Gentleman songsters no more, the Whiffenpoofs really are now doomed from here to eternity. This week’s absurd decision by Yale’s two senior a cappella groups to go coed will be remembered as the time when the musical identity of Yale’s most storied singing society was sacrificed at the altar of politics.
For the moment, the Whiffs claim they are committed to remaining a tenor–bass choir. It is hard to imagine that they will remain so for longer than a few years. When some enterprising soprano or alto pens an op-ed in the News claiming that such a policy discriminates against the higher-voiced half of Yale’s student body, the blow struck today will hit its mark.
Why is the sound of the Whiffenpoofs worth saving? Because the Whiffenpoofs are their sound. They are a living time capsule of a style of singing that barely survives in today’s world of electrified, close-miked pop a cappella. Blending the legacy of 19th century glees with the close harmony of barber shop and vocal jazz, the Whiffs and their imitators have built, over decades, a specific type of vocal blend that is unique and inimitable in other choir formats. That sound — not their ambassadorial world tours or satin-gloved tomfoolery — remains the Whiffs’ greatest asset.
During the decadeslong conversation that culminated in this week’s decision, the Whiffs have been cast as an antiquated, impregnable fortress of male privilege at Yale, not as a musical organization with a musical identity. Appeals to preserve the group’s sound have been dismissed as mere distraction tactics to protect the wealth, visibility and power of the good old boys at Yale. That this silly argument has won the day demonstrates that at today’s Yale, politics conquers all.
John Masko ’14