The Sing Off

I love a cappella music. I dated a guy in college with an amazing bass voice who introduced me to the genre. There is just something about the harmonies of the human voice that rocks my socks. When I heard a segment about the show “The Sing Off” on NBC, on the radio, I literally dropped everything and ran for the Tivo® remote

I was richly rewarded. In case you were wrapped up in the holiday frenzy and missed it, the Sing Off was the latest iteration of judged musical performance shows. NBC selected 8 a capella groups from around the country to compete for $100,000 and a Sony Music recording contract.

The groups were very diverse in age, race and background. Some were college groups, one was a group of young adults from Omaha and one was a group of middle aged moms from Baltimore, Maryland. The judges were Shawn Stockman from Boyz II Men, Nicole Sherzinger from the Pussycat Dolls and Ben Folds.

The performances on this show were just amazing. The judges were reasonable with the exception of Sherzinger. Every time she opened her mouth, I just cringed. Stockman and Folds had intelligent praise, and constructive criticism. I didn’t always agree with them, but at least I respected what they had to say. Sherzinger, giggled and cooed her way through every round of feedback. She added nothing to the panel. My guess is she’s a Sony recording artist who needed the PR.

The first group to go was Face , an all male “rockapella” group from Boulder Colorado. I thought they were good and liked their interpretation of BonJovi’s Living on a Prayer, but someone’s gotta be first right?

Next went Solo, the group of young adults from Omaha trying to make a better life for themselves. One of their members was a homeless woman. I know this because NBC included the obligatory dramatic background segment on each group. Meh. I feel for the woman and I’m glad they are taking steps towards a better life, but I wished the show focused more on the signing.

Next to leave was Noteworthy, an all girl group from Brigham Young University. These ladies jammed, but I had to agree with the judges that at times girl groups can sound tinny. Still, they had sass without oversexualization (duh, their are Mormons) and I liked them.

That left Nota, The Beelzebubs, Voices of Lee, Maxx Factor, and the SoCals. The SoCals are a group of alumni from the SoCal VoCals at USC. Their dramatic flair was Kelly, a perky blonde with a great voice, who suffers from a type of acid reflux that directly impacts her vocal cords. They had pizazz and great stage presence, but they too had some less than harmonious moments. Still, I was sad to see them go as the group exuded personality on stage.

The last group to leave before the finale, was Maxx Factor. Maxx Factor is four moms form Baltimore Maryland who have apparently made a name for themselves in the world of competitive barbershop singing (who knew?). Of all the sub-genres of a cappella (yes, it does have sub-genres), barbershop is my second least favorite (beat boxing being my first). These ladies made a valiant effort to blent their quartet style with mainstream a cappella, but it never gelled for me. Their interpretation of Taylor Swift’s Love Song, left me cold. However their swan song rendition of Leavin’ On a Jet Plane was awesome. I think they should stick to their strengths.

That left Nota, The Beelzebubs and Voices of Lee for the show’s finale. The judges said their piece and the final decision was left to America. I meant to vote, but truthfully, I liked all three groups. Had I voted, I would have picked the Beelzebubs because the were consistently tight, they had just an amazing stage presence and had a lot of diverse talent in the gorup.

The Voices of Lee blended well and this is the one time I agreed with Nicole Sherzinger, when she called them the a choir of angels. There was a bit of a kerfluffle among the judges abot VOL’s intrepretation of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. I liked it fine, but Sherzinger and Stockton found it lacking power. Folds said it best, when he said he wasn’t so tied to the original and that VOL’s understated version did the song justice.

The Beelzebubs hail from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. They are the quintessential college a capella group. Throughout the show, their performances were unique, captivating, musically tight and aesthetically pleasing. Their repetoir is also very diverse. The covered, everything from the Beatles and the Who to the Black Eyed Peas. All with charm and pizazz.

Nota is a group of 6 men from Puerto Rico with strong voices and a gift for infusing their performances with a latin feel in a way that made you want to bop right along with them. Their version of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz knocked my socks off and Down by Jay Sean was like crack for my ears. While these guys are good singers, I thought they lacked the stage presence of the other two finalists.

That brings us to the finale. Each group had an opportunity to sing with a celebrity. In reality, each group acted as back up for the celebrity. Voices of Lee sang Pocket Full of Sunshine with Natasha Beddingfield. I thought they could have made better use of VOL, but it was a nice performance. The Beelzebubs sang You Don’t Own Me with Nicole Sherzinger and this my friends is where Sherzinger redeemed herself. She may not be eloquent, but dat girl can SING!! The Bubs ate it up and hammed it up. It was a nice pairing and a strong interpretation.

Nota sang Tracks of my Tears with Smokey Robinson. To my way of thinking this was the weakest of performances. Nota had the vocal chops, but lets face it, Robinson while a legend, is not in his prime anymore so Nota had to restrain themselves and they just couldn’t pull off the moves of the miracles. Not so much a bad reflection on Nota as the show’s producers. Bad choice.

