Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chapter 3: Recruitment

The Greenleafs, Washington U. in St. Louis

During intermission, Greg Hollis came out into the audience to find Caroline. “Well, well, well if it isn’t the infamous C-squared! The Original Care Bear! La Guitarrista! The Koopa Troopa!” His hug was enormous. "Reunited again!” he cried. “Holly and the Coop.”

“Look at you, Mr. Handsome Emcee,” returned Caroline. She turned and introduced her high school choir classmate to Ben.

“Nice to meet you! And looking forward to your Dinos audition!” said Greg, with smiling self-assurance. He turned back to Caroline. “And you’re auditioning for the co-ed and ladies’ groups, aren’t you?”

Caroline glanced at Ben, and said, “Yes, I think so. Everyone so far has been fantastic.”

Ben smiled at the good news.

“By the way, Greg, what exactly is ACUAC?” Caroline asked.

Greg clenched his teeth. “Ooh, probably should’ve mentioned that earlier. Oh well, the details are more for current singers than for the auditionees. ACUAC is the A Cappella United Administration Committee. It’s the governing body for all of the singing groups. Our job is to keep things fair during auditions, so we make rules and monitor each other to make sure those rules are followed.”

“What rules?” asked Ben.

“All kinds. Most of them are pretty intuitive, really.” Greg took a deep breath and rattled off from memory: “There’s the ‘Respect Provision’ and ‘Song-Staking’ and the official policy against dirty rushing. That rule is called ‘Limited Contact.’”

Ben was confused. Wasn’t rushing a word from Greek life, an ordeal for fraternity and sorority pledges? But there wasn’t time to ask—Greg’s mind had leapt elsewhere. The emcee leaned in toward the slim soprano, his tone careful but filled with curiosity. “And how’s Elliot? Are you still—”

“Yes, we’re still together,” replied Caroline. “He’s at Berkeley this year, enjoying the sunshine. He’s designing his own major in music journalism.”

The color drained from Ben’s face. Somehow he’d neglected to consider the possibility that Caroline was already in a relationship. But it made so much sense. Of course, Caroline would be taken.

Lucky for Ben, Greg and Caroline didn’t seem to notice his reaction, and he had a moment to recover from the sudden, overwhelming feeling of defeat.

“Good for him,” said Greg, “Although I do wish he had come to Brighton instead. I’d love to draft him for the Dinos.” Greg glanced around at the mostly refilled seats, excited by the return of his audience. “Looks like I better get things going again. Later kids!”

As Greg bounded back onstage, Caroline shook her head. “So much enthusiasm. All the girls had crushes on him—not that he was interested.”

Ben angled his head. “Oh, so he is gay. I wasn’t sure if he . . .”

“Was gay or incredibly nice?” Caroline grinned. “He’s both.”

When the lights dimmed and Greg returned onstage, he was noticeably more serious than before. He usually enjoyed his moderator/emcee duties—guiding the show, charming the crowd. But Caroline’s former classmate was only human. It wasn’t easy for him to be impartial as he introduced the other men’s singing group.

The Pikers, Washington U. in St. Louis

Greg cleared his throat and read from the scribbled print of the note card in his hand. “The next a cappella group was founded almost two decades ago by a group of guys who said ‘F these instruments – we’re gonna do it all with our mouths.’ They’ve been making sweet, passionate, strictly auditory love ever since.”

His voice was unusually firm and formal. “Please welcome Brighton’s most eligible bachelors, the Gobfellas.”

The group stumbled onstage, fake-panicking as if they had collectively slept too late and were all bolting for the shower. To say the Gobfellas’ “uniforms” were strange would be an understatement. The guy wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt stood beside a pink oxford, a tuxedo vest next to a ratty sleeveless tee. They wore slacks, a Go-Go dress, overalls, a speedo, steel boots, moccasins, tap shoes, no shoes . . .

They were letter jacket jocks, leather jacket rebels, thrift store junkies, and beach bums all at once, but Ben saw the unifying theme. The Gobfellas wore confidence, with none exhibiting more bravado than the “bro” who swaggered to the microphone.

Derek Crawford was tall and broad-shouldered, with a blonde crew cut and a deep bass voice. His cut-off muscle shirt revealed the tattoo on his upper arm—in black Helvetica, the letters GOB. Rumor had it that he quit the football team freshman year to join the Gobfellas, telling his coach he was doing it for the ladies. Brighton athletics were only D-III, but this incident was often cited as clear proof of the (heterosexual) perks of being one of the “’Fellas.”

