The secret life of the Northwestern a cappella nerd

    Being constantly cool can be exhausting. Everyone lets their nerd flag fly from time to time. When that happens, Vince Fitzpatrick will be there. Delve into the quirky obsessions and secret passions of NU students. These are the Nerdwestern chronicles.

    Exactly three years ago, my twin brother Neil and I arrived at Northwestern as recently accepted prospies, trying to decide whether or not we wanted to spend the next four years of our lives in Evanston. It was at a Wildcat Days student group showcase where I got my first taste of the strange creature known as college a cappella.  After an African dance group shuffled off the stage, the emcee announced the next act as “The Freshman Fifteen, Northwestern’s all-male a cappella group!” Then the curtain went up and a fleet of enthusiastic college guys broke into an instrument-free version of Hanson’s “MMMBop.”

    My brother and I, only faintly acquainted with the concept of a cappella, could not believe what we were seeing. The bouncing, the beatboxing, the “shun-nuh-nuh”-ing — it all seemed so … hokey! I had the good sense to sit there in silence; my brother made the mistake of laughing out loud. He was spotted by the song’s soloist, who waved for the group to jump off the stage, run up the aisle and serenade my red-faced sibling as if he were the only man in the world.

    To this day, I’m convinced that this is the reason my brother decided not to come to Northwestern. Of course, what he didn’t know (and what F15 seemed to have forgotten) is that a cappella is a strangely college-specific phenomenon. There aren’t many a cappella groups on a high school level. You don’t see a cappella hit-makers climbing up the singles charts. But for a four-year window during our late teens and early twenties, we act like a cappella is the most normal thing in the world.

    For a long time, this created a bit of a conundrum for me. Here was an absurdly popular extracurricular activity that I considered mind-numbingly hokey. The thought of sitting through one of their concerts was itself cringe-inducing. I lived in fear that I would attend a variety show and would be ambushed by an onslaught of voice-only, half-ironic renditions of 80s pop songs. A few times, this is exactly what happened; I sat quietly sulking until the performance ended, wishing I had brought an iPod.

    Yet the scientist in me understands that I was not being objective. I brought to the table a set of aesthetic judgments that made these animated troupes seem unbearable, and even worse, I was making unfair assumptions about the people who sang in these groups. At the very least, says my inner sociologist, here is an activity which an enormous number of Northwestern students (over 10 groups!) are very passionate about.  There must be something to it! So I’ve resolved to reserve judgment, keep an open mind and dive headfirst into the life of a Northwestern a cappella nerd.

    * * *

    On Sunday night, I get let in the back door of the Music Administration Building and head upstairs to a Room 114. The members of Brown Sugar are starting to trickle into the rehearsal room, a large classroom surrounded on three walls by green chalkboards and featuring a large piano. I get a chance to talk to them before the real rehearsal got underway. Brown Sugar is the NU’s only South Asian a cappella group, but they are far from the only one in the country. They recently won a national South Asian a cappella competition in Iowa, beating out 21 other teams. All of these groups sing a combination of English and Hindi songs, often mixing two into a single track, and no one, apparently, does it quite as well as Brown Sugar.

    As for the members themselves, they are a fun and funny bunch.

    “For the record, we have a rule about not eating in rehearsal,” on girl tells me as she finishes her Taco Bell burrito. They catch up on the weekend’s social gossip (“we’re all pretty involved in each other’s social lives”) and complain about how everyone is always late. They’re just like any other student group: they debate over venues, make a lot of jokes and get off topic until someone steers them back on task. The most surprising thing about BS is the apparent diffusion of responsibility — for the life of me, I can’t tell who is in charge of the group. They all decide to get up and start warm-ups at about the same time. They all debate the merits of Harris Hall and McTrib for a Spring Show venue. And when the beatboxer lays down a measure of snare hits, all of the talking and laughter turns, in one instant, into song.

    Prepping for a Wildcat Days show of their own, they rehearse mostly English-language songs. To my untrained ear, they sound flawless, but that’s not how they hear themselves. Everyone has something negative to say after each run-through, if they don’t stop the whole thing halfway in. After they work their way through a mix of “Breakeven” and “Wonderwall,” they move on to Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You,” complete with Temptations-style dance moves, and then a version of Beyonce’s “Halo” mixed with a Hindi song called “Shukran Allah.”

    This last one, more than anything, embodies what is so inspired about this a cappella group. If you’re in Brown Sugar, you get to build a musical bridge between your American culture and your South Asian heritage (except for the lone white kid in the group). You get to make a connection between two parts of yourself using a third part, your voice. And you get to do it while surrounded by your friends. It doesn’t matter that no one in the group is a music/performance major, or that half their songs are in a language I don’t understand: Brown Sugar makes sense to me, and I leave their rehearsal feeling confident about my expedition into the a cappella landscape.

