If you haven’t heard them, chances are you’ve heard about them. After all, they’re everywhere: on the walk, at coffee houses, at any schmoozy event put on by the University. By the end of the semester, dodging their fluorescent pamphlets is next to impossible.
If you’re a Penn student, you know about a cappella. It’s hard to go to Penn and avoid the chanting, singing, doo-woping, chang-a-chang-changing, the guy in the back beat-boxing through it all. And then there’s everything you don’t know about — the politicking, the competition for the attractive brunette with a voice of gold, the fights for space to perform, the tug-of-war over the same niche.
The funny thing is, a cappella groups, at Penn or anywhere else, are little more than glorified cover bands or, if you want to use one group’s lingo, “mouth bands.”
Whatever their label, it’s clear that many of the 100 or so students at Penn involved with a cappella at Penn take their art very seriously. There are 11 a cappella groups officially recognized by the Performing Arts Council, the umbrella organization for all University-recognized performing arts groups. Each group, from Off the Beat to Pennsylvania Six-5000 to Full Measure, claims to have its own special purpose, features that make it distinct from the 10 others.
And it isn’t just a pastime. Last year Counterparts, an a cappella group that specializes in jazz, competed in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. And they did damn well, winning the Mid-Atlantic Quarter Final and placing second in the national semi-finals. So Counterparts is pretty good even beyond Penn’s standards — in comparison, another a cappella group at Penn competed and didn’t even place regionally. However, Counterparts was shown up by other collegiate groups from around the nation. One recent graduate and former member of Counterparts, who we will call “Stan,” remembers the outrageous performance of last year’s victors, the SUNY Buffalo Chips. “When you get to this echelon of people who actually compete,” said the graduate, “they have to have full blown choreography and dance moves.”
To put things in perspective, most a cappella groups at Penn do not choreograph their music beyond a tame shimmy and shake, or a synchronized knee dip. (Though there is Chord on Blues, whose gyrations on stage rival the moves of the best boy bands.) But mostly, a cappella performers at Penn are content to just stand and deliver.
That’s not to say that competition among the groups isn’t fierce. Rehearsal and performance space is limited, as is the talent. Every fall, after the final rounds of auditions, the directors and presidents of the 11 a cappella groups gather behind closed doors to bargain for the best new voices. Stan remembers a situation that almost led to an inter-a-cappella brawl; “Two people almost got into a fight two years ago. The guy from Penn Six said, ‘Oh, we want this kid,’ and the guy from Off the Beat said, ‘He’s ours.’ And then [the Penn Six director] said ‘Oh, fuck you, why would he go to you? You guys are a bunch of la-di-da tools.’ And they both jumped up and had to be pulled apart from one another.”
The a cappella leaders call the candidates who have offers from two or more groups, and, on speakerphone, ask them if they’ve made a decision. And broadcast to all in the room, the candidate answers. Someone wins. Someone loses. More than once hysterics have ensued. Stan recalls a girl tearfully bemoaning the loss of a girl to another group.
But the severe infighting is the end of a long process of divvying up the talent. The process begins with the callback stage of the audition process. The A Cappella Council, a subcommittee of PAC, has a rule that states if a person auditions and makes the second round more than one group, the person has to go to all the callbacks regardless of whether they hold an interest in the other groups. The only reason this rule exists, according to a member of PAC, is to give each group a go at getting the talent, not to ensure that the signer makes the wisest decision for him or herself. With so many groups, and only a few standouts, auditioning for a cappella is like contracting with unions: you’ve got to follow the rules or you’re out of a job, so to speak.
“There’s only so much talent,” said an upper-level PAC official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Talent, it should be noted, also comes in the form of beauty. Stan noted that during the audition process, “if someone is, according to the standards of pop culture, unattractive, and if they are qualified and someone else is drop-dead gorgeous, you know they are gonna get the nod.” Though he always wanted to take “the girl who could wail,” he also admitted that in the past, “the girls in the group put a lot of pressure on themselves to look the part of Counterparts, which is the black fitting formal dress with a sleek sexy appeal.”
Looking good seems to be another way to compete, to be the best, to top the other “doom-doom-a-doom-a-chang-chang-a-chiggy” outfits on campus.
But in the race to find a hook, is any group really unique?
Despite the distinctiveness of some of the a cappella groups (see Penn Masala, the nation’s first all male Hindi a cappella group) there is a growing concern among members of Penn’s performing arts community that the groups are becoming too similar. One running joke is that if you’ve seen one a cappella group, you’ve seen them all. With each claiming a different niche, there should be plenty of variety, yet the acts seem about as original as the text of a Stephen Ambrose novel.
The PAC official agreed: “Pennchants, Penn Pipers, Chord on Blues, Penn Six: boil them down and make them one. There’s no need for all four of those groups.” The four groups are all-male ensembles that have a pop-driven repertoire. Their differences, on paper, are that each group claims a different era or genre of pop. Some offer ’60s and ’70s tunes, like Pennchants, while others, like Penn Six (often recognized as the a cappella scene’s “bad boys”) go for ’80s and ’90s radio hits. And, even outside these four groups, there are glaring similarities among their co-ed counterparts–like Off the Beat and Penny Loafers, which both go for contemporary radio hits.
Regardless of whether Penn needs four all-male pop-tastic a cappella groups, these groups are, in reality, ignoring stipulations of their PAC constitutions. The important thing about being a member of PAC is that it means being eligible for University funding. But in order to be granted admission, a group must meet PAC standards. The newest, and potentially most violated, criterion of membership is that each group must fill a specific need within the performing arts community.