“First of all, let’s have a big hand for Greg,” announced Derek. “He has the very, ahem, riveting job of being moderator for this fantastic event. He’s doing such an excellent job of it, too.”

The audience chuckled.

Derek addressed the crowd. “You laugh, but it’s a very serious matter. Hollis could have been like: Ladies and Gentlemen, the mother-fu**in Gobfellas are in the hizzouse! But, instead, he was like—” He paused to ready himself, and adopted his most sheepish monotone. “The Gobfellas are next. That is all.”

Backstage, Greg’s face burned with fury and embarrassment. The whole point of the emcee making the group introductions was to prevent exactly this type of grandstanding. Besides, what right did Derek have to pick on anyone in the a cappella community? The Gobfellas hardly ever contributed to ACUAC’s pre-orientation planning.

Taylor, waiting with the Chorderoys backstage, shot him a sympathetic glance.

Meanwhile, Derek wore an enormous grin as he continued to work the crowd. “You laugh, but it’s so hard, guys,” said the Fellas’ president. “Being that moderate isn’t easy. And I just want Greg to know that we in the Fellas recognize what he’s going through.”

“You’re the best, Greg!” said Derek’s accomplice, a short high-tenor who barely came up to the president’s shoulders. He was wearing Sponge Bob pajamas. “Let’s give Greg a hand!” The audience applauded merrily.

“And while we’re at it, let’s clap it up for moderation in general. Most of you are freshmen, so you’re new to this whole college thing, but I’ll tell you a secret.” Derek leaned forward. His smile was devilish. “The key to a successful college experience . . . is moderation.”

No one believed it, which is why they laughed.

The shorter Fella smirked, pulled out a pitch pipe, and blew the starting note. Clutching the sides of his PJ pants, he sang the opening riff in his high, belting voice.

The vocal percussionist laid down a thick, steady beat. A small burst of spit flew through the air with every pulse.

Derek came in on the bass line, his voice husky and ultra-resonant. He rocked back and forth, pounding his fist to his chest.

The baritones joined him on a slightly higher note, pounding their chests with his rhythm. At this point, Ben finally recognized what song the Gobfellas were building—“Let’s Get It Started” by the Black-Eyed Peas.

The second tenors joined in a little higher, followed by the first tenors in their falsettos. They all pounded their chests.

Derek spun in place and clutched the microphone. The muscled soloist beckoned to the audience, inviting them to join the rising energy. As the tempo rushed, the block of men behind him echoed his call.

The PJs-wearing tenor gave himself room, crouched his knees, and executed a sudden back-flip onstage. The crowd cheered. The Fellas pumped their first for the refrain – “Let’s Get It Started!”

Ben barely heard the hidden word being sung by the chorus – the uncensored use of “retarded” instead of “it started.” The freshman was at the edge of his seat, secretly hoping for more acrobatics.

As the song went on, the Fellas began shedding clothes, with little distinction between those who had more or fewer items to offer. Jackets, jeans, socks, a fedora, undershirts, and a giant-sized gag jockstrap all went flying into the audience.

Mr. Go-Go dress danced as if he’d lost all his bones. Tuxedo Man shook his booty for the ladies in the front row. Moccasins attempted “the Worm” onstage, disregarding the detriment to his man parts. Pajamas McSquarepants jumped on Derek’s shoulders, signing “rock on!” to the sky with his pinkie and forefinger.

For the final pose, the ensemble posed as not-so-classy strippers—modeling pale thighs, slapping bottoms, stroking furry chests—while Derek faded out with the bass line.

The audience ate it up, responding with applause and cheers and hysterical laughter. Girls screamed as if they might faint. From his corner backstage, Greg shook his head. The Gobfellas might not be the most musically sophisticated—the audience’s emotional response certainly wasn’t a deep one—but they did know how to entertain. Year after year with the same Black Eyed Peas’ hit, yet they always kept the energy high.

The Fellas bowed—except for Go-Go dress, who curtsied—and scrambled offstage.

As Greg tried to quiet the crowd for the last group introduction, Taylor paced back and forth. When the Chorderoys had drawn the final position in the singing order, the group president had been ecstatic. Every group wanted to be last so they could make a strong final impression. But following the Gobfellas was going to be more difficult than he’d imagined. When Taylor walked onstage with the Chorderoys, he doubted their classic song-with-a-twist would be at all memorable in comparison.

