Fall is here. At most universities, students usher in the new season with traditional activities: going to football games on brisk October Saturdays, rushing frats en masse, and finding a partner to warm the cold winter ahead. But once again, we discover that Yale is not most schools. For at some point in our history, we decided to allow one bizarre amusement to marginalize the more normal college pastimes. We know it as a cappella, and it is truly Yale’s peculiar institution.
The extent to which Yale is an a cappella universe must be surprising to an outside observer. Only at Yale could the story headlined “Interest in a cappella groups subsides” (9/23) catalyze a minor controversy because of one student’s assertion in the article that joining an a cappella group was tantamount to selling your soul. Only here could the burly and built star quarterback of the football team be idolized less than the pitch of the Whiffenpoofs. And only here, for that matter, would students resist ridiculing an all-male singing group named “The Whiffenpoofs.” This is not the PAC-10, this is the AC-1; our a cappella puts us in a league all our own.
We all know someone whose frequent disappearances for the past month have caused us to question whether he or she was leading a double life. With days and nights jam-packed with rush dinners, singing deserts, lunch meetings, brunch rehearsals, breakfast chats, and tea-time tune-ups, our a cappella friends have apparently sold more than just their soul to a cappella. They’ve sold out their whole schedule. And they aren’t fooling anyone with their faux self-pity when they greet those of us lucky enough to catch them between rush activities. They love it, and we know it.
But thankfully, it will all end tonight. Without a doubt, Tap Night is a spectacle. It’s like “Hell Week” for frats except instead of making it with farm animals, the frosh go on scavenger hunts. Each group has its own little song and dance routine, their cute matching outfits, their trophy-chalice containing special sauce (“tee-hee”). It’s all just a kooky production of something that really could be much simpler. But, once again, this is Yale.
So what is it that gives this music and the social scene it thrives on such wide and intense appeal?
I think it’s safe to lay down as fact that the music itself is not the reason for the industry’s popularity. I would never deny that some a cappella participants are remarkably talented, or that the groups are generally entertaining. But let’s be honest: it’s not like the music itself is at all incredible. When’s the last time a Grammy was awarded for an a cappella album? Show me one person in the world who actually cites a cappella as his or her favorite musical genre and I will show you a proud Yale mom with bad taste. A cappella is a simple, low-budget, bootlegged amalgam of real types of music but certainly not a musical genre in and of itself.
Perhaps a cappella is a relic of the past to which Yale desperately attempts to cling. There may just be something about listening to a cadre of uppity, uptight, uptown white guys string together the tired harmonies of played-out jazz standards that reeks deliciously of the good ol’ days.
Whatever the secret to its allure, a cappella confounds me, and I am as much a victim as I am a critic of its power. Despite my skepticism, I will reluctantly and excitedly continue to attend and applaud mostly at jams, just like any loyal Yalie.
Granted, sometimes I need to imagine I’m at a PAC-10 football game, or convince myself the Elvis-fan-esque screams of adoration coming from the girls in the front rows are really for me, or just get sense-numbingly trashed in order to get through it. But what else can I do but leap off the wagon and get on the bandwagon? That is, minus the band.
Zach Jones is a sophomore in Davenport College.