I make it no secret that I'll try watching almost any competitive reality show. It's true. I've slogged through more shows than you knew existed (The One? 13? P.Diddy's Starmaker? I rest my case). It's so rare to find a show that both presents a new paradigm for reality TV and is actually fun to watch. The Sing Off, NBC's seasonal answer to Glee, is one such show. It is a singing competition for a capella (literally without music--vocals only) groups. The first season was an enjoyable little diversion heightened by three very different ensembles--Maxx Factor (lady barbershop quartet), The Beelzebubs (Tufts University's all male a capella group and the voice of Dalton Academy on Glee), and Nota (the winners, a latin-pop fusion group)--and the excellent, knowledgeable judging of Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman (Boys II Men). Nicole Sherzinger (Pussy Cat Dolls) would occassionally say something very insightful, though she was mostly the nice judge talking about clothing and hair cuts.
The format was different from other talent reality shows. The ensembles were broken into heats, competing directly with half of the competition in any given week. The worst group, as ranked by the judges, was sent home. The American public only voted on the final three groups. Did the show feel overly manipulated with groups in the running that would never be afforded a record contract from Sony (the top prize)? Absolutely. You knew that, for example, Maxx Factor wouldn't win because they did barbershop and weren't young enough. You also knew that no matter how the voting went, they weren't going to award a college-sanctioned club a record contract. But the draw of the show was quality singing and great arrangements, and the contestants delivered.
Season 2 debuted with 10 acts competing on Monday night. They are: Eleventh Hour (a high school group), On the Rocks (the collegiate group from this video, though the official video was pulled right around the time the episode aired on copyright grounds), Groove for Thought (jazz group comprised of music teachers), Pitch Slapped (a collegiate group from Berklee), Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town (a Pretenders cover group with one of the original Pretenders), The Whiffenpoofs (with the "of Yale" redacted), Men of Note (all male high school group, though the show doesn't want you to know that), Street Corner Symphony (drunk southern rocker group), The Backbeats (aka The Ringers, comprised of previous competitors and top vocal students in California), and Committed (a gospel sextet). The diversity in style is wonderful. It also means that the first night was used to bump off school groups to better balance the genres on the show. The first five and last five acts listed were the heats competing to move on.
Here's the opening number. It's hit or miss depending on who is singing in it. At least one thing's consistent with last year.
First up were Eleventh Hour. They chose to perform "Baby" by Justin Bieber. Even though a girl sang the lead, they lowered the key and let the lead sing halfway between Ethel Merman in Anything Goes and Christina Aguilera. They had good, clean harmonies, fun staging that didn't feel forced, and a lot of energy. I can't see them winning the contest in the end. They will, however, grow by leaps and bounds competing with far more experienced groups. The judges tongue-bathed them for elements I couldn't even hear: the bass and click-only beat-boxer.
On the Rocks decided to recreate that video performance with a lackluster rendition of "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga. I'm going to tell you why I don't like this group. First, their lead singer has major pitch problems when he comes out of riffs; he still chooses to do those riffs and throw everything off. Second, the judges all commented on the entire ensemble's pitch problems (which weren't as bad as the lead's), but said it didn't matter because they put on a show. Third, when you claim "[you're] not just a bunch of guys who can dance," you better be able to dance. That was painful to watch. Fourth, this group brought out some quasi-homophobic comments from Shawn Stockman (regarding boys singing a girl's song--disgusted was the vibe I got). Apparently "entertaining" is the new "singing well," as the judges just loved what they did.
Next came the music teachers (and one daughter) Groove for Thought. They performed a well-arranged rendition of "I Wish" by Stevie Wonder. Here's the problem with the group: they are stand and deliver singers. Someone on the production team is telling the contestants they have to dance this year and it's awkward. This group stands around a mic and kills their harmonies normally. Instead, they were forced to prance around in circles and look like they were being tortured on stage.
Pitch Slapped were given a horrible edit to suggest they were more entitled and elitist than The Whiffenpoofs [of Yale], which is always a bad omen on reality TV. They stupidly chose to do the bad Cobra Starship song "Good Girl Gone Bad." Had they done "Snakes on a Plane," they would have had a lot more to work with. "Good Girl Gone Bad" is an empty dance-rock song, meaning there's a beat, a pair of vocalists, and a breakdown section. It's empty. So was their performance.
