song genres.

Male groups will mostly sing top-40 hits.  They sing these hit songs because that is what the majority of their audience wants to hear.  And when you have a built in audience, why fix what ain’t broken?  On the flip side, many mixed groups seem to have gone with the Off the Beat approach: a harder rock repertoire.  It certainly has the potential to drive away some grandparents, um, fans, but at the same time is a bold move that can give the group a very distinctive sound and audience.

Of course, this is just speculation on my part.  To get actual answers, I asked representatives from certain female and mixed groups from schools that had popular male groups to get their perspective on the issue.

The Sil’hooettes and Hoos in Treble are two very talented female groups from UVA.  They have put out albums that have been recognized for their excellence by the a cappella community.  Yet they still struggle to get even close to the attendance of all three male groups on campus.  Casey Little, president of Hoos in Treble, readily agrees that popularity of groups go far beyond the music of it all.  “Very often around campus, you will hear girls say things like, ‘The Hullabahoos are so hot, I definitely want to go to their concert!’ but it is rare to hear a guy utter the same kind of comment about an all-female group,” said Little.  “If a guy is attracted to a girl in the a cappella community, he's probably going to be more likely to ask her out than to attend her concert because of it.”

Both groups promote their concerts heavily, singing as often as possible before concerts for anyone that will listen, wearing group apparel, posting signs and drawing in chalk on the sidewalk, going on the local radio… whatever it takes to get people to sit up and take notice. 

Neither group uses choreography extensively in their sets; they find other ways to make themselves unique in what they bring to the table.  The Sil’hooettes will occasionally step and clap in rhythm, but they focus on the musicality and branching out in their song choices.  “We like to mix it up and avoid doing your typical female a cappella songs,” said Jenna Pastuszek, president of the Sil’hooettes.  “We strive to break the mold and do unexpected song choices, such as Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse.”

Hoos in Treble try to be as entertaining as possible.  “All three of the all-female groups at UVA are on similar levels in terms of musicality, so a lot of the time the extent of your viewership comes down to ‘who is the most fun group to watch?’  For this reason, we as a group always stress having dancing and energy in our performances,” said Little.  “We also like to choose songs that are conducive to that; we tend to do more upbeat, fun songs so that it is easier to keep up the energy during our performances.”

Nick Lemmon is the president of Tar Heel Voices at UNC.  He says that the majority of their audience is female and that for some reason women just don’t really care much about hearing other women sing nearly as much as hearing men sing, no matter how good they may be.  “The appeal of a bunch of guys singing just sometimes trumps the appeal of really good singers on both ends,” said Lemmon.

As a mixed group though, half the group is composed of men and Lemmon admits that most of their popular songs feature a strong male soloist.  However, the women still get their moments as strong, female rock songs comprise the rest of their popular repertoire.  It is important to know what your audience likes and doing what you can to give that to them.

Although there was no male group on campus when All-Night Yahtzee formed at Florida State, they are heavy on competition and saw in their formative years the kind of obstacles they were up against with how popular male groups were on the circuit.  So All-Night Yahtzee took a two-step approach to boost their popularity.  First, they advertised as much as humanly possible.  And second, “We just had to get really good,” said former musical director Christopher Diaz.  “We had to work twice as hard to charm a panel of judges, but we did work twice as hard and did charm panels of judges, ultimately dispelling the thought on our campus that guy a cappella was somehow better or more mainstream.”

Diaz believed that male voices were more sympathetic to one another, that they blended better, so he tried to make blend the group’s main musical focus.  “When you learn to sing like you're all one gender, then you start to seem like you're all one gender. No lamesauce girly-ness or doofy dude-bro-ness here, we were sort of all of that and none of that all at the same time and people just got to come and dig the music.”

Cornell has a large and diverse a cappella crowd, but according to Ariel Arbisser, president of the Cornell Chordials, the three all-male groups all have bigger followings than any of the other ten or so mixed or female groups. While those male groups may win their audiences over with charm and humor, the Chordials invest in lighting and sound to help compliment the not-so-usual repertoire that they perform with complicated and complex arrangements.  “[We] take our performances seriously, and hope that our audience does too,” said Arbisser, who adds that the Chordials usually have a solid showing of their peers at their concerts.

I contacted the Chordials because they seemed like the kind of rock group that fit into category two above, but up until 2002 the group sang mostly R&B and used lots of choreography.  Even now they don’t like to be pigeonholed into a certain genre.  “We don't view ourselves as bound to a specific genre of rock. We are just interested in performing every song with passion. The genre we choose is based on the voices in the group at the moment,” said Arbisser.

It turns out that I was only seeing part of the picture when I hypothesized as to how mixed and female groups set themselves apart and built up an audience.  Yes, choreography can be a useful tool (just YouTube the SoCal VoCals’ ICCA winning set if you don’t believe me), but it’s not something that is viewed as a given by any means.  If groups do use it, it’s because the song wouldn’t be as good without it, not because they need a gimmick.

And bringing a hard rock repertoire to the table is a musical choice.  Groups don’t do it hoping to bring in fans that would normally hit up a Nine Inch Nails concert, but if it challenges the group musically and is something different and interesting then it can be extremely useful.

I also missed some game plans completely.  Want to get an audience?  Be entertaining as hell.  Have fun.  And, oh yeah, be really, really good.  Make it so people can’t afford to miss your shows, no matter what kind of group you are. 

Yes, male groups are a little like the kid born with a trust fund. Most of the groups I talked to admitted to grumbling about this from time to time, but mostly they just went out and made it happen for themselves.  My hat goes off to these groups and others like them around the country.  It won’t be long before casual a cappella fans start to see mixed and female groups on the same level, maybe even higher, than male groups.  Until then they will continue to push themselves and each other.  I for one can’t wait to see where it takes them.

[photo: UNC's Tar Heel Voices]


Of course!

 That explains why I am such a huge fan of Sesame Street.

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