Tuned In

The Morning After: Ben Folds—Great Reality Judge, or Greatest Reality Judge?

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Because Mrs. Tuned In has an interest in choral music and because it’s December, we checked out the debut of the a cappella singing contest The Sing-Off. When I saw that the judges included a personal favorite, pianist-singer-songwriter Ben Folds, I didn’t know whether to be excited or depressed. I mean, I’m glad the man’s getting paid. But by appearing on a desperate NBC attempt to turn Glee into a reality show?

It turns out Folds was a perfect choice. For starters, this year he released an album of college a cappella groups covering his music. (See a documentary about the album here.) And if you search YouTube, you’ll find that a cappella groups have covered pretty much every Folds song there is: not just hits like Brick (many versions), but a sweetly PG-rated version of Army and his own cover of Dr. Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit, by a co-ed group at UC Berkeley.

Also as it turns out, Folds is one of the best judges a reality show has ever produced.

Maybe my standards have just been lowered by too many American Idol knockoffs over the years. But it was refreshing to hear Folds—and fellow judge Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men—actually delivering serious, detailed, precise criticism of the a capella groups without resorting to gratuitous bitchiness for the camera or “you know, dawg, you worked it out, you did your thing.” (As for third judge Nicole Scherzinger, of the Pussycat Dolls—herself a product of the long-ago Popstars reality show—maybe she’d do better hosting The Next Auto-Tune Star.)

Folds in particular handed out microtargeted critiques that showed his experience with the quirks and mechanics of a cappella, but as devastating as his criticisms could be, they were never mean. Instead, The Sing-Off just embraced the un-self-conscious nerdiness of a cappella culture, in a way that would have done The Office’s Andy Bernard and Here Comes Treble proud.

As for the performances themselves, it was funny—given that this was the network that wouldn’t even allow Glee in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade—how explicitly they acknowledged the pop-culture boost that Fox’s hit has given the genre. Groups compared themselves to Glee’s New Directions in their interview segments, and Glee seemed even to be music-directing the show: there was both a cover of Queen’s Somebody to Love and a taste of a women’s barbershop quartet doing Amy Winehouse’s Rehab—still a hoot despite the musical joke being used in Glee’s pilot.

Did any Tuned Inlanders watch? And if so, is there anyone who can defeat the Beelzebubs? Behold!

[Update: One other thing that occurred to me while watching—doesn’t allowing a backing percussion track, as in the above Beelzebubs clip, violate the spirit of a cappella? Or does that only apply to non-percussion accompaniment? Especially in Magical Mystery Tour, the drum track helps put over the rhythm change halfway through the song, so you could argue that the ‘Bubs are benefiting from a musical effect that doesn’t come from their own lungs. Or am I taking this too seriously? I’m taking this too seriously. Strike that from the record; as one commenter noted, the “percussion track” is apparently one of the ‘Bubs beatboxing. I was Beelze-boozled! Yet another sign that they’re the group to beat here.]

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