HomeBlogsJoseph Livesey's blogA Cappella - The Genre That Isn't

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So, I was talking to some a cappella heads online, in this neat online room where you can DJ your own music as well as pull from the online library of songs. There are rooms for classic rock, blues, etc. - but I like to hang out in the a cappella room. In our room (which is here by the way), there are enthusiasts, high school, college and pro performers, producers, marketers... everyone you could imagine within the niche art form.

And I decided to say to the members in the room, to see what they thought, that a cappella doesn't exist. Not as a genre anyway. I wanted to get this off my chest because it's been bugging me as a performer. Here's my point: a cappella is very diverse, and always lumped together. A cappella groups by and large suffer from identity confusion as a result. The solution is to reconceptualize a cappella music in the universe of music in general, to grow appreciation for a cappella groups, and erase the confusion that they create for themselves and their audiences. So let's deconstruct. First, genres represented within a cappella.

We've got rock, in The House Jacks, jazz with Take 6, and Naturally 7 brings percussion and hip-hop. Rockapella does pop, Van Canto does metal (but has a drummer, stirring up debate among the purists), I love the Gas House Gang for barbershop (as well as my own quartet!), and I guess this guy even has dubstep covered now! But those are all different genres of music, and they all have different followings. Even within the world of a cappella, where many listeners will give anything a listen as long as it is created without instruments, it's not as easy for a die-hard Styx and Foreigner fan to be equally passionate about The Real Group, or Rajaton - they're just completely different genres, and I don't mean a cappella versus not.

So, why group so many genres under the umbrella of a cappella? "Why ever not?" is what most acapeeps ask in their heads as they read this. Then let me ask you this question: if you like trumpet, does that mean you like ska, big band, swing, punk, blues, cool jazz and classical, and everything else in the trumpet genre? No, because chances are you don't equally appreciate every type of music featuring trumpet, and because, um, 'trumpet' is not a genre.

See my point? Since when has an instrument ever defined a genre?

As you can see from the official JPEG, 'a cappella' is nowhere to be found on this umbrella.

Yet apparently a cappella doesn't have the distinction between instrumentation and genre. There are a cappella summits, university concerts, and now in The Sing-Off we have a show that brings to the masses much of what is a cappella these days. I'm not saying that any of these things are bad in and of themselves. But they are usually all perceived as celebrations of a unique, coherent art form. They are not viewed as what they really are: gatherings of diversely influenced musicians. Often, the organizers of these summits and concerts and shows don't see it this way, either, thus perpetuating the confusion - and frequently, even the performers themselves don't realize the distinction! Everything is lumped together. That's terrible. But why does it happen that way?

People who decidedly enjoy a cappella anything number so few compared to rock or pop or jazz fans that they group together to keep their passion alive and to have the ability to communicate it with others who understand. I'll speak from the heart and say that while I love performing and explaining a cappella to new listeners, it also gives me such a sense of excitement, relief and camaraderie to speak with a fellow performer or enthusiast who also knows all the big names, the summits, who's releasing a new album, and so on. So we huddle for warmth, a cappella jazz with a cappella rock with whatever else. And this huddling mentality is part of what feeds the misunderstanding about the 'genre' of a cappella.

Another reason for the huddle, aside from numbers, is that most of the true genres currently represented within a cappella still lack accurate expression. I commented on this as one DJ (remember, we're still in that online room) put on "Bad Romance" by UO On The Rocks (opb Lady Gaga). My point was that many people have pigeonholed a cappella as this obscure, weird thing - when really it doesn't have to be. The real cause for the misperception is that it just hasn't been that good - overall - for very long.

ispeakinsong: In pop/rock, I feel like a cappella is mostly viewed as more of a novelty
josephlivesey: but when have you ever heard a cappella pop or rock performed as well as it is today?
josephlivesey: NEVER
Grant McFerrin: Agree.
josephlivesey: take bad romance for example
 (in this instance, I was remarking on how good the cover was)

You still can't go see a rock a cappella group, and consistently say, "wow, they really rocked." Don't be confused; I'm not saying you have to like them! There's plenty of rock groups I don't enjoy listening to, but they can rock their gigs regardless. And a cappella musicians are still learning, at the overall level, how to rock. And how to coolly do jazz. And how to put that radio-friendly ear candy into pop. My years spent in the world of college a cappella showed me that. Everyone, and I mean everyone, at that level is trying the next new thing to see what sticks and what doesn't, because there's hardly any precedent. And in a world where nobody really knows what they're doing, the college kids have the perfect solution: be humble, don't take yourself too seriously and try anything - something's gotta work. I've seen some terrible ideas and some great ones come out of this. I still remember one ICCA - maybe it was 2007? - where a student picked up another student's leg and played it for a guitar solo. Embarrassingly awful, but the college groups are where your current Sing-Off judge and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Sara Bareilles, got much of her start.

