Pentatonix

Is it over already?

The hardest thing to believe as we end this marathon, Gigantor-sized season is that this show once took place over an incredibly brief two week period. Not just once, actually. It did it twice. And we were satisfied… Shocking.

This season was huge, but still felt just right. Did it ever feel bloated? Once or twice. But I loved having more Sing-Off in my life. Hell, I’m a greedy guy. No I’m not ready to send my favorite show away! Yes, I want a Christmas special!

In the end, has the grand experiment – to expand the Sing-Off and infect America with vocal band fever – been a resounding success? No. Extending the Sing-Off to a full season and doubling the competitors was not, ultimately, a ratings coup. Far from it. The show floundered outside of its holiday sweet-spot.

But in the beautiful world that only exists in my head where the only thing that matters is that I’m having fun… in that world, this was great! I think this show did a great job of cultivating and appealing to its fan-base. And if it didn’t, it did a great job of cultivating and appealing to me. More, it gave us (or just me) more content (and better groups) without it ever feeling like we were getting filler. No one likes filler. As a matter a fact it felt like, without Nicole blabbering, every moment on the show was important.

That all ended last night of course. The finale show is a bit of a stretch for any vote-based reality show. Since all the performances that actaully counted toward the vote tally are already fin,there is an implicit admission that none of this matters. “This is all pointless and ceremonial,” they stop just short of saying. “We know you just want to see us crown the winner, but first, here’s Nick Lechey singing!” (Okay, actually, that was a pretty good performance, but still, you see my point.)

So rather then focus on the pats-on-the-back and pointless victory laps last night, let’s look back on what has been a really good season of splendid vocal band competition.

Delilah: No one should forget what Delilah did this season – They turned what had been a previously shrill and untenable category in the competition (the all-female group) into a legitimately thrilling, dramatic, and fierce feather in this show’s cap. Recall that these ladies came out roaring with an innovative take on Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” and that every two weeks or so, they reminded us of that brilliance. They were this show’s original frontrunner, its first marketable mascot in Season 3, and its most aggressively pure act in some ways. I’m less enamored of their version of “Dream On” now that it’s been in my ear for a few weeks, but I still think that, even as they faced elimination, they put on a tremendous show with that song, Danielle absolutely shredding that vocal as they went out in a blaze of glory.

What was impressive about this group (aside from their amazing voices) was that they brought a uniquely marketable identity to the girl group formula. They were “girl power” without being condescending or cutesy about it. Their defining characteristic seemed to be a self-serious and aggressive on-stage presence that said “Yeah, the women are in charge on this stage.” (And awesome vocals. Seriously, the girl who sings bass! Whoa.) And yet they were never too aggressive. In video packages they were fun (okay, the two blondes were actually pretty annoying), during judging they became Sara’s little acolytes, her “girls,” but they kept enough of an edge (a perfectly manicured edge) that calling them “the girls” would always seem condescending.

No, they weren’t Sara’s “girls.” They were a legitimate threat, and they squandered their potential when they tried to be the cute girls, Sara’s girls, and go retro with performances like “Heat Wave.” Still, one of my lasting impressions of this season will be how impressed I was, and how taken the Sing-Off fan-base appeared to be, by this all-female acapella group.

North Shore: Delilah wasn’t the only group to benefit from a vanilla Bruno Mars track. The good thing about a Bruno Mars track: it takes on interpretation well. The classy guys in North Shore didn’t have to do much to make the “Lazy Song” work in their doo wop wheel-house, but when they put it on, boy, did that song transform. What sounded annoying and entitled coming from Mars sounded adorable coming from a guy who looked like your Uncle Frankie. North Shore managed to be more fun, more adorable, and less “this-is-a-history-lesson-so-listen-up” than past “legacy” groups and, heck, they started to seem like a legitimate contender. In retrospect, they should have stuck around longer.

