The Great British Barbershop Boys: Going ‘Mainstream’

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ChristmasTimeThe Great British Barbershop Boys’ Christmas album is due out on Monday, and both the media appearances and availability of samples are ramping up in anticipation. And I’m enjoying observing the responses of the barbershop world with that double vision of both a now-well-established member of it and a musicologist who has spent many years documenting it.

Predictably, there is much excitement.

The barbershop community always feels a sense of ownership over its medallists (as betrayed by the phrase ‘your 2008 champions…’ when they are introduced on stage), and the quartet formerly known as Monkey Magic has done all the right things to amplify this. They are young, three of them have parents active in barbershop, they make friends easily – and of course they are entertaining performers.

So everyone was going to be pleased about their big break. Phrases like ‘it couldn’t happen to nicer guys’ tell you both about their status within the community, and the kind of values the community holds.

But there are a few mumblings and tuttings within the glee. Now that samples are available to listen to on Amazon, Facebook conversations have started up along the following lines:

Hhmm - it's good, but, I thought the whole point about barbershop singing is that it is unaccompanied??? A Capella with instruments?

For those interested, a bit of historical perspective – it’s only since barbershop became institutionalised as a competitive genre in the late 1930s that it has been defined as a cappella. If you listen to the Golden Era recordings in the Jack Baird library, you’ll hear plenty of quartets with instrumental backing. The proscription of instruments in contest was explicitly introduced so that you could really hear the quality of the singing without having it covered up by other sounds.

So in a sense, it’s not surprising that purists are a bit uncomfortable. Adding backing implicitly makes it easier to do – potentially both undermining their status as top of the game, and, well, lowering the barriers to entry. (As of course do all the paraphernalia of recording in that you can clean things up in a way you can’t for live performance – though few if any other quartets in this country could have managed the recording schedule the Great British Barbershop Boys worked to on this album.)

What the backing tracks do of course is make it sound more mainstream – more like normal music. Sixteen tracks of a cappella is a bit hardcore. Indeed, very few a cappella ensembles do 16 songs straight in a show – they’ll break things up with guest performers of a different voicing (quartets on a chorus show, male groups on a show hosted by a female group) or even instrumentalists. Even purists would find it a bit much live, that is.

But barbershop has always had this contradictory relationship with popularity – it’s built on popular repertories, and recruits singers tirelessly and effectively, whilst at the same time resisting assimilation into other genres. The mainstream is both desired and rebuffed. And whilst new barbershoppers are lured in on the (true) promise that pretty much anyone can learn to do it, there is also a feeling that barbershoppers don’t want the world thinking that any old idiot can just pick it up without genuine barbershop guidance about how it should be done. There is a strong sense of ownership over the tradition as well as its members.

Still, I think we are unlikely to hear too many grumblings about GBBB (as they are already routinely abbreviated) 'selling out'. Their recordings may have extra layers added, but all the music on the album still works as complete 4-part vocal textures. Which is actually great for promotional events – they can just turn up and so long as all four of them are in the room, they can offer a song from the album. And what with recent scandals about the use of auto-tune on X-Factor broadcasts, and visiting singers miming on Strictly, this very authentically barbershop feature could be a distinctive and useful USP.

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