So there's good and bad.

Out of the college world we get wonderful discussions about what syllables to use in background vocals, how and when to properly imitate an instrument, choosing choreography that connects with the arrangement and doesn't exist simply to distract the audience, intelligent arranging with an eye for highlighting the soloist, bass, vp and ensemble when appropriate... and the list goes on and on. Of course the professional groups think about this stuff too, but the college groups have had the corner on a cappella innovation for a while, because of their sheer numbers, constantly changing rosters, and social connection through competition and joint performances compared to the 'pros.' And thank goodness: since hardly any a cappella groups have successfully translated their true genre into a cappella, right now, innovation is the key to finding identity. The problem is that 99.9% of college groups get lost in the innovation and don't realize that they could be using it to find that elusive identity. Then again, high turnover is a built-in obstacle. Best to let the college groups try everything, and continue to use their results to build a steadily growing toolbox of a cappella performance.

So here we are. A cappella recordings, performance technique, concert bookings and marketing have all become good enough that the prior downfalls of the huddle and of low-quality expression no longer have to persist. The last leap is a psychological one, where performers can finally find their identities. We as performers have to mentally reside within the true genre, which we choose to manifest via voice. Right now, most do it the other way around, which never works. Many see themselves as a cappella performers trying out some jazz and hoping that it works. I say, push yourself to accept the far greater challenge of becoming a jazz musician who prefers to perform the art with voices only. If you want to do pop, don't start by thinking about what a cappella tricks might work to create a palatable ersatz pop. BE pop. I don't mean that we only have to think "genre genre genre" and it'll work out. To be sure, a cappella brings with it certain difficulties that have to be understood and accounted for, like instrument balance, absence of physical prop, size of group, etc. But we must begin from the genre, and use our a cappella toolbox to help express the genre accurately. The answer is not - as most performers are still doing - to take the toolbox and throw a bunch of tricks at an arrangement, with no regard for the genre as long as it's done a cappella.

The answer is also not to cover Rebecca Black's "Friday." Ever.
Dear reader, I'm almost done! Now I get to talk about the coolest part - what happens after the identity crisis is resolved. Once groups decide that their voices are mediums through which genres are expressed instead of the other way around, problems that have thus far plagued them will all but disappear. Hear this, O acaheads, the only true gospel of a cappella: Know Your Genre.

One big debate in the a cappella world is that of original songs. Should groups pursue original content? The supporting side says that this is the only way to establish unique appeal, and the detractors say that such a path will only lead an obscure group in an already obscure world to even greater obscurity. I used to side with the 'against' side, and then I was with the 'for' side for a long time. And now I'm with neither. Are original songs important? Yes and no. Would you like to hear a Led Zeppelin album where all they did was covers? No. How about a Diana Krall album of jazz standards? Yes. So what's the difference? Rock is all about originality and stretching the sound. Jazz definitely has a place for that, but it also exists as a sort of shrine to yesteryear, in which decades-old content can be revived by contemporary musicians. Hip-hop frequently mixes new and old in the same song. Country has its revered songwriters, who are covered and covered and covered again, and current bands who play to a newer, more pop-oriented crowd. Know your genre and live within it. Incidentally, I was against originals when I was in Fermata Nowhere, a college group whose audiences reveled in our onstage antics and covers of supercurrent radio hits. Then I was for them when I later sang in SoundStage, a semi-pro group involved in the SoCal gigging scene and Harmony Sweepstakes.

Here's another 'problem': what about barbershop? Should it be more accessible? Even lots of a cappella enthusiasts won't listen to it, saying that it is old-fashioned and insular. Yes and no. Barbershop is unique compared to other forms of a cappella music. It has always been done a cappella, and a cappella is part of its definition. It always has four members, the lead voice always gets the majority of the melodies, the old songs are part of every barbershop singer's knowledge (and oftentimes their repertoire as well), seventh chords are always predominant... barbershop is a genre in its own right. I completely support barbershop singers who love the old songs and hang out with each other and embrace the history and nurture the traditional sound. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they are doing what the rest of a cappella performers should be doing - residing within, and knowing the genre. However, I wouldn't be in Via Voice if we just sang a bunch of the old songs. And within the past 30 years, barbershop has also undergone monstrous upheaval in terms of what is kosher. But does this mean that I have myself forgotten to know my genre? No. I wouldn't approach an arrangement from a genre that a) I didn't feel like I understood, and b) I didn't feel capable of executing well with the quartet. Furthermore, I (and the rest of the quartet) am fully aware that this means that we don't just do barbershop. We do what we like, and work to make it work well.

