NBC's "The Sing-Off"

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 15 2009 12:50 PM

NBC's "The Sing-Off"

In its premiere episode last night, NBC's new competition series, The Sing-Off , provided a public service that the world did not yet know it needed namely, a sure-fire way to test whether you do, indeed, like a cappella, despite your better judgment. In the opening number, all eight vocal ensembles participating in the four-night event joined in a rendition of the Queen/David Bowie jam "Under Pressure." If you don't find yourself grinning like a fool by the end of this number, then congratulations: You, like my boyfriend (who spent last night barricaded in the dining room with his noise-canceling headphones), are immune to a cappella. 

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Sadly, none of the following performances quite lived up to that first one. Despite the range of groups on display a quartet of sassy suburban moms, an R & B group from hardscrabble Omaha, a zany guys' group from Tufts nearly all sounded too thin, too bright, and too boppy. Most also had noticeable pitch issues, which I hope will smooth out once everyone stops being so nervous.

My favorite group so far is Noteworthy, from BYU. They sounded like a hot mess on Aretha Franklin's "Think" like many all-women's groups, they can sound screechy and piercing when they go full-blast but I liked their moxie. They know how to convey a sense that they take themselves seriously while embracing the essentially campy nature of the genre.

We will not harp on the inadequacies of host Nick Lachey or judge Nicole Scherzinger or their shared, grating habit of insisting how cool a cappella is. ("When you hear that barbershop style you think, 'That's dope!' ") Instead, let's celebrate the presence of the dashing Shawn Stockman, from Boyz II Men , and of Ben Folds , who, despite his uncanny resemblance to Austin Powers, provided the evening's most useful, insightful musical critiques.

The little scenes where we get to visit the groups' campuses and hometowns also provided some lovely grace notes. All the groups seem very close-knit, and none of the camaraderie seems forced. A cappella is first and foremost about fellowship , and I thought those interludes captured that quite well.

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