Vocal Opposition

Dozens of folks performing on the Sing-Off stage
Still from The Sing-Off 3.02 group open © 2011 NBCUniversal. Photo: Lewis Jacobs.

I’ve had to restrain myself from blogging on NBC’s The Sing-Off each week. As I proved last year, I’m capable of going on at ridiculous length about the show, given my love for a cappella music and creative arrangements of pop songs in general. Until now I’d been successful, but my resolve finally broke last night after the latest in a string of confounding eliminations.

The Sing-Off upped its roster this year to an impressive sixteen groups, starting with two brackets of eight groups each. My early favorites in the first bracket were Afro-Blue, Delilah, and Urban Method, although Delilah soon proved uneven; second-bracket standouts were The Collective, Pentatonix, Sonos, and North Shore. It’s curious to me that of these groups all but North Shore, a traditional male doo-wop quintet, and Delilah, an all-women’s outfit based on the collegiate a cappella model, are smaller
and more experimental. Despite my affection for the format, such collegiate ensembles as this year’s Dartmouth Aires, University of Rochester Yellowjackets, and Vocal Point of Brigham Young University have left me underwhelmed. While I love all kinds of unaccompanied vocal performance — from ’60s-style streetcorner sounds to the spirituals of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the traditional African a cappella of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the astounding solo-voice stylings of Bobby McFerrin, the versatile (but no relation to McFerrin) band of voices The Bobs to close-harmony barbershop chorus — I think of collegiate a cappella as the standard-bearer in the field.

I have to wonder, though, if the collegiate groups on The Sing-Off just haven’t
matured as much musically as their rivals, many of whom have either graduated from such groups or took different, musically intensive paths to their current places —
the exception being Afro-Blue, a jazz-oriented combo comprising students from Howard University. And in turn I have to wonder if maybe the judges are trying to keep as great a mix of styles in the competition as possible, given On the Rocks’ and the Backbeats’ staying power last year or the unbelievable victory of the Yellowjackets over The Collective in the sudden-death “battle” round last night. The only rationale that I can find for the judges’ dismissal of the gentlemen of North Shore over the faltering Delilah last week — based on both that episode’s performances and those on the season to date — was a desire not to put the fellas in the awkward position of going through hip-hop week; as other groups showed last night, however, the challenge (thankfully) allowed the entrants to adapt hip-hop songs to their own vibes, and North Shore demonstrated a couple of weeks ago in tackling Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song” that it’s perfectly capable of channeling today’s music in an appropriate fashion.

So I’m left simply flabbergasted by the judges’ taste, which is strange not only given their qualifications but more to the point given the fact that I’ve agreed with their insights in previous seasons pretty consistently. Ben Folds is a singer/songwriter (“Rockin’ in the Suburbs”) and a cappella aficionado, Shawn Stockman is a member
of the frequently a cappella R&B group Boyz II Men (“End of the Road”), and Sara Bareilles is a singer/songwriter (“[I’m Not Gonna Write You a] Love Song”) who was herself in an a cappella group at the University of California; Bareilles replaced Nicole Scherzinger, who defected to The X Factor. All of the judges have been spot-on in their critiques of the Sing-Off performances — except when they haven’t, mostly in the pass they’ve been giving to the Aires and Yellowjackets despite pitch problems, lack of dynamics, and less-than-inspiring lead vocals.

A couple of weeks ago Sonos, which outside of its Sing-Off appearances uses
electronic gadgets to augment and alter the group’s sound, was roundly criticized for being too inventive in its arrangement of the Jackson Five classic “I Want You Back”. The number was insane; while it might have been an unnecessarily out-there and complicated interpretation of the song, it was nonetheless soulful and brilliant. I did agree with the comment from Bareilles that Sonos would have done better to at least work in a quotation of the familiar “I Want You Back” for a few bars because it’s so familiar, but I can’t fathom the judges’ literal dismissal of Sonos when the Dartmouth Aires’ highly praised iteration of “Pinball Wizard” was so hollow. The Aires did to “Pinball Wizard” (but worse) what the Yellowjackets did last night to Nelly’s “Just a Dream” in their head-to-head battle against The Collective — render it blandly, sucking out all the flavor (rock or hip-hop, respectively) and painting by the numbers. The biggest trap that large, collegiate a cappella groups fall into, one that’s all but swallowed whole said groups on The Sing-Off this season, is the tendency to turn
songs with edge into showtunes.

The judges were put in a difficult situation after the Yellowjackets’ kiss-ass rendition
of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” — during which the breathy, weak
lead (understandably but shamelessly and a little creepily) sang directly to Bareilles.
Yet I’d apparently wrongly assumed that the group was saved purely due to its ploy embarrassing the judges into inaction regarding the Yellowjackets’ desperate performance; instead, I find the Aires’, Yellowjackets’, and to a lesser extent Vocal Point’s deficiencies routinely ignored while risk-taking (and risk-taking that pays off) by the likes of Sonos and The Collective, whose approach to “Just a Dream” was far more artistic and appropriate than the Yellowjackets’ generic arrangements, is picked apart even as the outside-the-box approaches of Urban Method and Pentatonix are virtually unassailed. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if a fix is in.

I’m hardly turned off enough to stop supporting the show, because doing so would only mean denying myself the opportunity to continue enjoying some killer a cappella sets, but I desperately wish the past couple weeks’ episodes hadn’t colored my admiration for the judges so. And I look forward to hearing the booted worthy contenders elsewhere.

Related: Double “You” Sing-Off, &c. Look and Listen


  1. What's the matter with showtunes? ; )

    VW: bobjet — The bobsled of the future!

  2. I miss Justin Bieber Percussion Girl.