A College Acapella Group Really Can’t Win This Thing: Not unless every other group is completely devoid of unique style and flair. This season made apparent that the “acapella fleet” thing, where you throw seventeen guys or guys and girls on the stage and hope for something to stick, is wonderfully entertaining much of the time but is not a formula for winning The Sing-Off. I think the main concern for a group like The Yellowjackets, Vocal Point or even the Dartmouth Aires (who I did a complete 360 on this season, I’ll admit) is that you can’t imagine them being major recording artists.

Why would they do it? I mean aside from the money. Can you imagine these 16 guys who used to be associated with a university, in perpetuity, keeping you entertained? Straight No Chaser did it, but they’re a novelty act, and this show has higher pretensions (probably unfounded, but whatever) than novelty.

Would you buy the album? Probably not. If you did it would be because of Michael’s amazing voice and the guys backing him up would be an afterthought. And that’s just the way it is with these big groups of doofy college guys. A Nota will always beat a Bubs, a Committed will always take out an On the Rocks. Why? Because it doesn’t bode well that the college groups are so closely associated with their universities. It makes it impossible to see these groups outside of BYU or Dartmouth. It hurts. But there was one group who managed to escape that collegiate notion and could have legitimately taken the title…

Afro Blue: Afro-Blue never just seemed like the group of goofy kids from Howard. This was a group small enough and unique enough that you could see them all going on to record something together, something you would buy. Unlike a larger group, they didn’t have one star and a bunch of random backup spots you could fill in with any other singing goofball. They were defined not by their loopy stage presence or tongue-in-cheek attitude; what defined them was a record-ready sophistication and a creative an innovative approach to popular music. I still think they deserved to finish second in this competition.

But what did them in? Well, with this group, what initially seemed “cool” began to feel cold. I think this is what the judges meant when they destroyed Afro Blue’s mojo by criticizing them for “overthinking.” Aside from an unwise decision to insert the National Anthem into “American Girl,” Afro Blue never overthought anything. They thought everything out to the same degree, but as the week’s went on, their restrained version of laid-back cool began to read as them lacking in fire or passion.

One Afro-Blue performance was pretty much any Afro-Blue performance, and that innate professionalism but inability to seem, how you say, delightfully off-the-rails or on-the-edge resulted in performances that were beautiful but, well, boring on television. (“We Belong Together,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Need You Now,” the “Fly” master-mix.)

Pentatonix: The five young singers in Pentatonix mastered what Afro Blue never could – they were eternally cool on the stage, but their sense of invention and particularly their use of movement in both arranging and choreography kept them delightfully off-kilter while Afro-Blue settled into some Manhattan Transfer twilight zone.

Pentatonix was never not the front-runner in this competition. From the moment they opened their mouths in Week 2 and made clear that they could totally take Delilah in a throwdown, this group never once let up on the gas even a little. They were a super-fast convertible that watches all the dinky little sedans get smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror until it’s almost a joke to say they’re all on the same road or that you could classify them both as “cars.”

To put this in perspective: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singing reality show so completely dominated from start to finish by just one group. Not on Idol, not on America’s Got Talent, not anywhere. Early talents usually flame out (Casey Abrams, Delilah, Melinda Doolittle) or fail to get quite as many votes as you thought they would (Adam Lambert, Susan Boyle). Also, if there are clear frontrunners, these shows usually have a head-to-head narrative. These shows only exist to garner ratings for the drama inherent in a situation like the one created when two juggernauts like Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken or the Davids (Cook and Archuleta) are evenly matched. Look at “The Voice.” Everyone tried to give “The Voice” some suspense by turning Dia Frampton into a legitimate contender for the crown even though she never really came close to holding a candle to Javier Colon.

But still, in spite of Javier’s dominance, that felt like a race because people wanted to make it a race. Any attempt to make this season of The Sing-Off seem like anything more than the acting out of a foregone conclusion – any attempt to add some suspenseful narrative – fell flat because Pentatonix was just that good. But not just that good… they were that perfect for the show, that beloved by the in-studio audience, and that incredibly photogenic on national television. Every time they were on the screen, they were more captivating than you ever imagined this show could be. Even better, five members meant only five distinct personalities to keep up with and in turn that meant only five people to fall in love with (as opposed to, say, seventeen).

