Pitch Perfect: A Cappella Finds Its Moment; A Cappella-A.K.A. Organized Nerd Singing-Is about to Blow Up. Grab Your Sheet Music and Sparkly Tap Pants

By Jones, Abigail | Newsweek, May 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Pitch Perfect: A Cappella Finds Its Moment; A Cappella-A.K.A. Organized Nerd Singing-Is about to Blow Up. Grab Your Sheet Music and Sparkly Tap Pants


Jones, Abigail, Newsweek


Byline: Abigail Jones

If you know what the ICCA Finals are, it's a safe bet you're either an a cappella superfan or you've watched, re-watched and obsessed over Pitch Perfect as often as I have. The sleeper hit, which had its premiere in 2012 and eventually raked in more than $100 million, catapulted collegiate a cappella into a pop culture sensation. The movie led to a top 10 Billboard hit with "Cups (Pitch Perfect's When I'm Gone)"; launched breakout star Rebel Wilson; created one painfully adorable couple in actors Anna Camp and Skylar Astin; and gave social media plenty of GIFs and catchphrases (Aca-scuse me? Aca-believe it!) to obsess over during the long wait for the sequel, which hits theaters May 15. If you're unfamiliar with Pitch Perfect, think of it as Grease meets Glee meets Bridesmaids--a raucous, musical love letter to underdogs, best friends and "organized nerd singing," as one character says in the film.

All of that brings us to the ICCA Finals, otherwise known as the Super Bowl of a cappella. The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella is not just the setting for the climax of Pitch Perfect; it's also an annual competition in New York City where the top eight collegiate a cappella groups compete. Since launching in 1996, the tournament has grown from around 30 groups to over 300 this year. Tickets for the 2015 ICCA Finals--held in mid-April at the 2,800-seat Beacon Theater--sold out in a few hours.

This year, the team to beat was the SoCal VoCals, the University of Southern California's camera-ready co-ed group that has won four times since 2008. Northeastern University's Nor'easters were another draw, partly because they took first place in 2013, just five days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and partly because they are starring in a new reality docu-series called Sing It On, which follows five collegiate a cappella groups on the road to the ICCA Finals. Its debut is May 13 on Pop TV.

"Having been there, I know how hard these groups have worked and how much time and effort they've put into creating these sets," says Shams Ahmed, an investment banker in Boston who was the musical director of the Nor'easters in 2013, the year they won. "Even to get to this stage, it takes a lot.... This is the cream of the crop."

In the past two years, more than half of the singers on the Nor'easters' championship team graduated, so the group had to audition and train a lot of new members for this year's season. As one Nor'easter puts it in the first episode of Sing It On, "It's up to us to really mold them into the new ICCA champions--and I fucking want that title."

'Might Be Cool'

Collegiate a cappella dates back to 1909, when the Yale Whiffenpoofs were founded, but it wasn't until the 1990s that the genre went mainstream. Around the same time that Rockapella starred in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, collegiate groups began shifting away from the barbershop quartet style in favor of more modern performances. The huge success of American Idol (a reality-TV singing competition) in 2003 paved the way for Glee (a musical-drama TV series) in 2009. Later that year, the reality-TV show The Sing-Off arrived, featuring boy band throwback Nick Lachey as host and the country's top a cappella groups vying for a recording contract with Epic Records/Sony Music. The third-season winners, the Pentatonix, from Arlington, Texas, went on to win a 2015 Grammy for their medley "Daft Punk."

"Suddenly, a cappella is more charming than embarrassing," says Amanda Newman, executive director of Varsity Vocals, which puts on the ICCA each year. These days, it's not unusual for college a cappella groups to teeter between singing as art and singing as a Hollywood pursuit. The Tufts Beelzebubs, who took second place in the first season of The Sing-Off, appeared on Glee. The Florida State University AcaBelles' 2013 video of Lorde's "Royals" has been viewed 8. …

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