Michael Jackson and A Cappella

You’d be hard-pressed to find a person unaware of the death of Michael Jackson on June 25 of this year. Due to his iconic status worldwide, coverage of his passing was as frequent as it was widespread.

A great deal of discussion hinged upon the lower points in his life; his legal and financial woes, his seeming addiction to pain medications, his use of plastic surgery to escape his discomfort with his outer – and inner – self.

But for many, the loss of this troubled talent signified losing a source of hope to those who fought, and still fight, to overcome adversity. And most of all, his death meant an irreplaceable loss to the music industry. He was the King of Pop, and the genre hasn’t been the same since he revolutionized it into something temporarily respectable. His work motivated an entire generation of musicians, and regardless of what some may feel about the man, no one can deny his identity as a truly gifted musician.

In the a cappella world alone, many of its participants name Jackson as one of their greatest sources of inspiration. And Jackson’s biggest hits are among some of the most frequently arranged and performed songs by groups the world over. Songs from the highest points of his career (both with the Jackson 5, as well as his solo work) are performed by groups now, decades after their initial release – and are still received enthusiastically by audiences.

Some of the more prominent examples in our community’s history include the Amherst College Zumbyes performing “Thriller” at the Finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A cappella (and many other brackets of competition nationwide), and the mash-up of “Billie Jean” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” by the Stanford Everyday People, as heard on the 2002 edition of the Best of Collegiate A cappella compilation.

After his passing, groups found ways to pay homage to Jackson’s contributions to their set lists over the years. For example, the Academical Village People set up a simple tribute on their MySpace page by posting their recorded interpretations of Jackson’s works.

But to go beyond the specific, a simple search for a cappella covers on YouTube will further illuminate the broad scope of his impact on the a cappella world. Pages upon pages of groups performing hits such as “Beat It,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “I Want You Back,” can be found from concerts as recent as this spring.

And as you watch these groups perform Jackson’s songs, it becomes apparent that, beyond offering groups a wide range of catchy songs, the simultaneously precise and ferocious manner of his performances seemed to push these groups to find their own “next level.” It appears to be engrained in this generation of a cappella singers that, when performing Jackson’s music, it’s necessary to kick their standards up a proverbial notch; to execute the right moves and keep them sharp, to enlist a soloist with charisma and serious vocal chops, to keep arrangements sharp and engaging – in short, to take everything they have, and leave it all on the stage, the way the original artist did.

Perhaps this is the best way to pay tribute – and groups will pay tribute. This fall’s roster of new songs for collegiate groups will likely be loaded with various Jackson covers and medleys. But more than that, one can only hope that his music continues to motivate a cappella groups to new heights of performance quality and musicality.

Written By Candice Leigh Helfand

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