The Sing-Off

The Sing-Off sort of feels like it's a Christopher Guest mockumentary in the form of a reality show. It takes an obscure subculture - acapella singing groups and the competitions they enter - and blows it up into the subject without suggesting that any of this is at all out of the mainstream. It offers up bizarre montages of the groups in action that constantly seem as if the images are supposed to provide ironic commentary for the words being said over them. Even the ads seem sort of ridiculous, taken directly from some weird attempt at appealing to people that probably don't even watch the network. "It takes the performances of Glee and adds the competition of Idol," the ads said, even though that wasn't strictly true. Mostly, though, The Sing-Off is just proof that NBC can't do anything right anymore. It takes a concept that shouldn't miss and finds every way to miss with it.

The most interesting thing here is the show's assertion that acapella singing is sweeping the nation. I mean, maybe it is, and I'm just cloistered here in my circle of Southern Californian distaste, turning up my nose at what the rest of you find "enjoyable." But I haven't really noticed a lot of acapella awesomeness since I left college, and even then, the acapella kids were mostly at the edges of everything. It seems like every year NBC tries to enliven its holiday programming by hauling out some desperate copy of another network's reality sensation, and this year's attempt is, obviously, The Sing-Off, which is vaguely similar to American Idol. Previous attempts have included a show that tried to make it seem like church choirs were the hot new thing in musical awesomeness, so maybe I should be grateful that acapella groups are at least a step up from that.

The Sing-Off collects eight different groups that hail from cities as diverse as San Juan, Los Angeles and Omaha, then it forces them to sing against each other, split into two brackets of four. After every performance, the group is critiqued by judges Ben Folds, Nicole Scherzinger (formerly of The Pussycat Dolls) and Shawn Stockton (of Boyz II Men). Perhaps remarkably, Folds, Scherzinger and Stockton even fall into the old Idol judges pattern, with Scherzinger proving a cheerleader for just about everyone and everything, Stockton making references to past work and offering up mostly half-hearted critiques, and Folds reduced to being the "mean" one, though he's really bad at it. Fortunately, all three of the judges have some level of musical knowledge, so when any one of them launches into a critique, it actually sounds like something approaching good advice.

The acapella revolution the show purports exists mostly stems from groups at colleges and other young person gathering places forming these sorts of groups. The rise in popularity in recent years has come from the fact that the Internet has made it much, much easier to promote a group like this. It's also made the novelty of performing a popular song from the last 30 years acapella style (other than Toto's "Africa," which everybody already knows any acapella group worth its salt can do) much more accessible to an audience beyond the group's parents and groupies. To be fair, a lot of the stuff that makes these groups fun to watch stems from the creativity they pour into the arrangements of the songs they choose to take on. Rarely is a song approached in a fairly straightforward manner, and instead, the arrangement attempts to replicate much of the experience of listening to the song with instruments using only the human voice. It's sort of the same thing that leads to groups like Girl Talk (or the same impulse, at least), using pre-existing material to express your own creative talents.

Unfortunately, I'm not terribly sure that The Sing-Off displays this very well at all. NBC's version of the show is a lot like its Olympics coverage, treating the competition as a sideshow to the main event, which consists entirely of which group has the most moving personal story. You have the Mormon girls who just wanna have (clean) fun, the Omaha people who come from a low-income neighborhood and see this as their only chance to break out of the poverty that traps them, and the Los Angeles kids who reunite after college for one last shot at a national title and feature a member who battles acid reflux disease. The vignettes are possibly the weirdest thing about the show, constantly balancing between trying to make the groups seem super cool, trying to make their stories seem touching and trying to show them as they actually are.

Take, for example, the video for Cleveland, Tenn.'s own Voices of Lee, a Christian acapella group that has to go without their leader for the first time(!) as they head out to Los Angeles to compete on the show. "You might think we're pretty straitlaced," says one of the group's members. "But we like to have fun!" Cut, immediately, to exactly what every straitlaced person's idea of having fun is. Playing ping pong! Throwing leaves on each other! It's like a bunch of scenes out of a Sears wishbook. Now, playing ping pong and throwing leaves on people IS fun, but it's fairly straitlaced fun, so it's hard to tell what, exactly, the show is trying to do here. Is it subtly mocking the singers? Or is this just the most fun they could be seen to have? Similarly, Colorado group Face, a group that says it brings the hard rock to acapella music, is shown first rocking out at what appears to be a mixer at a senior citizen's center, a handful of younger groupies hanging out to cheer them on. After that, the group members are shown working at their day jobs. Music teacher! Cold Stone Creamery employee! Chemist! The weird rhythms of the editing seem designed to make us laugh, but the show never betrays this as its goal.

A lot of how much you like The Sing-Off, then, will depend on how much you like acapella groups. I don't mind them, so I found the whole thing generally tolerable, if poorly executed. And there are some legitimately fine groups here, especially Tufts University's Beelzebubs, who seem to consist, my wife says, of "40 Andys from The Office" and turned out a pretty fun version of "Magical Mystery Tour." But the vast majority of every episode is turned over to stupid fluff or host Nick Lachey saying that the eliminated group will get to sing its final song - "We call it their swan song," Lachey says as if the show invented the term - with all the gravitas of a mannequin. It's a show that should be so much better than it is, a show that would be so easy to do relatively well. That NBC seemingly can't suggests more about the network than it does anything about the show itself.

Stray observations:

  • I was sad to see Solo, the Omaha people, go. I'm a sucker for a "This is our last chance!" story. Still, they were pretty bad. I am happy that the barbershop quartet moms stuck around, though, as they seemed the most like something out of a Guest film.
  • One of the show's biggest problem is its format. By splitting the teams into brackets without any real attempt at seeding, the series has made it possible that one bracket could feature a bunch of really poor performances and the other all exemplary performances and yet one bad team and one excellent team would have to go. This needs to be rethought.
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