Falling in love was easy for many people, and, even for something as niche and small-scale as The Sing-Off audience is, it’s impressive that such a resounding, deafening consensus could be found. To encounter a performance quite this dominating you have to go to sports. And not even college football this time. LSU is good, but LSU is not as far from Alabama, Oklahoma State or Boise State as Pentatonix was from its nearest competitors.

Pentatonix are the Packers. Trying to compare Pentatonix to Urban Method and the Aires is like looking at Baltimore and San Francisco and saying, “Yeah, they’re darn good football teams too… but if that’s what a darn good football team looks like, than the Packers are barely even a football team anymore. They’re not quite superhuman, but there’s basically no point of comparison. You need a new classification. A new subspecies.” That’s how awesome Pentatonix was. That’s how dominant these kids from Arlington, Texas proved to be.

Urban Method: And yet I would argue that Pentatonix was not the most compelling group on this season of the Sing-Off. A villain is always more compelling then the white-hatted hero, and, over the ten or so weeks this show was on the air, this group of most-definitely talented but also sort of bland studio professionals became a sign-post among the fan community for judge coddling and took on a dimension of “They’re still here, really?!?” that essentially reached hysterics by the time the finale rolled around and Urban Method found themselves as one of the final three groups.

Urban Method was clearly in NBC’s pimp-spot from the beginning, and the show never stopped touting them as some kind of acapella revolution, the inevitable merging of rap and acapella music that absolutely everyone in America had been jonesing for for decades. Except no one had been… And if anyone out there actually had been inclined to such a craving, Urban Method was not the group that was finally putting that baby to rest.

If anything, Urban Method was much better when they weren’t rapping, weren’t hip-hop posturing, weren’t trying to live up the show’s expectation of them as this new future of acapella music – the group had some genuinely sweet and funny moments on the show when they let loose and had a little fun on funk classics like “It’s My Thing” and “Dance to the Music,” and they displayed a sharp sense of humor on their legitimately entertaining, humorous cover of Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” Unfortunately, this more playful, less hip-hop centric image ran straight in the face of the show’s forced notion that Urban Method was revolutionizing music by introducing us all to some serious “rapapella” (ugh…), and so we kept being told to like sleepy performances of pop hits repeated exactly as they had been sung on the pop charts only months before. “Airplanes”? Snooze… “Love The Way You Lie”? Snore. I think the group did give one of their better performances on Kanye’s “All of the Lights,” but that’s such a phenomenal song with such great peaks and valleys that, truly, you’d have to be a dullard to mess that up.

Was Urban Method all bad? No. I like Mike as a rapper, though I’d take many of the show’s other soloists over him in a draft. The girls did start to show some charisma in the later weeks even if that charisma could only seemingly be expressed through pained banshee shrieks. And in later weeks, Urban Method’s Pentatonix imitation, where they put original spins on songs and took some real risks, actually began to look less like a strategy and more like an actual inkling towards creativity. It was refreshing.

The fan outcry that they got as far as they did was largely unfounded. I think, in the end, the group was about even with the non-Pentatonix playing field. They should’ve probably gone home in the seventh week when they were really struggling, but they were about even with those teams and it was nice to see the group come together and innovate a little.

But, to ask the other question on everyone’s minds, did we in fact see the rapapella revolution, the changing of the guard in music? One look at Urban Method trying (and failing miserably) to make “Stereo Hearts” (a song I actually like quite a bit) work on the Sing-Off stage should answer that question pretty resoundingly – gosh no. If anyone changed the guard, it’s the daredevil innovators in Pentatonix, but, truthfully, if you’re hoping for big mainstream success for that intrepid acapella troupe… don’t get your hopes up…

But it’s okay. We few, we stalwart Sing-Off faithful still have the Christmas special to fawn over! Let’s relish it while it lasts.

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