23rd Apr2013

Pitch Perfect and the True Story of Collegiate A Cappella

by Will

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I’m not a very good a cappella alum. I know groups who were basically reuniting to go see Pitch Perfect when it came out in theaters but, like most movies, I decided to wait until it hit redbox. I just wasn’t sure it would be respectful of the genre. I actually wrote a long (unpublished) screed on how Glee would fail when Fox first aired a “sneak preview” of the show. While I was wrong (for the most part), the things that I hated are the things that have aged the show prematurely. In recent years, there has been a big pop culture emphasis on show choirs, with a cappella getting lumped right in with them. After Glee, The Glee Project, The Sing-Off and more, I came to realize that none of the people behind those shows “got it”. Even Mickey Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect – the book on which the film is loosely based – depicted the crazy world of a cappella from an outsider’s perspective. So, I didn’t expect much from the movie. Last Friday, I had a slow day, so I grabbed it from redbox. Now, I can say that not only was I wrong, but the movie was SPOT ON.

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I’m glad the movie found its audience, even outside the a cappella community. It’s a funny film, even if it’s filled with tropes we’ve seen a thousand times before (“whispering chick who’s secretly crazy”, for one). Still, if you sang in an a cappella group, it’s such an “inside baseball” thrill. I actually took notes during the movie, which I’ll share here:

-“Women are about as good at a cappella as they are at being doctors.” I love that they even captured everyone’s contempt for female groups! Only recently has that opinion started to change, with edgy groups like Divisi on the scene.

-Treblemakers had a token black guy (in my group, that was me…)

-They also had an Asian beatboxer, which has become a mainstay of modern a cappella groups

-I loved when the douchebags were rating the girls as they set foot on campus. It reminds me of a story my friends told me: one year, during orientation, they sped in their through North Campus, screaming “We’re gonna fuck your daughters’ freshman pussies!” from the car window. It’s funny because these are the last guys you’d think would do that. But they did.

-No one hands out full-size flyers. You hand out quartercuts – it’s more cost effective, and folks are just gonna drop that shit on the ground. Why pay for 1,000 full-size copies when you could get 4,000 quartercuts for the same price? They’re just wasting their student activities fund money!

-Where do they have mixed auditions? Is that something that actually happens at some colleges? They could get away with that in the movie, as they only had 4 groups. At current count, Cornell has 15 groups. Yes, FIFTEEN. See, it’s like this – there was once a small number of groups, but eventually the rejects started forming their own groups. They had a built in audience, as there are more people rejected from a cappella groups than make it in, so they commiserate together. Fifteen fucking groups…apparently there’s even a new one called “Exploosh!” Anyway, there’s no way shared auditions could be held in a civil manner with more than two groups.

-Leave it to a cappella kids to get down to a lame song like “Keep Your Head Up”! They break it down in that scene like a Flo Rida song came on, but it’s just another Ed Sheeran/Gavin DeGraw clone. I’m just glad we didn’t get an aca rendition of the song in the movie. I really hate that fucking song…

-The depiction of nodes was PERFECT. Whenever you found out someone had nodes, it was like they had cancer. “SHE MAY NEVER SING AGAIN!!!” Nodes signified the possible end to your a cappella career, which also meant it was the end of your illustrious future career on Broadway. Later, we’d realize that you can still sing after the surgery, and those cruise ship jobs are always opening up. I’ve been programmed to tense up more at the mention of nodes than AIDS. That’s how pathetic and self-involved a cappella makes you, but I was a goddamned star!

-The older group, with Donald Faison, was so familiar. The whole “I used to be a star and I just wanna feel something again” theme. That was my early 20s. Man, if I’d had a group like that to join back then…

-Who paid for that bus to the semi-finals? Again, wasting their student activity fund money! You carpool to that shit! In 4.25 years of singing, not ONCE did I board a bus.

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That’s where the notes ended, as the rest was just straightforward 3-act comedy. I realize some of you don’t know my whole deal, as you’re either new to the site or you don’t care to read my archives. I was in an all-male a cappella group at Cornell, called Last Call. In fact, most of the early Cornell groups had drinking themes (Waiters, Hangovers, Chordials). Hey, something’s gotta combat that suicide rate, right? Anyway, my mother hates when I tell this in formal conversation, but I chose Cornell because of Last Call. I guess I was a little Andy Bernard in training. I happened to see the group when I went up for a visit, and it changed my life. So, I bought their CD and sang along to it every morning for the rest of senior year. I was determined to be in that group. So, 3 weeks after getting to campus, I auditioned and got in. That group was MY LIFE. When people ask what I studied, I tell them I majored in A Cappella, as that’s really where I was focused. I could tell you about any group in the country, as I was studying all their sets and stealing all their albums off Napster.

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One way that I could relate to Pitch Perfect was that, unlike MANY other groups, we made it to the International Competition of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Finals that you see in the movie. Luckily, we didn’t throw up over everyone, and we ended up getting 2nd Place. Since the 1st Place group was a coed group, we spun our runner-up status into saying we were the “#1 All-Male Group in the country”. That’s where I first learned the importance of “spin”. The ICCA has an interesting history. When we first entered, it was the National Competition of Collegiate A Cappella. To enter, all you really had to do was send a video and pay a fee (Hey, Varisty Vocals is a business just like anything else). We went to a regional quarterfinal round, and got our asses handed to us (we did, however, get the judges’ Special Award for Funniest Moment). Like Aubrey, though, we were determined to go back and try again. The next year, they had decided to allow Canada into the mix, so the thing suddenly became “International”. That’s the year we made it to the semifinals. Finally, the year after that, we got further than we ever imagined – 2nd Place, at Lincoln Center, and we performed on The Today Show. After that, 2nd place was good enough for us, and we pulled out of competition my senior year (quitters never lose, kids!).

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It was fun and life-changing, but winning also made us assholes. When I joined Last Call, we could be classified as “We’re not the guys you date – we’re the guys you marry.” We were all dorks, and the group was predominately comprised of engineers, Asian dudes, and Asian engineers.  After the ICCAs, we were just like the Treblemakers. Douches all around, and our shit didn’t stink! That’s why I’m curious to see a sequel for Pitch Perfect, as I’d love to see what winning does to the Barden Bellas. I kinda wish the ICCA stuff had peaked earlier in my college career, as I could’ve graduated with a level head. Nope, I was president of the group by then, and I was gonna be on Broadway (I’d done high school musicals before college). I had no clue what the fuck I was talking about. If you think Saved by the Bell ruined high school for you, then you don’t even know how a cappella “success” ruined the real world for me.

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It took years for me to come out of that haze. I’m older now, yet wiser. We “come out of retirement” for special occasions  I can’t really tell you much about today’s collegiate groups, as I’m 31 and really don’t have any business keeping up with that stuff (says the guy who regularly writes about toys and Power Rangers). All the guys I sang with have gone on with their lives, and there’s a new crop of boys singing for their girls and beer. I’ve come to realize that’s why I’m so consumed by being blogging “success” – I’m trying to fill the hole left by a cappella. For a brief moment in time, I was a moderate fish in a very small pond. I guess I just wanna be special again. I’ll find my place in the world someday, but it was nice to revisit that world, even if just for 2 hrs, to get that feeling again. So, long story short – go see Pitch Perfect. If you sang, why haven’t you seen it already?
Bonus Tracks –

Last Call – Drops of Jupiter
Shared from wbwest using Embeddlr
download/iPhone

Last Call – The Hardest Part of Breaking Up
Shared from wbwest using Embeddlr
download/iPhone