The Sing-Off - Season Three Finale

The Sing-Off - Season Three Finale

It became clear that The Sing-Off was not well suited to a longer competition season after only a few episodes in September, but despite much lower ratings in an early slot on Monday night, the show kept going. There was a wealth of vocal talent but no tense competition, as Pentatonix never dipped into the bottom two groups and had a compelling story for the judges and voters to grab onto. I had a little back-and-forth with fellow A.V. Clubber Carrie Raisler tonight about the future of the show, and if The Sing-Off does make it to another season, I completely agree with her idea that it’s much better off as a summer/winter special with a reduced order. A cappella is a niche genre that doesn’t really have the pull to break into the mainstream at the moment, and none of the groups here, not even champion Pentatonix with their “electronic” vocal tricks, do either. None of the celebratory gimmicks paid off in this finale, not bringing back the other seven groups from the top ten, not an unexpected appearance from Smokey Robinson, not even Nick Lachey singing with 98º. The wind was out of the sails because everyone had already voted, and it was just a two-hour variety show of singing, as pointless for the first hour and 55 minutes as next week’s Sing-Off Christmas special will be.

I’ve always gotten the impression that the way The Sing Off creates a narrative for each group was equally if not more important than the actual performances. That’s probably why the show started each group’s final performance with a video showing off their charity work with a chosen organization. Charity work is wonderful, and it’s great to see groups like the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth, but I did find it an odd coincidence that the group from Dartmouth, the Ivy League school, would be working with a golf-related charity. That seemed to skirt a bit too close to the stereotype, even though it was for patients recovering from strokes, a cause that hit close to home for Aires standout Michael, since his mother suffered one last spring. The charity work was great and important, but it just didn’t fit the show, and it contributed to the feeling that the finale was altogether unnecessary because all the votes were already tallied.

The top three groups represented an almost too-convenient cross-section of the a cappella genre, with one group of younger kids, one all-male college group, and one collection of semi-professionals. The Dartmouth Aires fill the college a cappella quota, with an bonafide star soloist in Michael, but my favorite member will always be the guy who looks like a younger Richard Ayoade circa The IT Crowd. They also picked songs that aligned with my music tastes better than most of the others this season. In the midst of all the Top 40, I thought a choice like Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” was inspired, and much less pretentious than the choices other college a cappella groups made on the show – and here I’m thinking specifically of Tufts' Beelzebubs singing “Magical Mystery Tour” for their debut. Pentatonix are a group of Arlington, TX kids who put school on hold to compete, fulfilling the “follow your dreams” message. They impressed throughout with a lot inventive arrangement, including a dubstep vocal percussion interlude in a “Since U Been Gone”/”Forget You” medley.  Urban Method made the least sense to me as a group in the top 3. They’re from Denver, Colorado, not a city with much of a rough and tumble perception, the city that produced The Fray. Still, they were touted as rap-appella pioneers, a cross-genre that still makes me laugh when any of the judges say it. Shawn even tried to call it hip-hop-appella, which had me confused, since I’m pretty sure there are tracks that have used no music in the past, say, 30+ years of hip-hop.

The idea that Urban Method started the so-called genre “rap-appella” is already ridiculous, but every one of their performances sounded the same to me. The rap guy always did his spoken word stuff during the intro, then they did some kind of breakdown, ultimately leading me to believe that they’re the kind of group high school kids dread when they walk into an assembly for some kind of activity. I would not be happy if I was trapped watching 45 minutes of those guys, despite their vocal talent.

When this season premiered, I was pretty harsh on the judges, but some things did get better in that regard. Ben Folds really improved, and he was the only judge to actually get technical in discussing each group, taking apart the vocal parts and harmonies. Sara Bareilles remains the giant weak link, barely ever actually engaging with the actual performance and instead sitting back and describing her own reactions. Shawn provided consistently humorous observations and a much more grounded emotional reaction to performance, with slightly less technical jargon than Folds. Bareilles is a pop singer, but she makes it sound like she has no idea what she’s talking about when she gets a turn, and far too often, she disregards a performance entirely to talk about backstory or a personal anecdote, which she did multiple times over the course of the finale.

Filling two hours to delay the final announcement took a lot of hoop jumping. First there was a typically miserable group number, this time a version of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” with awful blending and a much slower beginning verse that fell flat. Then each group gave a final performance. Then they all performed with one of the hosts/judges – Nick Lachey with Pentatonix singing “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)” which somehow got the studio audience going, Urban Method with Sara Bareilles on her recent hit “Gonna Get Over You”, and the Aires with Ben Folds where he first led the crowd in a sing along that came back to give the impression of a giant church choir. Then we got two more group numbers, the girls doing an Aretha Franklin number, and the guys singing Springsteen’s “Born to Run” because the show broke things down by stereotypical gender lines after challenging the groups to do the exact opposite in competition. The taped video segment about the strong female performers this season was almost a great highlight, right until the end, when one girl just yelled “GRRRLLLS ROO-ULLLL” into the camera, completely undercutting the maturity of the rest of the montage. Having a lot of performers on stage for those two numbers actually filled out the songs more and helped them sound a lot better, but I still prefer Jimmy Fallon’s performance as The Boss during the 2010 Emmys, backed by an actual band instead of all the voices.

The judges, and later special guest Smokey Robinson, highlighted one of the inherent weaknesses to singing competitions like The Sing-Off. Sometimes, great talent does go unnoticed, but with so many shows like this over the past decade, at this point we’re kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel or reaching for new places to look for an untapped corner of the reality show market. Many of the singers this season have been strong, but for my money, the best performances on the show had these groups as backing bands for the actual stars, who didn’t need a reality competition to get themselves into the industry. Smokey Robinson singing with Afro Blue sounded great, but more of that credit belongs to the actual legend in the center.

Once Urban Method got eliminated as second runner-ups, a top two showing of the Aires and Pentatonix gave a really interesting contrast to how these groups come from completely different walks of life. That’s obvious from the get go on this show, but the glaring differences between 16 Ivy League guys who have a leg up on the world in their future and five kids from Arlington who really just had music gave that final 30-second delay before Lachey yelled out Pentatonix much more drama that I thought would be possible after such a tepid two hours. If this is indeed the end for The Sing-Off, the show did achieve something in bringing a cappella to a (slightly) larger audience, but it never really broke through. There were format issues, judge issues, and a general lack of focus on the actual performances, and that misplaced emphasis really wore away my interest this season. In small doses of a handful of episodes over a few weeks in the summer, this would be a nice distraction. As it stands now, expanding The Sing-Off to a half-season show started off shakily, and ended in unquestionable failure. 

Stray observations:

  • Pentatonix get $200k and a recording contract with Sony. Which do you think will be more valuable by the end of that deal? Even split five ways, I’d bank on $40k each, though with the added exposure of the show, they’ll probably make some good money performing.
  • Since it didn’t count in the voting, I guess it was okay that the Aires used one of the members of Delilah to fill the female vocal part in their song…but it still seemed a little bit unfair. I would have rather seen one of the male members take that part and try to make it work, but maybe network brass wouldn’t go for that.
  • The best thing that came out of this finale was getting to revisit that wonderful 2010 Emmys opening. The cameos are priceless. A brief, very-belated Power Ranking: 1. Joel McHale 2. Jorge Garcia 3. Randy Jackson’s crazy bass playing.
  • The judges stalled for time when asked to summarize the performance of each top three group. There were several different segments that really dragged in these two hours. It’s as though NBC doesn’t have enough programming to fill the time or something…