    * * *

    As I head back to MAB on Wednesday, my doubts start to return. Sure, the kids in Brown Sugar get to syncretize two disparate cultures to which they belong, but that understanding doesn’t really work for Asterik. Like F15, Asterik is an all-male a cappella group without any particular cultural affiliation (besides manhood, I guess). Their songs, as a result, lack the cultural significance that could chase away the campiness that is inherent in a cappella.

    This problem turns into a paradox when I finally get to observe Asterik in action. This group is, for all intents and purposes, a fraternity masquerading as an a cappella group. They’re rowdy and overtly sexual. They communicate through a series of jokes and absolutely ignore anyone trying to communicate in a serious way; if you want to get a point across, you need to phrase it in the form of an insult or a sarcastic aside. When they finally settle on a spring show name (rejects included “Ass-Tricks” and “Asterik Cries Over a Single Serving of Lean Cuisine”), the General Director decides “this could’ve been worse” and the group moves on to the music.

    Even more than Brown Sugar, Asterik’s transition from frat-tastic chaos to sweet, sweet music leaves me awestruck. They cover a huge range of voice parts while still maintaining a masculine feel. Yet their song choices are the most telling, and they explain how this group solves the campiness paradox. Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is all about how legitimately cool and justified angst are out of reach to male, middle-class white kids. If you want to be cool and angst-filled, you either have to fake it till you make it or give up entirely. That’s why the members of Asterik almost always have a smile on their face: they’re never going to take themselves too seriously. They like to sing, but they know that won’t make them rock stars. Half of their songs are clearly meant to be ironic picks, as if to let their audience know ‘it’s OK, we’re in on the joke too. This isn’t the manliest thing in the world, but we have fun doing it so we don’t give a crap.’

    Listening to a dozen grown men sing Radiohead’s “Creep” around a grand piano is a bucket-list moment I never knew I had. It was the first time all night that everyone became completely serious; for the last verse, sung together in perfect harmony, they show a steely reserve that borders on reverence. Asterik may not always take themselves seriously, but these guys are seriously talented.

    * * *

    On Thursday, with “Creep” still echoing in my head, I decide to crash one more practice, this time for the co-ed group Thunk. I drive a few of the members to Parkes and sit in on what can only be described as the exact opposite of an Asterik rehearsal. Mere minutes past the official rehearsal start time, the general director raises her voice and the gymnasium-style room falls silent.  Stapled, printed schedules of the shows for the quarter are passed out, and the zero-tolerance of conflicts policy explained for the benefit of recently recruited members.

    I am freaking out at this point. Then, like a well-oiled machine, Thunk starts their warm ups, perfect pitches echoing across the giant room.

    Just when I think the surprises are over, the GD explains the special surprise of the night: Everyone is going to play a complicated version of musical chairs! This game goes on for twenty minutes, and the whole time I am sitting on the side, flabbergasted that anyone, let alone a whole student group, is capable of playing such a mind-numbingly impossible game. These guys are professionals.

    After the spectacle of musical chairs is finished, I have the pleasure of watching Thunk learn a new song, Mika’s “Happy Ending.” The guys split off and head for the Vale, a chapel adjacent to Parkes. I stay behind to see the girls perfect their parts. I listened for five minutes as they perfected the “jm-daw,” an especially troublesome syllable pair. Once they’ve ironed out pitch, timing, aspiration and the regional differences in the pronunciation of “aw,” they move on the next syllables. I leave them to their painstaking craft and visit the boys in the Vale.

    There, the basses, baritones and tenors let their booming whole notes reverberate throughout the chapel. Sounding suspiciously similar to Pachabel’s Canon, the hallowed setting suddenly seems strangely appropriate for a Mika song.

    Back in the main room, the two halves of Thunk come together and a song is born. In the space of less than an hour, they went from not knowing their parts at all to singing what sounds like, in the ears of a tone-deaf bio major, perfection. Thunk doesn’t bother with paradoxes. They’re not here to be cool. They fly right by the camp. Thunk is here to sing the best damn a cappella they can possibly sing, which is pretty damn good. For the third time in a row, I leave an a cappella practice in awe of the abilities of Northwestern’s a cappella nerds.

    * * *

    You may be wondering if my little a cappella adventure converted me to a hardcore a cappella geek. The answer is no. This past Saturday, I got to see Asterik again, this time performing at a Sex Week Showcase. They kicked off their set with an over-the-top, reworked, gay version of “You Belong to Me,” and then moved into a solemn rendition of Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank.” I loved their showmanship, and I can’t help but respect their combined musical talents. Yet, like any kind of music, I can appreciate the quality of a cappella objectively without necessarily taking pleasure in it subjectively. I’m no longer scared of a cappella, but personally, it’s not for me.

    More importantly, I know that my subjective judgment isn’t important — it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of Thunk or Brown Sugar or Asterik. What matters is the passion, the fun and the community that grows out of these groups. A Northwestern a cappella nerd doesn’t care as much about the people’s reaction to their show, but the quality they put into it and the people that helped them get there. That’s something we can all learn from all those over-enthusiastic co-eds bouncing, beatboxing and singing their hearts out up on stage.


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