Welfome to Princhips, we hab a lot of ockapella, don’b we?
By now you’ve already either tried out for a cappella groups or you haven’t, which means either your year will comprise rehearsals, arches, gigs, tours, and shiploads of singing, or it will not, and you will be driven into the camp of people who disparage the overwhelming amount of a cappella here. Before retreading the path taken by an old Nass article Suckappella, let us instead consider how we may view this queer excess in a different way.
As learn again with each season of American Idol, people can be pretty optimistic about their ability to sing. Every year, tons of people try out for a cappella groups and don’t make them. It would seem like the demand for a cappella would be actually higher than the supply of groups. However, the consumer demand for a cappella is really pretty low. It seems that there is no shortage of people that want to do a cappella, only a shortage of people that want to hear it. (Arches, which I think are nice, do get attendees. Often and perhaps exclusively attendance is to see friends or people who wandered by who are game to stay for a little crooning. How did we get here; how do we work this?
One way to look at it is as a social standard at Princeton. People worth knowing do a cappella, thus people want to do a cappella. There isn’t room for everyone who wants to be worth knowing, thus people get cut. Going off this, the disparagement of a cappella might come from a “you didn’t take me” resentment, or from people who are cynical to the idea of crooning-based social systems. Walking by the warbling sound of an arch merely reminds losers that they aren’t worth knowing, or that the embittered that they are embittered and the whole potential fanbase is instead filled with vitriol against the whole practice. Perhaps the exclusivity has become a bigger deal than the singing, making an a cappella performance like an invite from Ivy to get coolly stared at by the membership. This may be true for some, but certainly not for everyone, and it doesn’t really interest me to consider.
On a more basic level, a cappella is just more fun to do than it is to listen to. This isn’t because it’s no good or the singers don’t kick ass, but because singing is really really fun. It’s an open secret that student groups are more about being inside the group than being outside the group—i.e. even though so many of them are performance-based groups, what matters is the bond that you make with your fellow X enthusiasts and your friends getting to see you shine, not creating a definitively compelling performance. The inflated presence of a cappella at college, however, makes people forget this and be shocked, even bitter at its station. I would also posit that since harmonized group singing has such fun, ‘join-in’ vibe, cool attitudes towards seeing it are exacerbated by how fun fun fun singing is.
Allow illustrative anecdotes: I have twice, among groups of invigorated men, sang spontaneous bouts of our national anthem. (The first on the drunken bus ride after a large beer’n’wings bachelor party; the second with some friends before the inaugural game of a water sport a heated, domed pool in the winter.) Everyone joined in; everyone got as loud as they could and everyone remembers the occasions fondly. This is not because of above-middling levels of patriotism or because the song lends itself to amateur singing (I think it does not; it’s pretty hard), but rather because everyone knows it the whole way through and it can be begun without hesitation or doubt of accompaniment.
Music used to be by necessity a collaborative and community effort. If you wanted to hear music, you had to make it. Singing was central to many ancient cultures. Any gentiles who find themselves at a dinner for the high holy days can suddenly feel surprised and left out when a lengthy prayer is sung in unison by everyone present. But it wasn’t just ancient and wasn’t just religious. Folk songs, if you’ve heard them, existed only in the communities that sang them together in England and Scotland and America before they began to be recorded in the early twentieth century. Before recorded music, making money as a songwriter came from sheet music sales. Soldiers used to sing, hunters used to sing, families, kids in school, people when they walked, sailors, whalers, people in beer halls, people at each other’s windows. Fraternities and sororities used to have a large repertoire of songs, as did entire schools. The water polo team all sing drinking songs together when they party and love it so much they do it in my room too. A member of the old guard I met at reunions—sixty-five years after he graduated—sang along to one of the songs the University band was playing, telling me several times what a great song it was. There were fight songs and alma maters, drinking songs, jazz standards that everybody knew fully. These weren’t trained singers, but amateurs, like you and me.
Today, this aspect of it is quite diminished. People are expected to be consumers of music, not musicians. Many claim to be musically ignorant or musically illiterate despite listening to music every day. How many songs can you sing? How many songs could you lead a group in singing, getting every word? If your answer goes beyond Happy Birthday, The Star Spangled Banner, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you’ve outdone me. (I’m not counting Old Nassau, because—as the Nassoons remind us—nobody but them knows the other verses.) If you’re a singer or love musical theater, or can remember pop songs past the first verse and chorus, then kudos, but I’m not sure that I’m in the minority. This has been a perennial bugbear for me and those I’ve tried to spontaneously sing with. Searching for hiking tunes on my OA LTT, we ran out of songs anyone could get very far in quickly. Sitting around a campfire with my brothers, we’re limited by material, not by the will to sing. Goofing around playing music with my friends, we have to look up lyrics on somebody’s phone twenty seconds into every song.
What has taken us away from singing is up for debate. Whether it was the inevitable consequence of technology’s role in music, or the hopefully fading machismo that decided singing was kind of gay, or the pressure to have a good voice if you sing. But to me it’s not really important why, because there’s no reason we can’t bring it back. Will singing go the way of dancing and be a thing done by people who “do singing” and the drunk? Consider me the first to discourage spontaneous and naive violin playing, but singing is different.
Singing is still important. I wouldn’t call it a fundamental need, but I would call it fun. Most of the opportunities to sing that we have left ourselves seem somewhat contrived. You join a singing group. You go to the dreadful freshman sing-in. You warble the difficult national anthem in a half voice before a game. Collegiate a cappella is one of the few remaining institutions that fosters regular singing, and certainly the coolest. Both people who consider themselves singers and people who just get the itch flock to open houses every year, auditioning, getting cut, getting called back.
In the mid nineties, a music educator’s conference lamented this problem and produced Get America Singing… Again! an aspiring standard repertoire for modern Americans. It hasn’t effected much of a change, and neither of course will this article. So, I’m merely saying, sing! Sing you little bastards, you want to. Sing all the time, learn some songs. If you have ever launched into a song excitedly only to be stopped by your incomplete knowledge of it, you may have resolved to learn all the lyrics. Well do it, dammit. Sing all night with your friends, sing to ladies, sing to men. Sit down and learn a song, and next time you’re walking alone sing it to yourself. Lead others in song. And maybe if we all have a regular outlet for our voices and we can glean joy from that, there won’t have to be so many godforsaken a cappella groups.