I have, over the last week or so, found myself obsessively watching YouTube videos by the a cappella group Pentatonix, and perhaps even more obsessively watching reaction videos to Pentatonix videos. I don’t think I’m yet obsessive enough to be a Pentaholic (which is what fans of the group call themselves) but it must be getting close.
Reaction videos are a very strange phenomenon, which I tend to watch as a guilty pleasure because I find them either sociologically mystifying or amusing. Am I showing my age when I react with amazement as someone says they have never knowingly heard Steely Dan or The Animals or, God help us, The Beatles? And you have to admit it is funny, in a shocking kind of way, to watch two educated and musically aware American kids listen to “Lola” by The Kinks for the first time and (a) think it is describing a sleazy nightclub in somewhere like Havana, and (b) completely miss the cross-dressing references. I mean, I remember when the song first came out in 1970; I was still a fairly naive teenager, but even so I knew it was set in “a bar down in old Soho”, and I couldn’t miss the fact that “I know I’m a man, and so is Lola.”
But reaction videos to Pentatonix seem to be a very different sort of thing. For a start, there is a curious pattern to them. If you happen upon the very first time the person is listening to the group (for some reason it is almost invariably to their version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), their script is pretty well identical. They start by fumbling the name: “This is a group called Pen … Pen … Pentonicks? Is that how you pronounce it?” (I’ve heard musicians, who should know about the pentatonic scale, have the same problems.) Then you either get: “I’m told this is an a cappella group, and I don’t really like a cappella”, or the video is stopped within the first few seconds with: “Woah! Is this a cappella? Nobody told me it was a cappella.” From that point on, comments follow a very familiar course, they get goosebumps within the first minute, they exclaim at how deep that guy’s voice is, they complain that they can hear a drum so they must be using instruments, they get orgasmic over the girl’s voice and then are stunned into awed silence by the guy with the high voice (“I didn’t expect that!”),and they wonder why they haven’t heard from the black guy who’s banging his chest and stamping his feet. The end is always the same: “Wow!”
After that, there will inevitably be a second Pentatonix reaction (usually, this time, to their version of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”), and often recorded within a day or two of the first. But this is very different. By this time they know the names of everyone in the group, as if they’ve been best buddies since childhood: “Oh, that must be Matt who replaced Avi, isn’t his voice a perfect fit for the rest of the guys.”
While I was on holiday, I read One, Two, Three, Four by Craig Brown about The Beatles. When discussing the fan reactions to the group there are constant references to the girls who were convinced they were going to marry one or other of the Fab Four. The thing is, The Beatles were so fresh, so innovative, so exciting and so engaging that those who heard them felt drawn into a strange intimacy with them. I think there is something similar with Pentatonix, that same sense that the beauty and the novelty of what they are doing speaks to each listener individually. We are not observing a group, we are being drawn into an extraordinary family. Those sounds are addressed to me, to me, to me, they give me goosebumps, they make me gasp. The only way to respond to the group is to know them, even if only vicariously.
I first came to Pentatonix like, it would appear, so many of the makers of reaction videos, through “Hallelujah”.
I wouldn’t say that I love the song, it is by no means one of my favourite Leonard Cohen tracks, but it fascinates me. Part of this fascination lies in the mutability of the song. There are a huge number of verses (I seem to remember Cohen saying at one point that he had written something like 20 verses for the song), and each version picks different verses, so that each version is, in effect, a different song. I am wondering if there are verses that have never been sung. Thus, of the four verses sung by Pentatonix, for example, three are familiar (the first two are in just about every version you will hear), but they also choose one of the less familiar verses, and one which thus gives a slightly chillier, haunting affect to their rendition.
One of the fascinations of the song is that the lyrics in the first verse of the song actually lay out its musical structure. The first five lines of the verse are as follows:
I heard there was a secret chord
That David sang and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift
Okay, a little basic music theory. Each key runs through the seven letters of the musical alphabet from the note for which the key is named. The key that is invariably used as an example of this is the key of C, because it is the one key in which there are no sharps and flats. The key of C thus runs: C D E F G A B. The chords that belong in any key always follow a particular pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. The chords that belong in the key of C, therefore, are: 1st – C major (usually just C), 2nd – D minor (usually Dm), 3rd – Em, 4th – F, 5th – G, 6th – Am, 7th – Bdim.