Unlike Dani’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the audience recognized the tune of the Chorderoys’ number almost immediately. Smiles swept the crowd as they absorbed the familiar “string” bass, the light soprano “chimes,” the feel-good Motown groove. Taylor’s nerves led him to flub a little on the top note of his high tenor entrance, but he forced a smile nonetheless.

Watching from the back of the auditorium, Dani chuckled and shook her head. Her presidential rival had a weakness: He enunciated too much for Motown. She loved listening closely for him to over-pronounce the t’s in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Back when they were on speaking terms, she’d teased him for singing with all the diction of an ESL teacher.

After Dark, Washington U. in St. Louis

But Dani’s amusement subsided when Olivia joined the song. The Chorderoys’ recruitment coordinator sported her tightest white dress and blue stilettos. As she sang, she gently caressed Taylor’s arm.

Dani hated just about everything about Olivia Goldfarb, but she especially resented her when she flirted with Taylor onstage. Dani looked on, disgusted, as Olivia put her hand on Taylor’s chest, and stared up at him with wide, inviting eyes.

Taylor was careful not to publicize details about his personal life, probably because he knew how quickly news traveled in Brighton’s a cappella rumor circuit. But Dani’s powers of observation were astute. She had deduced on her own what she knew Taylor was trying to hide: He and Olivia were sleeping together. By Dani’s estimation, they’d been hooking up for almost a year.

For the line about valleys, Olivia rubbed her hands on her hips and shimmied down suggestively.

Dani, whose knowledge of pop music bordered on encyclopedic, actually gagged. What an insult to all the classy performers who had sung that song! Sweet Tammi Terrell must be rolling in her grave! Diana Ross should sue for defamation! Dani searched the auditorium, but it seemed that no one else was appalled by Olivia’s public display of promiscuity. The Gobfellas’ full-blown striptease must have dulled their sense of decency.

But Dani’s spiteful state was soon interrupted by an unexpected musical development. Suddenly, the Chorderoys were singing gentle doo’s, the revelry of Motown melting away into a heavenly major chord.

Dylan Genesius was a smooth-voiced high tenor with such a youthful appearance that he could have his ID checked for being at the mall past ten on a school night. In conversations, he was reliably sarcastic, but his singing voice was warm and calming. No one in the crowd had ever heard Maroon 5 sung so earnestly. His high notes for “She Will Be Loved” were golden.

Ben shot Caroline a quick, half-subconscious glance before refocusing his attention on the soloist.

The soprano didn’t notice. Caroline would later mark that specific moment as the first time a cappella music gave her chills. This was precisely the kind of innovation she’d missed in high school show choir. Even before the mash-up, she’d love the way the arrangement emulated the instrumentation of the original, how the background alternately echoed and challenged the melody line. She knew two things: She was now definitely trying out for collegiate a cappella, and her new group crush was the Chorderoys.

After this brief interlude, Dylan stepped back and the audience was thrust once more into the sweet buoyancy of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The final chorus stacked all the parts together: Taylor and Olivia’s duet; a Diana Ross-style descant; swelling altos and tenors; a thumping bass; and a reprise of the hopeful anthem, “She Will Be Loved.”

Taylor had been stage-grinning the entire song, but it was only when he heard the roar of applause from the audience that he allowed a natural smile to stretch across his face. He glowed as the Chorderoys absorbed the praise.

After a few moments, Greg returned to the stage. As moderator, it was his responsibility to give the closing speech of the night, and he began by inviting each of the groups up for one last bow. It was an impressive sight as the six groups filed back on, the stage becoming a sea of colored uniforms: red-and-black Harmoniums next to white-and-blue Chorderoys; green-vested Dinos next to black-and-gold La*chaim—the Jewish music a cappella group, silver rhinestone-wearing ladies of the Diamondtones next to the . . . eclectically-dressed Gobfellas.

After Greg finished his announcements, Ben and Caroline remained in their seats to discuss the show. Current a cappella singers, however, did not have the luxury of relaxation. The performers rushed to the outer rim of the auditorium to their various group tables, eager to sell CDs, distribute candy, and, most importantly, sign up auditionees. Other singers served as roaming representatives for their groups, going out into the crowd with clipboards, mingling and filling spots on their audition sign-up sheets.

