time to change the way we view music and the arts

down the tubes

“The tube,” an American throwback slang term for “the television…that’s mostly what’s been catching my attention lately. That’s not to say that I’ve just been staring down the glowing box and have forgotten all about this thing I’ve got going here. News has felt somewhat scattered. So I flip a few channels and what do I find?

Reality TV.

Big surprise there, I know. Reality based television shows have been the thing to do for many years now. In my humble opinion, it’s taken over a lot of what hits the airwaves (or as is the case now, digital receivers) of our televisions. However, though I don’t tend to dwell on this trend too much, there is one show that I will be following closely with the utmost of scrutiny over the next three weeks. It’s a show in its second season, presented by NBC, called “The Sing-Off.”
If you’re thinking American Idol version 2.0, you’re are drastically wrong. Why this NBC creation is so exciting for me is its stake in musical purity. A cappella groups from across the nation compete for a chance at serious cash, a recording contract with Sony and of course, bragging rights. And when I say a cappella, I really mean it. No instruments, no back up tracks on cd, not even a basic click track to start them off. Real people with a real sense of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color and form. Even better on top of this exposed and sincere talent, are the authentically knowledgable judges making the cuts.

1) Ben Folds: Though he’s in the popular eye as a well known artist with a lengthy discography, Folds isn’t just about flash. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and attended college on a full percussion scholarship. The man can throw around his fair share of technical theory.

2) Nicole Scherzinger: Probably most recently known for her lead spot with the Pussycat Dolls, Scherzinger has many more accredited layers in singing, composing and acting; the latter including bouts with Broadway’s Rent. I’ll admit that even I held a slight superficial “oh gosh, she’s like the Paula Abdul of this show and is going to throw around the fluffy, happy, less substantial commentary.” Nope. I was proven wrong when I realized the track record this woman has around the entertainment industry. Unlike the outfits of the PCD, it’s not just about (trying) to look good.

3) Shawn Stockman Stockman is also known for his spot in an existing band –the best selling R&B group of ALL TIME, (yes, that is a fact) Boyz II Men. Stockman knows how to make success happen and understands both the artistry and business of music, what with his compositional skills as well as starting of his own label and opening of his own studio.

Clearly this show isn’t just about picking whatever famous people are available and sticking them at a table. While I’m sure it’s not an aim of the Sing-Off to “turn off” viewers, I sense a definitive objective for sincere credibility with critiquing of something as challenging as a cappella performances. It couldn’t just be about ratings and “who has the best stage presence/dance moves/whitest teeth” the whole way through or we all might stuck listening to a bunch of actually tone deaf individuals. Personally that’s not my idea of a good time. So there’s an identifiable degree of objective judging going on here.

At the same time, heck, let’s face fact. It’s still a TV show and it still needs viewers to stay afloat. After having watched one season of this show already, it’s easier to see the long-term way the competition may turn out, sometimes solely based on the backgrounds of each group and how much pre-exisiting success they may or may not already have, as well as their ages and any existing technical know-how. Ratings and others numbers still come into play on some level, which is what makes some of this predictability fairly accurate and what keeps one singing group in might kick another out, even if they’re not necessarily bad. Hence the remaining subjectivity of an art form and element of being “rigged.” Still, its nice to be wrong once in a while. See my next point for a big case of being wrong.

Aside from the necessary sliver of corporate control involved, the other factor I’m enjoying about this second season is the assortment of groups that have been cast to compete. There are quite a few high school and college groups going against one another, as not as non-institution supported groups. Berkeley College for one, Yale University for two. These schools in particular both expressed a firmly rooted confidence in their future on the show. Berkeley’s singers emphasized their musical strengths and familiarity with the crafting of good performances and that giving them an edge. Yale, right off the bat, lets everyone know they “invented a cappella” and that their University rooted group, “The Whiffenpoofs” (That’s really the name, I’m serious) is standing on a century of history in signing and traditional choral performance. If you ask me, both introductions seem to flail around an excess of prestige because of where they are from. Perhaps I was a little more accepting of Berkeley’s arrogance because it was more based on training than simply a tradition. That acceptance was thrown in my face when guess what, the Berkeley kids were sent packing at the earliest elimination during the premiere. Situational irony anyone? While I’m appreciative of the authenticity at the judges’ table, contestant “musical elitism” seemed to have left Berkeley College with its foot in its mouth.

On the flip side, what intrigues even more about this season’s round of contestants is the concentration of groups with niche style preferences. Along with the Whiffenpoofs, least three other groups have openly stated a slant to certain genres. One gospel, one classic motown/doo-wop and one jazz. The benefits I see from working with groups like this have come two fold thus far:

1) Coming from such a traditional a cappella structure, (e.g. one guy conducts, they don’t beatbox.) the Whiffenpoofs of Yale have happily opened up to more modern and contemporary repertoire, acknowledging its inherent difficulty and the challenge it poses to even a rigorously practiced group such as themselves. They pleasantly ate some humble pie don’t you think?

2) The other more genre focused groups are also experiencing new variety and giving other styles a fair shot, but more interestingly. There has been a showing of ability to transform a song into a hybrid of the group’s pre-existing style and breathe entirely new life into both the song and the group’s “collective voice” without leaving the singers feeling like they had to completely abandon what they’re all about.

My favorite example of this came from a performance on last night. The jazz-based group, “Groove for Thought” performed “Cooler Than Me” by Mike Posner.

If you haven’t heard the song before, here it is below:

Total opinion coming out here, but I really, really, dislike that song. A lot. The first time I heard it the whole thing sounded so lyrically superficial and pointless…not to mention full of way too many sounds that don’t sound like real musical tone.

Done with an a cappella jazz twist though, I found myself liking the song much better. I think for me, it was because the whole premise of “coolness” fit nicely with a jazz swing and the change in tempo, arrangement and vocal expression made it into a whole different song for a whole different atmosphere. The fact that I go from finding deep displeasure in hearing a song to outright enjoying it, is really telling about what a difference it can make when the focus in a song gets changed around from backing artificial instrumentation and dance club driven beats to everything else. Arrangement and style my friends, are powerful things.

Hear it for yourself and tell me the contrast doesn’t shock you in some way.

While I’m not planning on reviewing the show here every time it airs, I think it definitely needed mentioning, as to me at least, there’s way more to this show than only entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Plus, Ben folds said, “Heck, I’m all for music education” and that alone could speak volumes if heard by the right, younger, aspiring ears. There is a running theme on the potential this show has for becoming a major hit because as Nicole Schezinger put it last night, “there is just no denying real talent and real people.” The possibilities for what a show like this can inspire across conservative and liberal artists alike is something to watch for sure.

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