Allegedly, this is the result of massive producer interference, as their lead vocalist was switched out to the more attractive tenor singing the lead on the show. It doesn't matter, however, as the problem is the arrangement, staging, and expectations the singers set with the reputation of Berklee. This is the full arrangement and it's not any better regardless of who is singing it. Here was one of the magical moments where Nicole Sherzinger pops into consciousness and says something insightful, essentially the same as my observation about the flat arrangement.
The final group in the first heat were the professionals, Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town. They did a wonderful rendition of "Save the Last Dance for Me." The entire presentation was dated, but that really doesn't matter when you put that many skilled musicians with that level of blend and control on stage. I could listen to this group for days. Too bad that because they are older they have no chance of winning with Sony helming the contest.
The five groups were brought onstage to learn their fate. The groups safe, in order, were Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town, Eleventh Hour, On the Rocks, and Groove for Thought. Pitch Slapped took their final bow to a song that proved how stuck up they were and left the show forever and ever. Good riddance.
The Whiffenpoofs [of Yale] opened up the second heat. The conductor of the group made the mistake of claiming Yale invented a capella music. I knew immediately what he meant, but the judges all gave him a hard time later for saying it. They sang their superb arrangement of Mika’s “Grace Kelly.” I’m going to put their performance this way. I’ve had students bring me a copy of that recording they burned off of YouTube and ask me how to start an a capella group. That’s how good this performance is. Their tenor’s falsetto is perfectly placed the entire performance. If they weren’t a collegiate group that will never, ever get their school’s permission to sign a recording contract, I’d say they’d win for sure.
Next were Men of Note. They did a wonderful arrangement of “For the Longest Time” by Billy Joel and were treated horribly by the judges. Their director, Christine Bass, is one of the best music teachers in New Jersey. I had the pleasure of working with her for two concerts when I was in high school and I’m still using the tricks and tips she taught me on my students. The criticism from the judges came from ignorance, not wisdom. While the group would have been better off developing their own arrangement, the sheet music edition they did (that I, too, have performed) was executed flawlessly as per every direction on the music, including tempo. If anything proves the show was scripted to get their “we don’t care who wins” final 3, it’s this.
Street Corner Symphony would rather drink alcohol than practice their music. It’s that kind of attitude that turns me away from casual a capella groups. They did “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and I thought they were just bland. The lead was especially weak and the arrangement was boring and predictable. Even the beat-boxer couldn’t keep it together, opting for sounds he obviously hasn’t practiced enough to come across as anything other than ridiculous. The judges, once again, like performance over vocal strength and praised them for everything I disliked about their presentation.
The Backbeats, aka The Ringers, were just wonderful. They tore apart Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy,” a rebuilt it into a beautiful, meaningful song. It wasn’t just a series of trite observations; it was an alto’s cry for independence. Bonus points are duly awarded for bringing back last season’s best beat-boxer, the girl from , now with Justin Bieber-approved bangs.
The last performance of the night came from Committed. They are church singers, which means they know when to hold back and when to push the vocal. This will help them immensely in the competition. My favorite part was their cold opening of pure Gospel harmonies. They slipped into a faster temp on “This Love” by Maroon 5 with an unnecessary beat-box backing because they already proved they were entertaining and modern without it. They killed it in the last twenty seconds and brought the house down. I can tell this group is far better than they showed in the first episode. They excite me.
The last five acts were brought onto the stage. I spoiled myself right before I watched the results so I can’t tell you what order they were named safe in. I can only sadly report that the better high school group, Men of Note, were sent packing because the judges were most likely instructed to cut one high school and one college group.
For the diversity check, we now have two collegiate groups (down from three), one high school group (down from two), one gospel group, one professional musician classic pop group, one professional musician pop group, one professional musician jazz group, and one southern rock group.
The show is far more polished than last year, though it lacks the charm and innocence I found appealing. The producers are forcing the contestants to dance, which puts all of the older and more traditional groups at a distinct disadvantage. Coupled with the obvious manipulation of the results and scripting of judges comments and I can honestly say I'm only in it for the music.