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Pentatonix wins NBC’s Sing Off

We’re singing the “Afro Blues” - the Lowering of America’s Music IQ


Global - Much congratulations to third-season Sing Off winners - Pentatonix - they are a great group with extraordinary music acumen.  With a cash purse of $200,000.00, they are now also Sony Music recording artists - with their contract in hand as part of the Sing Off grand prize.  Pentatonix brought a unique “voice” and set of arrangements each week to the stage and audience.  Their two rhythm anchors, Kevin Olusola and Avi Kaplan (the latter is one of the top bassists ever on Sing-Off) have been phenomenal throughout the season, while velvet-voiced lead, showbiz-ready Scott Hoying has been “the man” - quite effective and competent every time.  He is a veteran performer known to national audiences prior to appearing on Sing Off.

Pentatonix is an incredible talent. Their sound is huge - much bigger than you would expect from a vocal quintet. One of the key ingredients to this massive sound is the multi-talented Kevin Olusola.  Besides anchoring the group’s rhythm section, this Yale graduate is an accomplished cello player, pianist and saxophonist - in addition to being pre-med.  As a performing artist in his own right, Kevin combines a style of cello playing in combination with his beat-box skills that is revolutionary, and which garnered him second place in 2009’s “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” international competition.  Check Kevin out in a video a bit later in this article.

But back to Sing Off: and what a difference a week makes. Pentatonix has indeed won the third edition of the Sing Off competition. They are to be lauded for their efforts, talent and work throughout the season.  However, I cannot help but feel that NBC’s Sing Off producers and judges contributed mightily to the musical  ‘dumbing’  down of America.

Ironically, it was only a week ago that I felt that Sing Off was single-handedly responsible for raising America’s music IQ.  Of course that was before judges lost their minds and musical integrity by eliminating the group “Afro Blue” from the finals (click for last week’s article on this).

In the week since I have had time to read many comments of the show’s fans and even that of one of the adjudicators, Ben Folds, in reaction to Afro Blues’ elimination.  Ben Folds’ comment in his NBC Sing Off blog was troubling, embarrassing (for him - or should be) and even indirectly demeaning, although the latter may not have been his intention.

The most defining comment I read was by a poster on NBC’s comment box who said essentially - she could take Afro Blues’ elimination if it had been dictated by the viewers, but to have it done by the judges, was unconscionable.

In the time passed between that penultimate episode and the show finals, I haven’t heard or seen one attempt toward a justifiable musical explanation as to why Afro Blue was not in the finals.  It is interesting how many of the great professional musical minds on the planet have chosen to go silent on the subject.

The artist needs to create, perform and record to fulfill his/her artistic endeavors.  Sing Off has provided Afro Blue with the basics in this regard - the platform.  The members of Afro Blue are too talented to not move forward.  And we did learn without question that judges have the ability not only to affect outcome, but they also affect creativity - and standards.

The beauty of the Sing Off competition is that it originally allowed each group to bring its own style to the table and create something new/different musically; something that allowed the audience to say “Wow, that was great! How did they think of that?”

You would think that one - meaning me - would be used to these shenanigans by now, after years of strange and incompetent steelband panorama competition adjudication - packed on with additional quirky adjudicator comments, especially in New York.  The shelf life of shows like Sing Off is limited and they have now done irreparable harm to the show’s image and brand with the judges’ final ruling in the penultimate show last week. The show’s “nervous” attempt of damage-control by bringing back Afro Blue to perform with Smokey Robinson, is laughable.

Afro Blue
“I looked forward to America having the chance to vote on Afro Blue in the finals. That was much-anticipated and the eventual outcome highly acceptable. Phenomenal performances over the season assured the group at least their place in the finals. But it was judges Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles who scuttled that richly-deserved opportunity.

Unfortunately, I had called this two weeks before it happened, that is, that Afro Blue would be sent home to get them out of the way. Literally.

I told a colleague that given the relegation of Afro Blue to the “bottom two” on several occasions for bewildering reasons, that the judges, whether under ‘producer pressure’ or whatever factor(s) - had to get rid of Afro Blue themselves, before leaving it up to America to vote, potentially giving them their shot at winning. So said, so done.

If I could make it happen, I would personally hand over one million dollars as a prize to Afro Blue instantly, along with a recording contract. That way, we all win. Afro Blue (this incarnation, with this set of singers) would have their recording contract, and some cash in hand individually after taxes, the music industry would have a superior and talented group to look forward to and enjoy, Afro Blue could get back to work immediately doing what they do best - music.
And Sing Off could continue along its merrily, compromised, way.”

This evening, I watched the final show out of professional courtesy, but my colleague said she would not - and did not - (check out her comments on the side bar).  This unfortunately is too much reminiscent of the many great steelpan musicians who left the panorama scene out of frustration with judges’ decisions, and who would often say “why bother?”

Let’s hope that the stakeholders in the steelband musical panorama competitions worldwide have learned some inescapable lessons from this Sing Off season three; or they risk validating mediocrity as the norm while simultaneously lowering the musical IQ of their fans.

Sing Off’s judges and producers did a disservice to America and the eventual winners Pentatonix.  Everyone lost in this one. Unfortunately the show’s producers will not take this as a hint - that they need to recruit or seek talent that can now challenge the level set by Afro Blue.  And they also need to work toward encouraging coherent and competent adjudication.

The judges’ decision is final; then again - no, it is not.  Just ask Ken “Professor” Philmore and Fonclaire Steel Orchestra in relationship to “Pan By Storm” in the annual Trinidad & Tobago Steelband Panorama competition.  Moreover, just ask the wider steelpan community -  and whether they were, or were not, fans of Fonclaire - who, to this day declare that the judges’ decision was flawed - some twenty-one years later.

Ironically, Afro Blue is, in this writer’s opinion, the most gifted and musically imposing group to grace the Sing Off stage to date since the show’s inception. Across three seasons of Sing Off their musicianship was second to none.

When the judges in essence directed Afro Blue to “dumb it down” (my words, not theirs) because the group was operating above their (the judges’) heads - they shot themselves and the eventual winners in the foot - (not to mention our musical intellect and/or ability to grow), and they put several things in motion. 

Members of Pentatonix look shocked at Afro Blue's elimination last week

The judges immediately lost credibility, Afro Blue was denied the freedom to be totally themselves and display their full ability musically, and now ultimately Pentatonix has been denied the validation that comes with knowing they have won out overall after competing in the finals - with only the best.  Members of Pentatonix looked shocked (go to 81:00 in the video) at Afro Blue’s elimination last week; they had understood who their real competition should have been. Most importantly the audience was denied the opportunity of growing musically while being entertained and educated.

Hence we are all less, musically, than we could have been.

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click for last week’s comments and article - Sing Off’s Afro Blue experience some Panorama Blues: The conflict of art and competition