The sex appeal of a cappella

Sometimes a performance leaves you asking, “What just happened?”

I have a slightly embarrassing confession to make.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my first real, full-length a cappella concert. As a third-year. I know, I held onto my concert virginity for a ridiculously long time. But even so, I’m glad it happened the way it did.

I attended the Hoos In Treble’s spring show and the performance was great. From the sweet harmonies of “Compass” to the soulful richness of “Hollow Drum” to the encore that left me humming days later, I loved all of it — including, and perhaps especially, the intermission show by the G-Men of Michigan.

Unlike other concerts I’ve attended, this one wasn’t just about the music. There was another layer — another harmony, if you will — of sexuality added by both the audience and the performers that I had never seen before. It left me wondering, “Is this a concert or a musical meat market?”

Now, don’t read me as critically prudish — I enjoyed the experience in its totality. But anything that borders on objectification of our friends and fellow human beings ought to make us stop and ask what we’re doing and why.

What I observed was more than fun, supportive heckling. The catcalling directed toward the stage surpassed cheerleader-esque cries of “Yeah, girl!” or even “She’s hot!” and sounded a lot more like, “Have my babies!” and “Dibs on him at the afterparty!” Add in the fraternity-esque gathering on the balcony — where most of the vociferations were coming from — and you have a picture of the situation.

In talking with my friends about the concert later, I called upon a cappella outsiders and those in-the-know to get a sense for what it was about these concerts that gave them such a boisterous and sexual tone.

The a cappella laypeople largely seemed to think of the overt sexuality and catcalling as part of the experience — just “something you do.” Granted, it’s not something you do at a U. Singers or a CHoosE concert. It would be out of place, albeit potentially humorous, to see their responses to such unsubtle propositions. It’s something unique to a particular flavor of a cappella.

As one of my friends explained, the whole show is a call-and-response performance. A singer takes the stage as the invocation takes place with a little catcalling. She or he responds with a bashful smile, and the song begins. If she hits some high notes or sounds particularly fantastic, there is cheering. He might spice it up with some dancing or hip swinging. Sound the “ow, ows.”
The song ends, and the audience responds with a blend of cheering and catcalling.

The praise is not just for the performance, but for the performer in her very being. From the moment she steps on stage, the rumpus stirred up lets her know she is singing among friends. It’s a deliberate move on the part of her community to show their support.

According to my friend, most of the catcalling is coming from repeat offenders. Indeed, the 80/20 rule applies to a cappella: 80 percent of the catcalling comes from 20 percent of the audience. Who makes up this 20 percent? It’s the same people having the frat party in the balcony: the other a cappella groups.

They’re not just showing support for their friends, either. They’re helping the other 80 percent of the audience enjoy the show and form their opinions of the performers. The audience, after all, gets the final call as to what the group’s image will be.

All that being said, why is sex appeal such a huge part of it?

One thing my friends from inside and outside a cappella groups agreed on was music has the incredible power to engage us all as whole people — body, mind and spirit. There’s a deep human element to music, in which sexuality unquestionably plays a part. So when someone is singing and dancing and baring their soul onstage among their community, maybe that invites some response.

And maybe that response happens to take the form of catcalling, which might lead us to questions about the place of sex at the University in general.

And maybe we don’t really think about that, because to most of us, it’s just fun.

Kristen’s column runs biweekly on Wednesdays. She can be reached at

Published March 18, 2014 in Life

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