Let’s talk for a moment about the word “standard.” In most cases, a standard is “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; an approved model.” A standard is something we live by, something that we strive to achieve.
I’m not referring to that definition, however. I’m referring to the musical application of the word “standard,” as in a “jazz standard” or a “Barbershop standard.”
A music standard is, in the loosest definition, a song that everybody knows. And everybody knows these songs because they fit into one or more of the following categories:
1) The song has, in some way, helped introduce, reinforce, and/or improve upon a musical concept so that the majority of repertoire composed following the song’s release shows proof of that song’s influence.
For example, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushered in the era of grunge. The scat singing of popular jazz musician Louis Armstrong influenced hundreds of new jazz singers to adopt an improvisatory style.
2) The popularity of the song is so great that anyone can start singing/playing it without sheet music, tablatures, or diagrams of chord changes.
3) A higher musical authority, such as a trusted publication or famous musician, declares the song to be a standard.
This is how the term “jazz standard” came to be. Jazz musicians (without the aid of computers or the internet) rallied behind songs that they could “jam” to; songs that were recognized across the country, despite the limited means of communication and recording technology.
Is there a master list of jazz standards? No. Is there some all-powerful, highest-authority-in-the-land who has the final say on which song is deemed a standard and which one isn’t? No. Could it be that half the population thinks one song is a standard, while the other half disagrees? Yes.
In other words, the term “jazz standard” is simply a matter of opinion. But through my studies, I’ve discovered that, despite having 100% proof that a song is definitely a standard, the consensus tends to agree on many of the older jazz tunes as being standards, especially ones from “Tin Pan Alley,” “The Golden Age of Broadway,” and “The Great American Songbook.”
I bring up the term “jazz standard,” because I think it’s about time a Pandora’s box be opened…Is there such thing as an a cappella standard?
Let me rephrase. Is there at least one, or multiple, popular songs that have been sung by so many a cappella groups and arranged in so many different ways, that we, as the a cappella community, can agree to label it a standard?
The short answer is: I don’t know. I am one guy, and I’m hardly the authority on these matters.
The long answer: Mmmmmmaybe? Let’s take a look at some ways a song might become a standard.
With the emergence of GLEE, The Voice, American Idol, The X-Factor, etc. the popular repertoire list almost doubles in size every year. For example, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” was a popular song even before shows like Family Guy and GLEE gave it recent national exposure. But after the song became the anthem for the New Directions, it seemed like every show choir, high school choir, and a cappella group wanted to perform it. Today, the song is still the number one best selling GLEE arrangement on websites like J. W. Pepper.
The audition form for a show such as American Idol warns anyone who auditions to avoid the following songs, as they are the most over-performed:
At Last, Crazy, Summertime, You Raise Me Up, The Climb, Halo, Listen, Firework, Someone Like You, Ain’t Got You, Fallen, I Will Always Love You, I’m Yours, Who’s Loving You
So are these songs considered audition standards? If you agree with that, then doesn’t the same principle apply to "Don’t Stop Believin’" as a show choir standard? Who makes these decisions, and does the exposure on a show like GLEE automatically qualify a song as a standard?
2) The precedent set by BOCA, SING, and Voices Only
Once a song makes it onto BOCA, it’s locked into a cappella history. BOCA’s popularity has grown to the level such that whichever group gets their arrangement onto an a cappella compilation, that arrangement becomes accepted by the a cappella community as the pinnacle of how this song should be done. That doesn’t stop other groups from performing the song, even arranging it in a completely different way, but no song has ever appeared on more than one BOCA. In the beginning, this was done on purpose to help market each volume of BOCA as an independent album. But the more festivals and concerts I attend, the more I begin to start to see groups avoiding BOCA selected songs altogether, unless the song is so popular (e.g. Viva La Vida) that the inclusion on BOCA doesn’t matter.
