When I went to college the first time I was in an acapella group, which is basically the coolest thing you can do in your lifetime. I learned a few things about the acapella community and hierarchy through this experience. As might be readily obvious, the “high point” for a singer who wanted to get into acapella was to make it into the all-male group or groups. Full of clean cut collegiate men who know how to sing, girls who loved music, men, or both would come out in droves for the best all-male group. The co-ed groups struggled for an audience comparatively, because the sort of girls who would go to an acapella show to find a cute guy with a hot voice presumed the girls in a co-ed group were already dating the guys. This was not always untrue, but still a fairly biased conclusion. This is not pure observation or chauvinistic projection, either. It’s something that was reaffirmed during the screams when the male groups took the stage (the silence was deafening in comparison if it was an event with more than one group), or when you looked out at your own audience and noticed how few men were in the seats. It’s something that was constantly being analyzed and discussed among groups. Women simply were bigger fans of acapella. It’s a discussion that is probably still being had today at universities across the country, with the same results.
As for all-female groups, if BU was any indication, they seem to proliferate as more and more women get denied by more and more groups. The three female groups on campus were pretty markedly differentiated by their age corresponding to their talent. The second oldest group, so the lore went, started out of women who couldn’t cut it in the established groups. The newest was still new enough that people claimed the same bad blood was in the founder. College acapella is a beautiful yet totally weird and catty place. I can only imagine the ugly bits are all the more present in the post-Glee era.
Quite honestly, my voice is pretty weak at worst and quirky at best (though that has not stopped me from foisting it on the public). This did not go unnoticed. The all-male group passed me over, as did most of the co-ed ones. I got into Bostoniensis, probably the lowest profile co-ed one at the time (we probably only beat out the two newer all-girl groups in the unspoken but much-felt hierarchy). Our name was neither a pun nor a musical term, which underscored how little respect the group had. My successful audition, I am not overly ashamed to admit, was quite honestly due to two key factors: I was a man, and I was a tenor. Most male singers seemed to want the Dear Abbeys (the male group) or nothing, so as one trickled down the hierarchy, fewer dudes showed up. For my first semester, I was the only male tenor. Ergo I was valuable. Though the female tenor who was picked up along with me was even more so, since she had an amazing smoky voice simply made for being pressed onto wax. I’m borderline competent. She, I hope, is making albums somewhere.
We had a pretty good semester, to be honest. We had obtained an excellent arrangement of “Drops of Jupiter” which helped bring us more current and gave us some connections to more new pieces, and by second semester we were growing our talent. At the same time, a couple of our members had started working on an arrangement for this song. There was a fairly simple one soon enough, which was my first and only solo with the group (alongside a powerful brassy female backing vox).
I’m not sure I would have loved this song without hearing it in this context, but it was possibly the most cathartic musical moment of my life. The song is vocal driven, even if not made for a virtuoso. It’s musically subtle, though well layered, so the vocalist can be heard over the backdrop even at his most hushed. That musical quietude is even more important when the chorus demands a blaring, heartfelt delivery. The vocal feels naked, and singing it sent chills through me. The arrangement was restrained and fragile, all the more so for an amateur though solid transcription. It felt hugely sophisticated, especially against a repertoire that was built around Rent’s “Seasons of Love”.
We debuted the song at a benefit one of the sororities had for suicide awareness. It was a bit of an awkward combo, we noted as we got together for drinks after (more fun facts: acapella groups are pretty notorious drinkers), but I wasn’t going to say anything. I was just stoked to have a damned solo. Even one which required of me the lyrics “ba tsss-boom ba-da-da dah dah.” Those glorious, freeing moments of wailing out whatever I had held deep inside me were worth hours of nonsense syllables.
When I left BU that year, I still came up regularly for the parties, and rehearsed with the group until fall auditions. I felt like part of a family. It should say a lot about my social prowess, then, that as close as one feels with a group of people you rehearse with, sing with, drink with, sing while drunk with, etc, I’ve kept in touch with a whole none of them, despite trying. Shame, that… those were some of my most “together” moments of my life at that point. Rusted Root wasn’t the key to that togetherness, but they sure made it a memory I can still feel in my gut. It’s a gasp of air ready to be expelled with all the steady, pristine force one can muster.
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