Last Night a Beat Box Saved My Life
Pitch Perfect and the strange allure of a cappella.
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.
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.
Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.