Sunday night marked a significant moment in a cappella history. It was the first time in almost twenty years that a musical group, specializing in a cappella music, has won the music industry’s highest award.
Now you’re probably reading this and saying “Well I’m not in Pentatonix. (Unless of course you are in Pentatonix and you are actually reading this blog, which is probably as likely as me winning the Super Bowl.) Why should I care?”
You should care. We should all care. Here’s why:
Let’s take a look at the history of the relationship between a cappella and the Grammys.
The 1988 Grammy ushered in the first big a cappella win. Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” won Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Male Pop Performance. That same year, Take 6 won Best Jazz Vocal Performance by a duo or group for “Spread Love” and Best Soul Gospel Performance by a duo or group for “Take 6.”
Take 6 continued to win Grammys in ’89, ’90, ’91, ’94, ’97, and ’02. The pop group Boyz II Men won their first Grammy in ’91 for “Cooleyhighharmony” in the category of R&B performance by a duo or group, but not every track on the album was a cappella. The popular jazz group Manhattan Transfer had also won several awards in ’80, ’81, 82, 83, 85, 88, and ’91, but no tracks were exclusively a cappella. And the King’s Singers won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Classical Crossover Album.
Though several significant a cappella groups (or groups that sing a cappella arrangements) have already won Grammys, it is important to note that under no award was the word “a cappella” ever mentioned. Until now…
2) Category significance
Do you know what award they won? Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A cappella. This is the FIRST time this category has existed. Until this year, the category only read “Best Instrumental Arrangement.” (Don’t believe me…check grammy.com.)
This marks a significant change in progress for a cappella music, specifically because the term a cappella has now been recognized by awards, just like mainstream culture. This has caused some debate…
3) The Big Debate
It wasn’t just Pentatonix who won the Grammy. It was also their album producer/arranger Ben Bram, who works on The Sing-Off, and arranges/arranged for the SoCal VoCals.
I once asked Ben Bram what he thought of my opinion, that a cappella needs to be classified as its own genre, rather than just an instrumentation. While a cappella music has made great strides in making a name for itself, a cappella is still just defined as an instrumentation- all vocals, no instruments.
A long time ago, in a very early blog post, I argued that for a cappella music to be taken as seriously as pop music, it needed to define itself as more than just an instrumentation. Let’s face it- we perform a cappella music very differently than with a band. We approach arrangements with an approach that combines jazz, pop, choral, and rock methods. More and more over the years, a cappella groups have taken overplayed songs on the radio and turned them into something new, sometimes more musically interesting than what we already have heard. (Case in point: Pentatonix’s version of “Somebody That I Used To Know”) Some recording studios have resorted to only taking a cappella clients, because the demand is so high. Companies/Organizations/Websites have sprung up devoted exclusively to a cappella music, including the AEA, The Vocal Company, and AcappellaHOW. We have become our own many-headed hydra, and there seems to be no end in sight.
I expected Ben to agree with me, but I was surprised to hear his viewpoint: He believed a cappella music shouldn’t be viewed as separate, but as similarly as we would a current pop tune. When a cappella music, or Pentatonix in this case, is booked on the same show as other pop icons of the day, only then can Pentatonix be taken as a serious artist who is doing something different, rather than a novelty artist that will disappear soon.
I don’t know if his opinion has changed since then (This conversation happened a year ago), but I was struck by how profound this opinion was. Ben is looking for musical equality, and the proof is already there: Don’t Worry Be Happy wasn’t a winner of “Best A cappella Album.” It won “Record Of The Year,” a feat that Pentatonix (or someone else) could possibly achieve down the road, provided that they market themselves as a musical group, not an a cappella group.
My opinion has one, very visible flaw: If a cappella groups are considered separate from mainstream music, then they will never be taken as seriously as mainstream musicians. So do we separate ourselves for the purpose of growing within our own boundaries, or do we try to muscle our way into the mainstream? Ben’s plan seems to be working, but the Grammys placed the Daft Punk arrangement in with the Best Instrumental/A cappella arrangement category, a category that did not exist until this year. And speaking of arrangements…
4) Arrangement, not original
It’s also important to note that the Grammy they won was for an arrangement, NOT an original. This has several implications for us. Firstly, it explains why they weren’t nominated for any of the mainstream categories: It wasn’t an original song. Only original music can be nominated for the top prizes. So that takes care of that.
But more importantly, a cappella arrangers should be THRILLED that an arrangement won a Grammy, because if they can do it, you might be able to one day as well. A cappella music is still about 90% covers (That's my opinion, not fact), and while the a cappella leaders are pushing for more original tunes, it is nice to know that killer arrangements can be recognized for outstanding achievement as well.
5) Nice people
I’ve met Ben and the members of Pentatonix on three different occasions. And speaking as someone who has been let down multiple times by rock stars who just don’t give a damn about their fans, I can tell you that this does not apply to Pentatonix in the least. They are nice people, and the looks on their faces constantly suggests that they are still amazed by the success that they have had.
I believe that nice people deserve nice things, and when a group that I genuinely like and has been genuinely nice to me wins a Grammy, I’m going to root for them.
And speaking of nice people, it is also important to note that several extremely nice a cappella people helped them along the way. You certainly cannot forget the efforts of Ed Boyer and Bill Hare, who helped mix/master the album. And their manager, Jonathan K.
Lesson learned: Be nice to your fans and they will write a blog post about you.
6) Weird Al
WEIRD AL WON HIS FOURTH GRAMMY!!!! WOOOO!!!!!
Sorry. This has nothing to do with Pentatonix. I just love Weird Al.