The acts that performed in all three seasons of The Sing-Off are formidable and the performances they deliver are of superior quality. The champions of the first two seasons, Puerto Rico’s Nota and Alabama’s Committed, have consistency and the quality of their performances were generally indeed the creamiest in their seasons. But as brilliant as these two groups were, their styles tend to harken to older musical styles, and are rather too familiar–Nota specializes in mixing in Latin flavor in their contemporary pop tunes, while Committed is essentially very similar to Boyz II Men, with extra “church” thrown in. So far the albums they released only managed to chart at the lower half of the Billboard 200. There ought to be an a cappella act that could be relevant and radio-ready to break through…
…and I think we found it with Pentatonix, the 3rd season champion.
So who are Pentatonix, and why do I think they are so special?
The core of the group is formed by three high school friends from Martin High School in Arlington, Texas: Scott Hoying, Kristie Maldonado, and Mitch Grassi. Individually, they are stellar vocalists in their own right. Scott is the most experienced and the one who already had previous national TV exposure, having competed in the 2004 revival of Star Search (hosted by Arsenio Hall)–junior singer category, of course (he was 12 then). During his stint he performed a whitebread Billy Gilman number titled “There’s A Hero”, a commendable though just-okay and clearly imperfect performance. He lost against Karina Pasiano during that time. Anyway, it’s a good thing that as he grew up his voice evolved into this highly appealing radio-friendly low-tenor/high-baritone range, developed a taste for more current Pop, Soul and R&B music, and learned to connect with the songs he sings better, making him a more compelling performer and vocalist.
Kirstie and Mitch, meanwhile, were oriented towards musical theater in high school as most of their performances feature repertoire from Broadway musicals.
I think it’s a blessing they were enrolled in Martin High School in Arlington, Texas as this school seemed to be a perfect nurturing ground for their talents. Contrast this to the fictional McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio of the TV series Glee, as it is likely this trio would be perfect Slushie bait there. They do seem to each have a Glee character archetype from what I have observed: Scott is like Blaine if he has Finn’s body*, Kirstie is like an amalgam of Rachel and Tina, while based on voice alone Mitch is obviously like Kurt.
* NOTE: Darren Criss, the one who is playing Blaine, originally auditioned for Finn’s role, which went of course to Cory Monteith.
If these three were to compete individually, they would each make a strong impression in the likes of American Idol, The Voice, and X Factor. Scott would probably make the most impact, probably even going as far as Top 3 on Idol or even X Factor. Mitch would make most serious inroads in The Voice with that distinctively high tenor voice of his (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Cee-Lo Green would probably be battling over him). Though Kirstie is an undeniably talented and strong vocalist, she may get the short-end of the stick here as because she’s trained to be malleable from the Broadway repertoire she sang in high school, it would make it seem that her voice lacks a “unique” or “distinctive” quality that would allow her to make serious inroads into any of these individual competitions, so the most she would probably end up is a semifinalist in any of those contests (albeit a well-regarded, should’ve-made-farther type of contestant like, say American Idol Season 9’s Katelyn Epperly or Lilly Scott or Season 10’s Kendra Chantelle).
But as fate would have it, these three friends decided to become a group, generating initial buzz as Scott uploaded their version of “Telephone” on YouTube, and then received offers to perform like as an interval act in their high school’s spring concert, shown below. They also performed two more songs as a trio that are posted on YouTube, Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” and Katy Perry’s “Firework“. They also are friends with American Idol Season 9 semifinalist Todrick Hall, and collaborated on a number where they set a Starbucks order into a song.
Even as they were catching sparks as a trio, obviously they were aspiring for something bigger, to be an ongoing concern and to have thriving careers as performers, preferably together as a group. First, they know the best way to get national exposure as an a cappella act is to compete onThe Sing-Off. Second, they know that to compete and win (with a recording contract), they would need to have a distinctively full-bodied sound, something that cannot be achieved by three members. One thing they realized they crucially needed to fulfill their “Eye of the Tiger” ambition is a rhythm section, so they could focus better on their strengths with melodies and harmonies.
After graduating high school, Scott enrolled in the University of Southern California and joined the a cappella vocal group SoCal Vocals (not to be confused with The Sing-Off Season 1 act, the SoCals, who are alumni of that group) and while he was there, he learned of a great vocal bass named Avi Kaplan through a friend. Avi was part of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) champion group of 2009, Fermata Nowhere, where he also earned distinction as “Best Rhythm Section” (formerly “Best Percussionist” but because he’s not technically a percussionist but a vocal bass, they renamed the distinction specifically to honor him). Augmenting his skills as a vocal bass is that he can also do overtone singing (also known as throat singing, which most people heard about from tribesmen in Tuva, Russia).
To complete the rhythm section, Scott discovered the renowned cello-beatboxer named Kevin Olusola via his 1-million-viewed viral video hit “Julie-O” on YouTube. Kevin is an overachieving East Asian Studies graduate with premed credits from Yale University who had a 1 1/2 year scholarship stint in China (with authentic skills speaking Mandarin). Besides his cello and beatboxing talents, he could also play the saxophone and vocally he likewise provides the brass section (like the flugelhorn) from time to time. His Renaissance-man array of talents along with the arsenal of vocal tricks he could provide makes me recall cartoon character Ferb Fletcher from the Disney Channel TV series Phineas and Ferb, especially since in musical numbers in that cartoon series, he provides so many various types of vocal sounds.
Pitting these five individuals together is a perfect example of synergy at work. Individually, these five members have achieved distinction with their talents, but together, what they could deliver is exponentially beyond the sum of their parts. As the weeks of The Sing-Off competition wore on, they frequently provided moments of pure musical alchemy on the way to becoming the champions. To close this part of my essay, I shall feature a couple of performances from The Sing-Off that only provide a hint of their brilliance–their first number, Katy Perry’s “E.T.”, and their last non-collaborative performance before being declared champions, David Guetta featuring Usher’s “Without You”.
On the final part of this essay, I’ll feature the five best Pentatonix performances at The Sing-Offand what they have been up to after their victory.