This begs the question, is one an effect of the other? Does inclusion on an a cappella compilation deter other groups from arranging the same song? Does inclusion on an a cappella compilation automatically qualify the song as an a cappella standard? Sure, you could argue that “Animal,” the first track on BOCA 2012 might now an a cappella standard (and a popular, well-known song) but then you’d have to include every BOCA song from the last 18 years to make your argument fair, and as good as "Backseat" by Noteworthy (BOCA 2011) was, I wouldn’t qualify it as an a cappella standard.
Maybe it’s the ease of performing a song that qualifies it as a standard. For example, even if your group has never improvised a note in their life, I’m willing to bet that at any time, your group could start, and finish, an entire arrangement of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” without sheet music or even a starting pitch. The same goes true for “Lean on Me,” “In The Still of the Night,” and probably “Stand By Me.”
Does this make them a cappella standards? In my opinion, yes, because any group, anywhere, with anyone can perform these tunes at anytime. But the problem is, as I’ve stated before, my opinion does not a standard make.
4) The CASA books
Starting in 2000, Deke Sharon began a series of a cappella songbooks, designed to provide a cappella groups, who were incapable of arranging their own repertoire or finding repertoire without help, a substantial amount of performable repertoire that was both easy to learn and demonstrated an understand of contemporary a cappella.
If the argument was made that this series was the a cappella standards collection, then I agree that it would be the strongest case. But, as with any case, there is a problem. The songbooks are chock full of familiar a cappella tunes like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Good Old A cappella," "Zombie Jamboree," "Up On The Roof," "My Girl," etc. But the books are also chock full of a cappella tunes that I have NEVER heard performed by an a cappella group, such as "Only You," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Wonderful Tonight," etc. All great songs, but in ten years, I’ve never heard them covered by an a cappella group. Perhaps I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe these songs are too old to be appreciated nowadays. Does audience exposure disqualify a song from become a standard?
Doo-wop songs are much easier to sing a cappella, because they already have element of scat syllables, parallels harmonies, and a "group versus soloist" vibe already written in. Because of that, many doo-wop songs are sung more often because they are much easier to arrange.
Popular songs with repeatable chord progressions and composed harmonies also fit into this category. I feel like that’s why “Some Nights” is one of the go-to songs these days, because the song practically writes itself for a cappella.
Does the genre of where the song comes from qualify it as an a cappella standard? No, but it does explain why some songs are arranged more than others, especially by beginner a cappella groups.
When Adele became a mega-huge-ultra-superstar, every single she released became a cappella gold. There was a point when I declared that if I heard “Rolling In The Deep” one more time, I was going to dive into a tank of piranhas wearing a filet mignon suit.
Right now, my guess is that “Locked Out Of Heaven” by Bruno Mars will probably be the new go-to song, replacing the popular “Gungham Style” but only time will tell.
Does the a cappella flavor-of-the-month qualify a song to become an a cappella standard? Believe it or not, the flavor-of-the-month helped many “golden-era” Broadway songs reach the title of standard. (Some of these Broadway tunes were ironically composed hours before opening night)
The conclusion is…it’s inconclusive. I open this topic up for discussion, because, as a budding a cappella historian, I’d like there to be some consensus as to which songs evolve into greatness and which songs should be avoided at all costs.
But in the interest of not wasting your time by avoiding my own opinion, here’s a short list of songs I believe should be considered A cappella standards. Feel free to disagree, or send hate mail:
The Lion Sleeps Tonight, For The Longest Time, Stand By Me, My Girl, Don’t Worry Be Happy, It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye, Like A Prayer, Lean On Me, Don’t Stop Believin’, Gravity, Zombie Jamboree, Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego, Come Together, Good Old A cappella, In The Still of the Night, Goodnight Sweetheart, Under The Boardwalk, She Will Be Loved, Bohemian Rhapsody, Change In My Life, Unchained Melody, Take On Me, Turn the Beat Around, I Saw The Sign, True Colors, Pinball Wizard, Runaround Sue, Hide and Seek, Earth, Viva La Vida, Blackbird, Yesterday,
What do you think is an a cappella standard? Anything on this list? Nothing on this list? Let’s start this discussion, and maybe, one day, we’ll have an a cappella standards book.