The “uniqueness clause” in PAC’s constitution says that a group should have “a unique function and contribution which distinguishes itself from existing member organizations.” PAC Chairman Ryan Baber explains: “You have to provide a performance outlet not provided by any other group in PAC.”
So what if you aren’t unique? What if you proudly, professedly sing the same stuff as another group? The reality is that the clause is never really enforced. “You could [kick out identical groups],” says the upper-level PAC official. “There are provisions in the constitution to kick them out, but who wants to be that guy?”
Apparently, no one. AC Chairman Abe Lo agreed with the PAC official, saying that the issue of redundant groups “hasn’t been handled in the past,” by PAC. “People don’t want to be the bad guy,” said Lo. “We have a struggle… we want students to be able to perform and have the outlet to be able to do that. Students [come here] expecting to be able to perform.”
The trouble is that the groups have become over-specialized, the distinctions finer and finer. Last year, Dischord, not yet a PAC member, investigated the possibility of joining, meeting with Lo to discuss what their group would have to do to qualify for membership. “Basically, [Lo] told us that we needed to make ourselves the ‘something’ group,” said Jeff Bramstein, president of Dischord. “Lo said that there’s already several a cappella groups on campus that sing modern rock [and] pop.” Dischord examined the possibility of finding a niche in PAC, said Bramstein. “We had a meeting… and one thing that appealed to us was becoming ‘community service’ a cappella. That was something we could do and sing whatever we want.” What “community service a cappella” is Bramstein couldn’t really say. What was important is that he thought it would get the group into PAC and would get them funding.
Even the more die-hard, old-school groups are going the way of TRL. Counterparts, founded originally as a jazz ensemble, has fallen in line with the pop trend. The group’s most recent album features the hip, but not jazzy, sounds of U2, Lenny Kravitz and Cold Play.
Said the former Counterparts member, “When I was there, we’d say, ‘We need a jazz song to have a jazz song…. [PAC] requires that we at least appear to adhere to the original constitution that says that we’re a jazz group.” But the recent graduate said that the group has since departed even further from its prescribed identity. Last semester, the group’s program contained only one jazz song.
Despite this, he contended that the group sticks to its roots, as it still maintains many works from its jazz repertoire. “We definitely have to have an actual jazz repertoire,” he said, “so that anytime, if [PAC] questioned it, we can just whip out some stuff and say, “Yeah, we do jazz.”
So the a cappella groups are becoming indistinguishable. So what? So a few of the AC groups pay lip service to their contracts with PAC. Big deal.
Not so fast. We forgot to talk about money.
In November, The Daily Pennsylvanian ran an article on the state of arts at Penn, focusing on the space crunch faced by dance groups. The article noted that last year, three dance groups attempted to join PAC but were denied admission because of the lack of space. While the space crunch was a concern, so was the decreased funding that groups already in PAC would face as a result of admitting new groups. “From a money standpoint, letting more groups in means less money for the rest of us,” said Dance Arts Council Chairwoman Virginia Graham, who is also a member of PAC-member group Penn Dance.
While all the PAC groups must apply for funding separately to the Student Activities Council, of which PAC is a subset, it is their decision whether or not to reduce their own funding by letting more groups into PAC. New groups in PAC mean less money for existing PAC members. In the case of a cappella groups, letting more groups in means competition for performance space, which can be hard to find during the end of the semester when many groups are having their performances.
Decreased funding for current groups “is an under-the-table consideration [in the decision of whether to admit new groups],” said the upper-level PAC official. “It’s something that’s in everybody’s mind, but it’s nothing you can really discuss at the meeting.” Especially since PAC isn’t supposed to be concerned with the allocation of funding.
SAC discussed the state of PAC funding at a recent meeting, SAC Chairwoman Latoya Baldwin said. “We are in an awkward position,” she said. “As more groups come into SAC, the quality of programming is going to go down. [Each organization will] have to make some hard decisions.”
But considering how PAC works, it’s questionable that those decisions will ever be made from within. Since PAC is composed of representatives from the performing arts groups it represents, it is impossible for the body to solve its inherent problems without taking out a few of their own. To break the cookie cutter similarity of PAC’s a cappella groups, the groups must decide to begin procedures to remove themselves, or alter their artistic focuses and suffer a loss in popular appeal — thus losing money made from ticket sales, which the groups can use to fund trips and recording sessions.
PAC, in its mission statement, says that its goal is to “facilitate the production of a variety of performance endeavors throughout the University community.” However, these groups survive by claims they can no longer justify — like the genre-specific constitutions that many groups have abandoned — and by spreading thin a talent pool barely large enough to support them.
People still attend a cappella shows in convincing numbers, regardless of whether they violate some discrete law of the PAC constitution or sound exactly like the other groups. If anything, the hegemonic power of pop has only secured their audience. Tuesday night, we went to a sorority house where Penn Six was performing. They sang six songs, all dripping with the pop pulp we love. As they approached the end of the concert, the girls unleashed a squeal worthy of The Ed Sullivan Show: “Like a Prayer, Like Prayer,” they screamed. The girls didn’t plead for jazz or doo-wop. They wanted the goddess of pop. And when Penn Six busted out into the verse, the girls chimed in right behind them. It stopped being a Penn Six concert then and there. The boys’ voices were drowned out by what had become a sing-along: “Just like a dream, you are not what you seem/Just like a prayer, no choice your voice can take me there.” You could see their lips moving, but as far as you could hear, the mob of voices might have been singing along with the radio.
Brenner Thomas, a member of Strictly Funk, contributed to this report. Writer Drew Armstrong is a member of the Penn Chamber Music Society. Shumes doesn’t have anything that PAC would ever want..