How ‘Pitch Perfect’ Helped A Cappella Hit a High Note in the Mainstream

The Bellas in the midst of a riff-off with the Green Bay Packers, et al in 'Pitch Perfect 2.'
The Bellas in the midst of a riff-off with the Green Bay Packers, et al in ‘Pitch Perfect 2.’

A cappella groups had been performing, sans instrumental accompaniment of course, on Ivy League campuses for more than 100 years by the time Pitch Perfect premiered. Collegiate groups typically run eight to 16 members, while professional groups are more like four to seven people; mixed-gender groups are as common as all-male groups, while all-female groups are a rarer to see, at least among top-ranked teams.

Founded in 1909, The Yale Whiffenpoofs were among the first a cappella groups and remain the longest-running collegiate ensemble. They appeared on Saturday Night Live, had their signature song (“The Whiffenpoof Song”) covered by Sinatra, and were parodied by the first female collegiate a cappella group in 1936 (Smith College’s Smiffenpoofs). Around that same time, Barbershop music — which is marked by its four-part vocal harmonies — emerged in the mainstream and experienced a high in the 1940s, though a cappella as an unadorned vocal technique is the oldest form of music that exists (Gregorian chant, anyone?).

A number of musical cultures had a hand in establishing a cappella’s contemporary style, which highlights complex vocal harmonization as well as emulates instrumental sounds via mouth only. These reference points include but are not limited to hip-hop beatboxing and other forms of vocal percussion, barbershop quartets, African call and response, doo-wop, South African Mbube (as first established by Solomon Linda’s 1939 folk song “Mbube,” later adapted into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), and pop music, where a cappella finds the bulk of its current material.

A cappella’s relationship with pop music has been mutually advantageous over the years, as Mickey Rapkin points out in his 2009 book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, which served as the inspiration for the film franchise. A few highlights include: Manhattan Transfer’s 1981 Grammy win for “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square,” Billy Joel’s 1984 hit “The Longest Time” (which actually includes a string bass), Paul Simon’s 1986 classic album Graceland (which highlighted the talents of South African Isicathamiya-style vocal group Lady Blacksmith Mambazo), Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 No. 1 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Rockapella’s Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? success in the early ‘90s, and Boyz II Men’s 1991 No. 1 hit (a cover of the Motown classic) “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” And though aca has never been about making individual pop stars, a few — ranging from John Legend to Art Garfunkel to Sara Bareilles — cut their teeth singing in collegiate groups.

Though the boy bands of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s flirted with a cappella techniques, this era was all about innovation from inside aca. Producer Bill Hare, whom Rapkin refers to as the Dr. Dre of contemporary a cappella recording, had changed the game by being the first to mic individual voices while recording, and to mic singers as one would instruments if they are indeed singing instrumental parts. The influence of Hare’s first attempt at these new techniques, as heard on the Stanford Mendicants’ 1989 album Aquapella, would sink in more and more throughout the ’90s and ’00s. With 2003’s Code Red, the Tufts Beelzebubs took what their group’s forefathers had established with 1991’s influential Foster Street one step further with regards to instrumental emulation through voice: the group applied identical production techniques to the originals they covered, spawning eerily similar sounds.

Still, a cappella had not experienced a mainstream surge in years when Rapkin — then a senior editor at GQ and a former member of Cornell’s oldest a cappella group, Cayuga’s Waiters — was first approached by a book agent.

“The only thing I wanted to write a book about was college a cappella groups, and he thought it was a terrible idea,” says Rapkin, who went on to release his second book, Theater Geek, in 2011. “I was fascinated by the idea that a cappella was the coolest thing in college, but as soon as you graduated, you never wanted to admit it. Of course, now it’s a totally different world.”

Still, Rapkin sold the book in the fall of 2006 to Gotham Books and reported it during the 2006-2007 school year, when he tailed a few groups that would later become the loose inspiration for the Bellas and the Treblemakers of Pitch Perfect: The Hullabahoos of UVA (“the upstart bad boys”), Divisi of University of Oregon (essentially, the Barden Bellas IRL), and the aforementioned Beelzebubs (the old guard). Pitch Perfect co-star, producer, and now director Elizabeth Banks and her producer husband Max Handelman — both U Penn alums who had been aware of the a cappella scene there — got their hands on Rapkin’s book proposal and kept tabs on him as he wrote and reported. “The two of them [Banks and Handelman] are a force of nature, and they totally saw the book when very few people did,” Rapkin recalls. When Banks was in New York filming the 2008 Eddie Murphy movie Meet Dave, Rapkin met with her for lunch and discussed “the beloved absurdity of a cappella groups singing Justin Timberlake music without instruments, and how undergraduates on campus would treat these singers like rock stars.”

Rapkin remained skeptical that his book would not only make it to the big screen, but that the film would become a success. It took a visit to the set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to convince him of the latter. “The ‘transpo guys’ on set were these grizzled, Louisiana dudes,” Rapkin explains. “They could not have been further from the audience that people would expect for this movie [indeed, 55 percent of those who saw Pitch Perfect opening weekend were under 25, and 81 percent female]. They asked me what I do on set, and I explained that my book is being adapted into this movie. And these guys start oozing with sincerity. They fawn over the actors and say, ‘We really want this movie to be huge.’ That’s when I knew it would be something.”

By the time Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect was released in 2009, optioned as source material for the movie, went into production, premiered in late 2012, and took its subsequent victory lap in 2013, Glee had experienced its rise and fall in the zeitgeist. Though Ryan Murphy’s Fox smash — which finally ended this past March — focused on competitive high school show choir instead of collegiate a cappella, the series “reminded people of the joy of singing,” Rapkin says. (He rightfully adds that Glee’s “humor is very different” from Pitch Perfect, whose funny and bawdy screenplay by 30 Rock and New Girl writer/producer Kay Cannon is a big part of its appeal to non-aca fans; see also: Rebel Wilson’s physical comedy acumen.) With a record-breaking 207 entries on the Hot 100, Glee also blurred the lines between on-screen fiction and real-world hits. Pitch Perfect, not to mention Nashville and Empire, would reap the benefits of this model.

Propelled by “Cups,” the folksy number Anna Kendrick uses to try out for the Bellas, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack has sold 1.3 million copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Cups,” meanwhile, has sold nearly 6.5 million downloads worldwide, according to Universal Music. Though the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack, released just this week, hasn’t spawned much in way of a hit yet, it took the first film’s soundtrack nearly a year to reach critical mass.

The original’s music supervisors, Julia Michels and Julianne Jordan, returned for what Brooks calls a “very collaborative and fun” experience of plowing through tons of potential hits for inclusion in the groups’ arrangements. (Some big gets this time: Muse’s “Uprising” for competing German group Das Sound Machine, Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” for the Green Bay Packers (!!!), Snoop Dogg’s general on-screen presence.) From there, a cappella heavy-hitters like Beelzebubs alums Ed Boyer and Deke Sharon, who respectively helmed the aforementioned Code Red and Foster Street albums, help to lead the musical direction, arrangement, and production of the movie’s many covers. (Sharon, it’s worth mentioning, also established CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society), in the early ’90s; the organization remains integral in the community, presenting various awards and programs.)