These “grassroots” recruiters were selected strategically, especially in the co-ed groups. As experts in the recruitment process, both Taylor and Dani had a thorough understanding of the way in which physical attraction could aid them in enlisting new singers. Though their groups were rivals, their strategies were the same: Use attractive and congenial a cappella girls to lure potential male auditionees, who were always harder to come by than female auditionees. Indeed, there was some truth to Dani’s assessment that every recruiting year should be guy-focused. Each fall, at least three girls tried out for every boy, making testosterone a perpetually limited and precious resource in the a cappella world.

Further complicating the matter, co-ed groups also had to compete with the respective allures of the two all-male groups at Brighton. Neither the Harmoniums nor the Chorderoys could offer the same fraternal vibe as the Gobfellas or Dinos, that is, the prospect of hanging out with a fun-loving and rowdy group of dudes (who sang). The solution was to use especially friendly female salespersons to emphasize the perks of being in a co-ed group. (Both presidents, of course, recognized that not every boy would respond to this method, but from a purely statistical perspective, the gay men in the audience usually proved likelier to try out even without coaxing.)

The circumstances gave Dani an advantage over Taylor. The president of the Harmoniums stood in a corner, talking to a group of mostly men about how much she loved singing that solo for her favorite ensemble. She peppered the “group love” messages she was spewing with reminders to sign-up for an audition before it was too late. “Make sure you write your e-mail address legibly so we can reach you!” she said, with a little laugh.

Luckily, Taylor had plenty of support from Olivia. Thus far, the recruitment coordinator had followed Taylor’s instructions perfectly, from her clothing and general appearance to the choreographed flirtation of their duet. Now, however, Olivia relied on her instincts. She slinked through the crowd, clipboard in hand, honing in on potential auditionees. Olivia prided herself on having mastered the acaflirt. When a boy walked past wearing a Bears hat, Olivia exclaimed that she was a huge Bears fan! Suddenly excited, “the target” began to rant about the current team roster, the new management, the stadium. Olivia nodded when it seemed appropriate. She raked her mind – were the Bears a basketball team?— all the while smiling coyly and batting her eyelashes. She hid her ignorance well enough, however, and ultimately convinced the Bears fan, his roommate, and two other guys from his floor to sign up for audition slots.

It was not in Taylor’s nature to stand idly by while others were hard at work. Instead, he instructed Gary, the Chorderoys’ shy bass, to man the group table selling old albums while Taylor grabbed another clipboard and went after targets of his own.

Within seconds, he found himself talking to a petite freshman girl who told him that she had plenty of singing experience but was afraid of signing up. “I’m pre-med,” she explained. “I don’t want to overextend myself.” Taylor hated that word and the annoying way in which Brighton U. students used it. Of course, he knew from experience that a cappella cutting into one’s academic or social life was a legitimate concern. But the Chorderoys needed fresh talent! Despite her reservations, Taylor persuaded her to sign up for an audition time. She could make those pesky time-management decisions later.

Soon Taylor found himself talking to yet another nervous freshman. Her hand trembled as she signed her name. She informed the Chorderoys’ leader that she was afraid of singing in public. Taylor resisted the urge to mouth off that she was without a doubt unique, that he’d never in his life heard of such a phobia, but instead, he smiled politely and urged her to sign up anyway. “What have you got to lose by trying?” he asked. His stage-grin had returned.

In truth, part of Taylor genuinely envied the freshmen, who were merely trying out. In a way, they had much less reason to be nervous. If a freshman auditioned and failed to make one of the groups, this simply meant that they were beaten out by other candidates, usually people they didn’t know and perhaps would never meet. Generally, freshmen were resilient; they responded by joining Student Government, or the debate team, or any other of the multitude of student organizations on campus. There was always something else to consume an awfully high proportion of their time and energy.

For Taylor, however, the stakes were much higher. He couldn’t simply jump ship and join the Anime Appreciation Club if the Chorderoys had a “humbling” audition season; not in his junior year, especially not as group president. And unlike the freshmen, he was very familiar with his competition. Losing now would make Dani’s exceptionally self-assured smile even more unbearable.

And so, Taylor moved determinedly through the crowd, small-talking and goading and acaflirting until, at last, all the time-slots on his clipboard were filled.

Next: Check Out the Book on Amazon

This chapter was originally published online on November 13, 2009
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