If there is one thing you learn at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), it’s that there are a lot of ways to wear a vest. The vest, you see, is part of the changing uniform of the a cappella group. While perfectly matching (and perfectly dorky) bow ties, khaki pants, and suit jackets were once the preferred aesthetic of a cappella and its innumerable male groups from across the Ivy League, the sound’s “cool” new look involves coordinating trends across a singular color palette and a renewed sense of individuality. There were more pleather skirts on stage at this past April’s ICCA Finals than there are at a Forever 21. And don’t even get me started on the University of Michigan G-Men, who wear numbered soccer jerseys while covering Alt-J and employing mouth percussionists so frighteningly guttural, you’ll swear there’s some sort of woodland mammal among their ranks.
Yes, you will see the crowd go wild for a clean-cut young man in kelly-green suspenders belting out his “Uptown Funk” solo, Moonwalking, and casually grinding like he’s Bruno Mars all the while — but at least now he’s got nearly 3,000 screams behind him. In the early 2000s, the ICCA Finals barely sold a tenth as many tickets — and mostly to the parents of the kids performing. Now Varsity Vocals, the organization that presents the event, can barely keep up with the demand. This year, the Finals nearly sold out New York’s Beacon Theatre in just a few hours’ time. Likewise, the number of teams competing in the ICCA has increased tenfold, from around 30 in its initial year (1996) to more than 300 in 2015. They call this the Pitch Perfect effect. Even a cursory glance around the “aca” world will show you that “the real-life Pitch Perfect” is a popular marketing strategy (see, for example, the tagline of Pop TV’s new reality show tailing ICCA competitors, Sing It On).
Released in the fall of 2012 by Universal Pictures, Pitch Perfect took a while to find its footing, much like “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) — everyone’s favorite member of the film’s fictional ICCA underdogs, the Barden University Bellas — when she’s asked to complete cardio training and opts instead for “horizontal running.” But by 2013, Pitch Perfect had grossed more than $100 million internationally, spawned a Top 10 hit in “Cups” (a reworking of the Carter Family’s “When I’m Gone”), established a legacy as the millennial generation’s answer to Grease, become a bona fide franchise — and made the pun-filled subculture of a cappella seem sort of badass for the first time, well, ever.
“You think, ‘Well, how come a cappella needed a film to really launch it into where it’s at now, with a broad place in culture?’” Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 producer Paul Brooks says. “It’s always sounded great, it’s always been a thing, but back in the day it had a slimy, nervy, nerdy, corduroy jacket, Ivy League vibe about it — or a perceived vibe. That’s been blown out of the water now. Also, the reality is that any a cappella group that’s really competing was, and is, extremely good. I think part of [the genre’s] rise is, the quality of the work is getting better as well.”
With a cappella suddenly becoming “cool” — as the ICCA Finals’ hashtag-obsessed hosts continually reminded the crowd — the aca world is taking more risks than ever in order to keep the attention of its new fans. The question is, will these fans stick with a cappella after its current “moment” in mainstream pop culture has passed?
“I feel like it could go either one of two ways right now,” says Myles Nuzzi, a junior at USC, a baritone, and the president of four-time ICCA champs (including 2015), the SoCal VoCals. “A cappella’s getting this huge hype right now, and this is the peak. For all we know, in two years, no one could care anymore. Or, it’s going to go the opposite direction, which is that it’s going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
With Pitch Perfect 2 opening this Friday (March 15), it’s worth exploring how a cappella arrived at this crossroads in the first place.