Back in 2011 I heard Kanye West's Heartless play during a scene of The Chicago Code. While the FOX drama didn't last more than a season, Heartless stuck with me. I wanted the song to be more than just something I could listen to and sing along to - I wanted to deconstruct it, understand what made it create a cool mood, and bring it to more people. It was the first time that I really noticed that the background parts of the song had their own personality and voice as emotive as the vocalist's. I eventually decided to download the music notation software Finale, create an arrangement for voice, and invite my friends over from my show choir to try to sing through it. When we performed it at the high school spring concert, I knew that a cappella was a way I wanted to express myself.
In my second year of college, I joined an a cappella group at UConn called Conn-Men. My brother was in the group when I entered college, so I had seen the Conn-Men perform several times before I joined. Every concert was a display of fantastic musicianship, mediocre taste in song selection, and above all else, personality. In between every song, flannel-dapped guys were interrupting each other with jokes, clearly having a good time with each other while performing, and improvising choreography behind the soloists. Everyone was competing for the spotlight, almost to the detriment of the performance. In my first semester with the group, I felt conflicted every time I performed, wanting to do something funny to get laughs from the audience and get noticed. Any time I did, I was upset with myself, taking attention away from the other performers or the message of the song. On the side of the performer, I realized how much power the audience has over the people on stage, making them willing to do almost anything to feel the love of the crowd.
By my second semester in the group, I was prepared to make a statement to address how I felt. At our song-selection meeting where the group selects which songs we will learn and perform for the semester, I presented an arrangement I prepared over the previous winter break. I wanted the group to perform a song about the conflict I felt about the relationship between performers and the audience. I wanted a song whose message would be amplified rather than undermined by the consistent one-upsmanship of the guys. I couldn’t let the group know that this was my intention though, so I presented Crazy (In Love), a mash-up of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy with Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, as just that – a fun mash-up. Mash-ups are an a cappella staple and a typically uninspired artistic decision – the stitching together of two dissimilar songs just for the sake of putting them together. Audiences love mashups because they get to hear something new and something familiar at the same time. I knew at the very least, that the audience would enjoy this arrangement. For audience members who paid attention to the lyrics and how the two songs interacted with each other in the mash-up, as well as how the performers interacted with each other, they might find there was more meaning than what was on the surface.
The arrangement opens with the bombast of Crazy in Love, establishing the brass personality of the group and falsely preparing the audience for a by-the-numbers high-energy Beyoncé cover. Instead, when the chorus enters, the song halts, proceeding cautiously with minor harmonies that establish a haunting mood. By suddenly shifting tone and breaking expectations, audience members are surprised and their attention is focused, trying to make sense of what has occurred. The intention is for audiences to identify this as the thesis – “Got me looking so crazy right now, you’re love’s got me looking so crazy right now.” It is the love of the audience, or perceived love, that gets performers acting crazy, as was seen in the opening fanfare. Stripping the arrangement down to vocals and beatbox suggests awareness and vulnerability. For audience members who aren’t paying attention, they’ve hopefully enjoyed thus far a nice reinterpretation of a great pop hit. For those actively listening, they’ve watched the performers essentially break the fourth wall.
After the hook to Crazy in Love, a soloist steps forward, distancing himself from the group to perform sections from the Gnarls Barkley hit Crazy. Distancing one member from the pack is crucial to the meaning of the arrangement. The soloist serves as the conscience of the group, questioning whether or not the behavior of vying for the attention and love of the audience is healthy and condonable or if it makes him crazy. The first verse, in this context, tells the story of falling in love with the feeling of performing and acting ridiculous on stage (I remember when I lost my mind//there was something so pleasant about that place//even your emotions have an echo in so much space) and the worry that this might not be acceptable behavior (And when you’re out there without care, yeah, I was out of touch…does that make me crazy?).
