Until the last few years, a cappella singing had never been cool. Even the 80s – the spiritual home of leg warmers and jazz ballet – did not attempt to pass off vocal arrangements as hot property. This is hardly surprising, given the origins of Western a cappella singing in religious ceremonies, most notably Gregorian chanting during the Middle Ages. And there it stayed, hovering in the wings as the dorky cousin of pop groups and rock bands. Even Alanis Morissette at the height of her powers wasn’t prepared to put her a cappella where her tracklist was, surreptitiously including ‘Your House’ on Jagged Little Pill as a secret track.
When I joined my college choir in the late 90s, I knew instinctively that this was a hobby I should not broadcast to my friends. Our maestro gave us little hope of transcending social awkwardness when she limited our repertoire to such cringe-worthy numbers as ‘Seasons of Love’ from the musical Rent. As Nina Rastogi, another former a cappella nerd, confessed in a piece for Slate: ‘most damning of all is the fact that a cappella is so painfully earnest, so distressingly eager to please’.
Yet if I were a student today, my desire to sing would be embraced as part of the post-Glee reality, in which vocal groups are not only received with rapturous applause, they also provide catharsis for the social anxiety of young adults. Into this brave new world of harmony struts the inevitable college a-cappella-battle film Pitch Perfect. No longer quarantined to discreet rehearsal spaces, these all-boy and all-girl groups stalk the campus, remixing songs on the fly.
The choir nerd in me is thrilled that a cappella is on trend this season. But before you grab some doo-wopping friends and take to the streets for a five-part sing-along, let me issue a warning: the mere act of singing without instrumental accompaniment is not sufficient to earn you cool points. The a cappella group The Idea of North, for instance – while winning ARIAs and my mother-in-law’s heart – can’t break the mould of earnestness that constrains so many vocal groups.
Song selection is important to your credibility: the songs that drive the crowds wildest are those that you’d never expect to be given a choral arrangement, with Pitch Perfect’s track list ranging from Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ to Pat Benetar’s ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’ by way of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Party in the USA’. Mash-ups are encouraged, with one memorable Glee performance melding Beyonce’s ‘Halo’ with Katrina and The Waves’ ‘Walking on Sunshine’.
But the key ingredient for making a cappella singing a desirable commodity is attitude. Hitting the right notes is of course essential, but dramatic flair is the true way to impress the musically hip. Flash-mobbing choirs, such as a guerrilla tram choir I once sang with, use the element of surprise to earn their accolades (or, occasionally, abuse – not everyone likes to be serenaded while commuting). Simple choreography goes a long way. The choir I perform with these days, Just Holler, works hard to win audiences over: we wield cleavers during The Decemberists’ ‘Shankhill Butchers’, don daggy knits for a Fleet Foxes mash-up and perform acrobatic lifts while warbling Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’.
This summer, though, the coveted badge of A Cappella Sass is rightfully pinned to the chest of Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick, who leads the Bellas to victory against the Treble Makers in a ‘riff-off’, with the inspired song choice of ‘No Diggity’. A cappella has never looked as cool as girls who like the way you work it and aren’t afraid to harmonise about it.
Pitch Perfect hits Australian cinemas on 6 December. If you just can’t wait, you can sample the cast’s a cappella hits with an online listening party.