Perfect Pitch: The Drama of Collegiate A Capella

Scott Simon talks with Mickey Rapkin about his new book, "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory," which weaves together the drama of three groups trying to claim glory without instruments.

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(Soundbite of song, "Yeah")

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This song changed the world. Well, a world, the world of a capella. It's Usher's "Yeah," and it was sung on stage by Divisi, the women's a capella group from the University of Oregon. They wowed a crowd at Lincoln Center with this performance in 2005. Many felt they were robbed of that year's International Championship for Collegiate A Cappella, ICCA if you please.

It's just one of many dramas that play out in the new book "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory" by Mickey Rapkin. The book weaves together the stories of three a capella groups during the 2006-2007 academic year and takes us toward the ICCA competition, where Divisi tries to claim the title.

Mr. Rapkin joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICKEY RAPKIN (Author, "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory"): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What was it about that song that shook up the a capella world?

Mr. RAPKIN: I think it was just Divisi comes out on stage at Lincoln Center, and they're an all-female a capella group, and all of a sudden they're singing Usher's "Yeah," and they're dancing, and they're sounding great and looking great, and it was just this thing you hadn't seen before about a female a capella group who could really rock out like that and really make an R&B song their own, and people just sort of stood up at attention, and it just changed the way people looked at what you could do in competition.

SIMON: There was a controversy over the judging, too.

Mr. RAPKIN: Yeah, there was this - basically, everyone in the audience thought Divisi had run away with it, which what a shock that was for a female a capella group singing "Yeah" on stage at Lincoln Center, like they'd walked away with it, and the judging comes back, and they'd gotten second place, and they couldn't believe it, and they were devastated, and they were looking at the score sheets, and they were basically blackballed by the one female judge, of all things, from Julliard, who didn't say anything very specific in her comments about the performance but was the only judge who didn't place them first.

Basically, everyone - she placed them fourth, and after that year, the people running the ICCA changed the rules so they would - basically like the Olympics. They would throw out the top score and the bottom score so that no one judge could affect the outcome again like that. So it really did change the competition.

SIMON: And to make this review of the a capella landscape really interesting, there's money to be made, isn't there?

Mr. RAPKIN: Oh, there's big money. I mean, groups like the Krokodiloes from Harvard could make $300,000 in a school year. The Hullabahoos did a big gig at the 2004 Republican National Convention, and they made $13,000 in three days. I mean, really unbelievable amounts of money floating around these groups.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about the Bubs now, if we could.

Mr. RAPKIN: Sure, of course. The Tufts Beelzebubs were founded 45 years ago. Their founder actually went on to fight in the Vietnam War, and he told this amazing story about how when he left campus, he was on the USS Taluga off the South China Seas, and he was waiting to heard word from campus to see his group that he started still existed, and one day, he gets this manila envelope on the deck of the USS Taluga, and it's a reel-to-reel tape that the group recorded to let him know that he's still around.

I mean, they just have this incredible, rich history, and actually a really rich history of their recordings changing the shape of collegiate a capella.

SIMON: Would I be wrong to compare them to the Yankees a little bit? I mean, they are considered kind of the preeminent group.

Mr. RAPKIN: Everyone in the country sort of looks of them to set the agenda for recording. A few years ago, they recorded this album called "Code Red" that was so imitative and so - basically so worked on in the studio and so produced that their a capella recording sounded indistinguishable from the original tunes, and that sort of marked a shift in the recording community in a capella.

And now, they'll spend $30,000 recording an album, phenomenal sums of money for a collegiate group, especially - I mean, there are Indie bands that couldn't come close to spending 30 grand on an album.

SIMON: Let's listen to the Bubs for a moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Mr. Roboto")

Unidentified Men (Singers, The Beelzebubs): (Singing) Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. Mata ah-oo hima de. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. Himitsu wo shiri tai.

SIMON: These guys, when they go on tour, can be real sex symbols.

Mr. RAPKIN: Yeah, I mean, that's I think the funniest part about collegiate a capella is maybe if you just hear about it in your mind, you think oh, it's going to be glee clubs, and it's going to, I don't know, really quiet and conservative, and it's nothing like that at all. I mean, the front rows at these shows are freshmen girls screaming, just huge, huge reactions.

SIMON: Let me ask you about University of Virginia, the a capella scene, because as you've noted, it's very rich.

Mr. RAPKIN: Yeah, I mean, there was this incredible day, this big orientation event on the lawn at UVA called Rotunda Sing where 4,000 students will turn out to watch these guys since Justin Timberlake covers without instruments.

There's three all-male groups at UVA. The Hullabahoos wear robes., the Academical Village People wear those gas-station shirts, and the Virginia Gentlemen, of course, wear khakis and ties. And there's an R&B group, and there's a Christian group, and all the groups are set up to hold auditions, and you just see kids going from room to room to audition for all the different groups.

SIMON: Let's play something, if we can, from UVA. It's called "One."

(Soundbite of song, "One")

Unidentified Men (Singers): (Singing) Have you come here for forgiveness? Have you come to raise the dead? Have you come here to play Jesus? (Unintelligible).

SIMON: This was your favorite, wasn't it?

Mr. RAPKIN: I think that was probably my favorite performance of the year. I mean to sit - those two guys, Patrick Lundquist(ph) and Brendan Mason(ph), just have huge, huge voices, and the song is fantastic, the U2 song, and you could just see in the audience, they sort of sit up and sit in a different way when the Hullabahoos start to sing that song. There's just such this kind of visceral response to that sound.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RAPKIN: There's a lot of guys, especially in the Hullabahoos, who never sang before in their life, and then they just come to campus, and they see the excitement about collegiate a capella, and they say I want to be a part of that. And they do it, and they love it, but they're not classically trained musicians.

SIMON: A capella's not portable through your life, at least not so far.

Mr. RAPKIN: Well, there is that feeling, that sort of graduation, that your music career has an expiration date.

SIMON: Does that make the experience a little more poignant?

Mr. RAPKIN: I think it does, entirely, I mean, in the same way that you always look back on college as this time of big promise, and everything is the future, and everything is what's going to come next and how much excitement there is in that. I think you feel the same way when you look back on you're a capella days, and isn't it nice that you have those incredible memories, and it's just sort of a natural progression in life.

SIMON: Mr. Rapkin, what song do you think we ought to go out on?

Mr. RAPKIN: I think maybe the Beelzebubs' "Come Sail Away." It closed their most recent album.

SIMON: Mickey Rapkin, senior editor for GQ, author of the new book, "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory." Thank you so much.

Mr. RAPKIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Come Sail Away")

Unidentified Man (Singers, The Beelzebubs): (Singing) I thought that were angels, but to my surprise, we climbed aboard their starship and headed for the stars. Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me. Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me. Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me. Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me. (Unintelligible).

SIMON: Well, this is WEEKEND EDITION.

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