Sweet Adeline, and all that, uh... jazz.
And on and on and on. The proper syllable to use? Lighting? Intensity of a ballad? Genre. Lose the thought that a cappella defines you. Eventually genre won't define you either, but it will be part of how you express your identity through music, as a cappella is how you express your genre through instrument choice. Eventually a cappella musicians will understand themselves as (at least) two distinct cross-sections of the performing world. Their primary orientation will be toward the genre or genres that they most closely represent, and their secondary will be their grouping by instrumentation, i.e. a cappella. Within this context, fans of any genre will finally see and be able to access some a cappella groups as performers within that genre which they already know and love so well. Additionally, a cappella summits and college concerts and competitions and the like will be an awesome convergence of truly distinct styles enjoying their common medium, and as such will draw in more fans than those simply coming to watch 'a cappella'.

Whatever that is.

Incidentally, the songs we were DJing seemed to oddly reflect the conversation at hand. Interspersed throughout were:

Thousand Things - The Real Group
Until (A Matter of Moments) - The Swingle Singers
I've Got To Use My Imagination - Rutgers Casual Harmony
Someone You Don't Know - Duwende
Bad Romance - On The Rocks
Open Your Eyes - Acappology
Running Up That Hill - Club For Five
Happy Ending - Take It SLO
Don't Stop Believin' - UNC Clef Hangers
Separate Ways - The Red States


I don't know. As a huge fan

I don't know. As a huge fan of voice and piano, I listen to many different genres, as long as there is really good vocal and/or piano work in them. And I feel like, yeah, genre is a more important concept, but the fact is, a lot of people are willing to toss away A Cappella regardless of genre. Some people just aren't fans of singing. It's yet to make sense to me, but i have met people who just go 'that vocal sh*t again? put on some metal *proceeds to growl with no melody or harmony*' It's sad, but it's true. And the thing with the a cappella community is this: we love voices. We love singers. We love music. We appreciate the talent, and love the sounds. We do need to spread it out too..but it's nice to go to a place where you're loved for what you do. 


I live in an area that feels almost devoid of singers..and it makes me so depressed somedays :/

Hi Sam!

It's a bummer that you don't have a local singer community to enjoy! Maybe save up a little green and make it out to LA/AF (or SoJam if you're quick)! And, I bet those people who write off a cappella as "that vocal sh*t" are some of the many who are annoyed with bad a cappella (of which we have lots). I think that part of their annoyance must arise from that as well as from the fact that if they love metal, there's not too much to interest them in the world of a cappella in the first place.

While we're on the topic of genre disconnect, it also seems like a similar thing is happening from your point of view: metal is not your favorite thing to listen to, because the musicians "growl with no melody or harmony" (which is not the case with all metal groups, but maybe you've not experienced that). So you seem to appreciate the genre less than one immersed in metal (which frequently emphasizes percussion and mood over an acahead's idea of "vocals"), just as they might not find that much in the world of vocal music to excite them. There's just not enough overlap for either of you.

And there's nothing wrong with that! Simple differences in preference! Or as I said in the first paragraph, a cappella has thus far failed to accurately and consistently represent the genre of metal. I think it's a little of both.

-Joseph Livesey | Fermata Nowhere | SoundStage

lol, i actually just used

lol, i actually just used extremes to accentuate my points. the friend who said 'vocal sh*t' isn't actually into metal..he's just a horrid singer and thereby refuses to listen to anything that challenges him. I failed to mention I'm a fan of all genres, and while metal (in it's growling nonsense incarnation that's popular in the crowd I know) isn't at the top of my list, there are some metal bands I highly enjoy. 


It's often that I find people with no vocal ability write off (specifically, in the male population) good singers. Like guys who can't sing hate all the boy bands. Sorta this jealousy thing, I guess? 


(after reading that, I wonder how on earth I can possibly write 'horrid' and 'sorta' in the same post. super-proper and totally improper.)

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