Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hero Worship

I don’t know if you have noticed this trend, but I have noticed that certain pop stars get covered by a cappella groups more than others. For every Lady Gaga cover, two Ben Folds covers appear. For every Titanium, we get two covers of Hide and Seek. Why are a cappella groups drawn to certain artists, who, in the grand scheme of music, are not as popular as the Katy Perrys, One Directions, and Pharrell Williams of the world? Let’s discuss…
1) Ben Folds
Not only is Ben the champion of a cappella promotion (see: Ben Folds Presents: University A cappella!, Sing-Off) but I can understand the musical draw his songs provide. I have been a Ben Folds Five fan since I first heard "Underground" on their self-titled album. His songs are harmonically complex, full of detailed characters with backstories and plots, and his rhythmic piano style lends itself easily to a cappella syllables. Ben seems to be the underground (no pun intended) a cappella superstar-the pop star that every college bound singer can look up to. He is a music theory geek and advocate for music distribution. It’s no wonder that a cappella groups from around the world clamor to cover his songs first and foremost.
Listen to these tracks:
“Don’t change Your Plans” by the Harvard Callbacks- BOCA 2006
“The Luckiest” by VOCES 8
“Effington” by Ben Folds- Ben Folds Presents: University A cappella!
“Gone” by The Duke’s Men- The Chase
2) Sara Barellies
A cappella’s first superstar artist. You can actually hear the premiere of Gravity on BOCA 2004, with Sara singing lead. Sara proves the dream can come true: You can build your musical chops in an a cappella group, and then go on to superstardom. Just like Ben, her piano style lends itself easily to a cappella syllables and her mezzo-like range makes every female in your group fight for the solo. It also doesn’t hurt that she was the breakout judge of the Sing-Off’s longest running season.
Listen to these tracks:
“Winter Song” by Sweet Signatures- BOCA 2013
“Gravity” by UCLA Awaken- BOCA 2004
“King Of Anything” by UCD 6
3) Imogen Heap
The a cappella artist from the UK. Imogen heap is a live looper and multi-track artist…kind of like the first Peter Hollens, but not entirely a cappella. Her a cappella releases, "Hide and Seek" and "Earth," have been covered years after their release. Not only that, but lesser known Imogen Heap songs are appearing more frequently on BOCA and Voices Only compilations. Her driving beats and repetitive background parts are too catchy to resist. It also helps that she commissions a cappella groups to cover her songs and even sing with her on stage.
Listen to these tracks:
“Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap- Speak For Yourself
“Earth” by Imogen Heap- Ellipse
“First Train Home” by The Bostonians- BOCA 2011
4) F.U.N.
Without rambling on too much about Some Nights, it should be easy to see why this band is the new target for a cappella- The incredibly catchy harmonies, many of which you can improvise, the long narrative stories woven through their music, and the constant and difficult tempo changes that make groups work that much harder. Honestly, it’s fun to sing F.U.N. When their second CD finally premieres, I bet we will see a lot more covers of F.U.N. to come. Oh, and it probably didn’t hurt that Pentatonix covered "We Are Young."
Listen to these tracks:
“We Are Young” by Pentatonix- PTX Vol. 1
“Some Nights/We Are Young” by Straight No Chaser- Under The Influence
5) Michael Jackson
Before you roll your eyes and say “DUH,” let’s delve deeper into this one. Yes, Michael Jackson has always been, and will probably always be the king of pop. Yes, his albums are still among and including, the highest grossing albums of all time. Yes, we can probably sing every one of his number one singles by heart. But shouldn’t that relegate Michael Jackson songs, especially rhythmically driven beats like Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal, to the “Lion-Sleeps-Tonight-Memorial-Pile-of-Overdone-A cappella-Songs?”
In short, no. No offense to Lion Sleeps Tonight, but his songs are WAY better than that. They are iconic, and the more we hear a cappella covers, the more we hear groups either trying to promote their solo as the next Michael Jackson, or trying to cover the song in a way that no one has ever done before. And speaking as someone who has seen a lot of live a cappella, it’s clear that when a group picks a Michael Jackson song, it’s usually because someone can dance like him…which, good or bad, is always entertaining to watch.
Listen to these tracks:
“Smooth Criminal” by FORK- Helsinki
“Billie Jean/Poison” by Straight No Chaser- Six Pack Vol. 2
“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” by Duwende- Remember: The Music of Michael Jackson
6) Rihanna
The musical draw of Rihanna isn’t hard to determine. Driving beats, simple harmonies, catchy melodies, an accessible singing range- She has all the makings of an a cappella idol.
But lately, groups have been re-imagining her music in completely different ways. Why?
Maybe it is because most of Rihanna’s music contains simple harmonic progressions- simple and repetitive, so there is a lot of room to play with the form. As an arranger, I find that the songs I have the most fun arranging are the ones where the chord progression is so simple that there is room to branch out and try a slew of different things. Maybe it is the fact that most of Rihanna’s music is beat driven, so eliminating that key identification is an exciting opportunity for an arranger, because it challenges them to think of a new interpretation of the music. Or maybe people just like Rihanna. (How could you not?)
Listen to these tracks
“We Found Love” by Voices In Your Head- BOCA 2013
“Diamonds” by Nor’Easters- Equilibrium
“Please Don’t Stop The Music” by Treblemakers- Pitch Perfect: The Soundtrack
Marc Silverberg
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