As the song continues, the lead horn line and “uh-oh uh-oh uh-oh oh no no,” line from Crazy in Love seep in as motifs for the temptation of allowing yourself to be immersed in the love of the audience. Eventually, the bridge from Crazy in Love takes over with full-steam-ahead energy and spot-on lyrics about acting out. The most telling moment is the lyric, “I’ve been playing myself but baby I don’t care cause your love’s got the best of me.” as the song tonally shifts back to major, suggesting this behavior isn’t a bad thing and can be embraced.
The song climaxes in conflict as the hooks to Crazy and Crazy in Love are sung over each other, the former by an isolated and aware soloist, the latter by members of the chorus of idiots. Neither the ideology of Crazy nor Crazy in Love win out. Instead, in a final verse, in which the mood shifts back to major, the soloist addresses the audience, singing, “And I hope that you are having the time of your life, but think twice, that’s my only advice.” telling the audience to enjoy the performance but to also recognize their responsibility to the performer and how their applause and attention stirs in the performers a struggle. The song ends hauntingly on the Crazy in Love motif to emphasize the implications of the concluding lyrics.
What I created was an experience for two groups. For the performers, I arranged a song that was fun and original, allowing them to act goofy if they want to. For the audience, I provided them with a mashup of two songs they likely enjoy. As an audience member, I always wanted to feel like the performers were singing a song for a reason greater than it was a song they liked and wanted to perform. For the audience members who are also looking for a message from the group in their song selection, I hope they found it in this song.
Who Did That to You?
During my sophomore year of college, I started taking music theory classes at UConn. Music had always been an important part of my life, and I wanted to expand my knowledge and understanding of how I could interact with it. After my junior year, I entered the summer with four music theory courses under my belt and a desire to experiment with what I'd learned.
Looking for a song to arrange, I thought about the usual considerations made to select a song. Because a cappella music is only vocals, a song can't be made more interesting by introducing new instruments. As a result, what tends to make a good a cappella song is one that builds and has harmonic and rhythmic variety to keep the audience's attention. I decided to challenge myself and take on Who Did That to You, a standout track from the Django: Unchained soundtrack and a rather repetitive record with little variety.
The song has a swagger and intensity that I wanted to retain in the arrangement while also giving it a personality that matched the group. I began by thickening the chords by adding 7ths, something I'd learned in my theory classes, to make it sound almost operatic. I incorporated a plagal cadence, also known as the "amen cadence" to create a pause after the lyric, "I'm gon' handle my business in the name of the lord." to turn the singers behind the soloist into a sort of Greek chorus. To add more humor, I used the iPhone ringtone melody to accompany the lyrics, "my judgement's divine, I'll tell you who you can call."
Throughout the song I tried to make small moments out of the repetitive material of the original track. What we ended up with was a tight 3-minute song filled with small surprises for the audience.
College a cappella concerts, especially invitationals involving performances by several groups, tend to have eclectic set-lists, littered with songs from a variety of decades and genres and countries. Looking for a song to arrange over my summer break in 2015, I wanted to make a statement about the moment and the zeitgeist, drawing attention to how the songs at the top of the charts all had similar messages.
I put together Fetty Wap's Trap Queen, The Weeknd's Can't Feel my Face, and Alex Jaehn's remix of OMI's Cheerleader to make Summer 2015. The song weaves in and out of each song, layering parts from one on top of another and sharing the spotlight. While intended for Conn-Men, the song was never performed. I think that part of the reason the group didn't respond to the song is because it doesn't quite succeed in the medium of a cappella. While all of the lines can be sung and performed by people, the draw to the source material is largely the auto-tuned effects and modern production, not so-much the song's arrangement. A better realization might instead be as a mash-up of the records in a DJ mix.
During my junior year with Conn-Men, we received funding from the UConn Undergraduate Student Government to record an album. In addition to having my arrangement of Crazy/Crazy in Love (Medley) appear on the album, my submission for the album cover and name for the album, a word another member of the group had invented, was selected by the group.