Most (though not all) of the transcriptions of “Hallelujah” I have seen put it in the key of C. Therefore, the chords for the last two lines I quoted follow the lyrics exactly. The line starts in C; with the words “the fourth” the music switches to the fourth chord, F; for “the fifth” it switches to the fifth chord, G; “the minor fall” is in Am; and “the major lift” takes us back to F major. It’s a fairly common chord progression, but I find it endlessly fascinating how Cohen fits together words and music in this way.
One of the other fascinations about the song is that it is, like anything by Cohen, very wordy. It demands attention to the lyrics which means that the diction has to be clear. Yet at the same time it demands a slur, “ya” not “you” in order to rhyme with “Hallelu-JAH”. When I was working at Canary Wharf, I once came upon an outdoor concert by a singer who was clearly classically trained and had a very fine voice. But at one point he started singing “Hallelujah” and when, in the first verse, he sang “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” I turned and walked away. By his careful, precise, correct pronunciation, he had destroyed the rhythm and pattern and hence the sense of the lyrics.
The Pentatonix version begins, as so many of their songs do, with Scott (yes, I know, forgive me and bear with me) stepping forward to sing the first line or two unaccompanied. He has a warm baritone, though he can sing a very resonant bass (as in, for instance, “The Sound of Silence”), and here he sings quietly with a little vocal fry (the crackle that you get at the back of the voice) that makes this an intimate whisper, from which the volume will subsequently soar.
The harmony as it comes in is also quiet, ooo’s and mmm’s. But as the verse ends the group starts to arpeggiate the chords, that is, each individually singing one of the notes of the chord. This starts to change the dynamic of the rendition. Avi, the bass, takes the second verse – “Your faith was strong but you needed proof / you saw her bathing on the roof” – singing in a very creamy, sweet low baritone.
As the verse ends, Kevin starts thumping his chest and stamping his foot and creating all sorts of rhythmic noises in his mouth. This is what some people have heard as a drum kit, but it is just a very skilled example of beatboxing. To get the full effect, try their video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which, at one point, he perfectly emulates a full drum kit, snare and hi-hat and tympani and so on. This again increases the pulse of the song, making it more urgent, more powerful.
Kirsten takes the third verse – “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / but love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and its a broken hallelujah” – and I may be mistaken but I think there’s an effortless key change at this point. Her voice soars as the harmony vocals get louder and more urgent. Then, suddenly, it all falls away and in the abrupt silence we get Mitch singing the final verse – “Maybe there’s a God above / but all I ever learned of love / was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.” Mitch is a wonder, he has a crystal clear high tenor almost verging on the countertenor. He has a range of somewhere in the region of four octaves, and I have never heard this part of the song without a shiver.
Then all the voices start to merge for the ecstatic climax. For a while Scott’s voice is dominant, then, as it climbs higher, Kirsten takes the lead. Meanwhile Avi rumbles out a low counter-melody. Just as it seems it can get no higher, it all falls away again, ending on a low, soft hum that echoes the quiet of the opening. The last note you hear is a bass note from Avi so low it is almost subliminal.
The thing about this video is how controlled it is, the timing is immaculate, and the voices, all very different, blend perfectly together. Of course, this is a recording made in a studio, but if you search YouTube you will find film of live performances that are pretty well indistinguishable from this recording.
Kirsten, Mitch and Scott were friends at school in a small Texas town. They had been singing together for years when they decided to form a group. But to do that they realised they need some lower notes to underpin their own voices. A friend introduced them to Avi, and another friend showed them a YouTube video of Kevin playing cello and beatboxing at the same time (which strikes me as like patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously). Kevin and Avi joined the group and they entered a TV talent show called “Sing Out”. I’ve no idea if this is still a thing, but it seems to have run for several years, with vocal groups competing for a big cash prize and a recording contract. Video of most if not all of their performances from the show can be found online. There are a couple duff songs, but in the main they strike me as every bit as clever, inventive, and musically sophisticated as any of their later work. The stand-out, for me, is perhaps their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
They won easily, of course, but the record company broke the contract before they even saw the inside of a recording studio. But they decided to stay together and put their stuff out on YouTube to get attention. At some point they recorded a medley of songs from Daft Punk which, according to rumour, they recorded in a kitchen cupboard for less than $400. Nevertheless, the effect is stunning, and it won them the first of their numerous Grammy Awards.
Now, their videos routinely get millions of views (“Hallelujah”, at the time of writing, has had 564 million views), they have a shelf full of awards, and they have, of course, a recording contract.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I want to have any of those records. But I will give anything to see them live.