Pitch Perfect and the strange allure of a cappella.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 15 2008 7:09 AM

Last Night a Beat Box Saved My Life

Pitch Perfect and the strange allure of a cappella.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

When I heard that GQ editor Mickey Rapkin was writing a book about college a cappella, I was thrilled. I hoped that the book, Pitch Perfect, would serve as a decoder ring: Something I could read—something I could make all my nonsinging friends read—that would explain why I'd spent so much of my life standing in a half-circle and snapping on the downbeat.

Yes, that was me, step-touching in your dining hall. That was me, closing my eyes at the climax of the Indigo Girls ballad. I was an a cappella nerd, and I loved every minute of it—but, even so, I didn't show my boyfriend the videos until we'd been dating for a year and a half. Nothing from my past evokes quite the same derision, and I say that as a former debater, mock-trial lawyer, and mathlete.

Advertisement

The crimes of a cappella, after all, are legion and well-documented. The dumb outfits. The dm-dm-ka-cha's that are supposed to approximate the sound of drums and hi-hats. The fact that on many college campuses, it's always being shoved in your face. (Your roommate might have been a Level-20 Wizard in Dungeons & Dragons, but he wasn't constantly sprawled in your entryway, forcing you to watch him roll his 12-sided die.) It remains unclear whether the people involved even like music. The bands most frequently covered on the circuit are uniformly schlocky: Coldplay, Maroon 5, Billy Joel, Journey. Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that a cappella is so painfully earnest, so distressingly eager to please.

But numbers don't lie. There are now more than 1,200 college groups across the nation—with an average of 10 to 15 members per group, that's as many as 18,000 singers. So clearly, something draws people to a cappella.

Unfortunately, Pitch Perfect does not explain what that something is. For one thing, Rapkin spends too much time on shop talk—there are long digressions about recording sessions and the inner machinations of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. ("Competitive a cappella" being a fringy sub-subculture that makes even other singers shudder with disdain.)

There are also too many characters. Rapkin spent a year trailing three different college groups whose members together make almost 50 students, and he also includes dozens of alums and other peripheral figures. Rapkin tries to give his subjects color by detailing various "wacky" adventures, but none of the garden-variety college escapades are all that interesting because we barely know the people involved. I feel bad that the University of Virginia Hullabahoos missed their chance to sing the national anthem at the Staples Center because they spent too long eating lunch and then got stuck in traffic, but I didn't need to read a chapter about it.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.