The last show also featured 3 ensemble numbers the opener, was a version of U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Lookin’ For and was a zesty kick-off to the show. In the middle, there was a Christmas number with all three groups and announcer-boy Nick Lachey. Lachey still has his vocal chops, and it was catchy. The best part was the fake snow coating the singers and falling in their mouths. Yuck!! The last ensemble number featured all three groups and human noise maker Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin is just amazing. The sounds he gets out of his body are just remarkable and the groups all appeared enthralled. The result was an up beat little ditty that built up nicely to the revelation of the two finalists.

Announcer Boy shook off the fake snow from the Christmas number to resume his duties as staller of time. Eventually, we learned that the finalists were Nota and The Beelzebubs.

After a commercial break, both groups came back with Ben Folds on piano (huh???) and sang the 70’s anthem, Why Can’t We Be Friends. They all looked like they were having fun, but I would have preferred they stick to the vocals only rule that made the competition what it was. Instead it felt like the producers had a specific song in mind then found a way to accommodate it. Boo hiss.

Then came the final agonizing moments before the winner was crowned. I won’t keep you in suspense. The winner was Nota.

As I said, I would have voted for the Beelzebubs as much for the reasons noted above as for sentimentality. I saw their predecessors perform in the late 80’s and early 90’s and they are from Boston, my hometown for 17 years. I am nothing if not sentimental.

Let’s put sentimentality aside for a moment. Shall we? Instead, allow me to indulge my cynical side. Mike Rowe from Discovery TVs Dirty Jobs has said their is no such thing as Reality TV and I whole heartedly agree with him. The simple introduction of a camera adds a dimension that to my way of thinking precludes reality.

The final prize included cash, but it also included something more lasting, a recording contract with Sony Music. Sony is in the business of making money. Nota, has the vocal talent, but lacks some of the polish and stage presence that the Beelzebubs or Voices of Lee have. Clearly the guys have the basic skills in those areas, and with coaching and practice, they can really shine. Nota also comes without strings (other than family commitments). Both the Beelzebubs and Voices of Lee are tied to universities. I’d bet there are trademark and copyright issues with the names. Not mention that those groups are both at least double the size of Nota and made up a college students who are tied down by things like GPAs and final exams. Those tend to get in the way of things like constant performing and PR junkets. From a purely business sense, Nota is an easy choice. Lucky for Sony, they are the group America picked.

I loved the performances in this series. I could have done without the dramatic background pieces and the long soliloquies from the judges, but that is why we have Tivo®.

I hope that NBC will make this an annual event only please next time? Less talk, more song.

Full performances are available for viewing on the NBC website. You can purchase some of the performances at iTunes.

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4 thoughts on “The Sing Off

  1. The structure of the competition was such that any group which wasn't already doing contemporary a cappella was at a major disadvantage. Maxx Factor couldn't stick to their strengths (barbershop) because all the music was from the 1960's and later, and primarily contemporary arrangements.The show did great things to raise the profile of contemporary a cappella among the general public (7 million people watched the show), but it was a showcase for only one style of a cappella. I would have preferred a wider exploration of all the historical a cappella forms as well (madrigals, barbershop, doo wop, jazz, etc).I highly recommend checking out American Harmony, a documentary film which follows four male barbershop quartets through the International Contest from 2005-2007.You can view the trailer at:http://www.americanharmonythemovie.comWe also have a Facebook fan page:http://www.facebook.com/americanharmonyAllan WebbExecutive ProducerAmerican Harmony

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  2. Great coverage. I agree with 99% of what you said. Who really knows if America voted that way?If you respect Mike Rowe's opinion, check out what his favorite vocal art form is at http://www.barbershop.org/news-a-events-main/46-mike-rowe-interview.html Yes we have competitive barbershop events. See zanzan's comment. Also see http://www.barbershop.org/tampa-midwinter-convention.html which includes a youth chorus contest and http://www.barbershop.org/philadelphia-international-convention.html, which includes a college quartet contest.

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  3. Allan & Paul thank you for commenting and enlightening me. I would love to see the documentary, but the chances of it coming to a theater near me are practically nil. I did however add it to my Netflix queue (even though they said availability was unknown).I agree, that the scope of The Sing Off was limited (to be expected from main stream TV I guess). I hope this show opens the door for more a cappella performances.Thanks for pointing me to the Mike Rowe Interview too. I know I liked that man for more than his dirty finger nails 😉

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  4. Yes, the movie is listed in the Netflix catalog even though it's not out on DVD yet. Putting it in your queue actually helps us out, as the more people that do that, the more likely it is that Netflix will carry it when it's released on DVD in 2010.Keep an eye out on the Facebook fan page or our Google pin map for more release dates around the country as they are scheduled:http://www.tinyurl.com/americanharmonymapRegards,Allan

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