We (wish we could) Recommend: The Sing-Off
It'd be a fair assumption to make that the whole genre is rotten.
A number of our writers have masochistically subjected themselves to watching X-Factor every week in order to write about it for you, our lovely readers. Reading them through in order is somewhat akin to witnesses multiple mental-breakdowns in print. It's an awful show. Cruel, spiteful and nasty. But it has to be, doesn't it?
It was bought home to me the other night when a friend of mine explained that she watched it with her housemates as she 'had' to. The appeal, she told me, was in laughing at the judges' remarks and taking the piss out of the singers. And then the killer line: "if it was just a singing competition I wouldn't watch it". Because X-Factor isn't about music. It's not about singing. It's about manufactured drama. It's about schadenfreude. It is, as comedian Mitch Benn puts it, the modern day equivalent of visiting the insane asylum and poking the inmates with sticks.
But it's necessary, isn't it? People wouldn't watch 'just a singing competition' would they? Well actually we don't know, because no-one has really tried it. Except for NBC in America. The Sing Off is a genuine singing competition. In fact, that's all it is. It's all a capella groups: no instruments, no backing tracks, just voices. A difficult form of music to pull-off at the best of times, let alone live every week.
What started as a 4-episode special in 2009 has this year morphed into a full 11-week series. And it's just lovely. The format is fairly simple and familiar: a bunch of performers come on, do a capella covers of popular song (with each week having a different theme), the judges comment and at the end of the show one or more groups are eliminated. But there's none of the cruelty. I'm sure there are auditions, but they're not shown - the show feels no need to mock those who don't measure up. The judges are nice: Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men will talk about how the song made him feel and Nicole Sherzinger will laugh and deliver meaningless platitudes (though now she's been poached by the US X Factor Sara Bareilles is doing a much better job). Then musician and producer Ben Folds will say something ridiculously music-geeky and technical that only serves to highlight the fact that 95% of people watching don't even speak the same language as these performers.
It gets a little cheesy at times - the dance routines that go with the performances especially can be a bit too Glee for my tastes and host Nick Lachey is shockingly wooden in the early series - but it's all quality music. It's performers at the top of their game performing amazing versions of great songs. And even amazing versions of not-so-great songs. It's about the music. In the latest series, one of the groups lost their arranger halfway through the competition, as he had a prior commitment. So they had to arrange some of the songs themselves. I only know this from Ben Folds' blog post about it. The show didn't mention it. If this were X-Factor, that would be turned into a 20-minute drama about overcoming adversity.
We'd love to recommend this show to you, but alas none of the UK channels have deigned to pick it up. Luckily, pretty much every performance from the show ends up on YouTube, and it's possible to piece entire shows together with a little effort. I've embedded some of my favourite performances from the three series below.
Here's Street Corner Symphony and the Season 2 cast making Coldplay sound good:
The Season 1 cast doing Mr Blue Sky:
On The Rocks from Season 2 doing Bad Romance - 12 guys somehow being Lady Gaga. Warning: once seen this cannot be unseen.
Pentatonix from Season 3 performing Video Killed the Radio Star
And another from Street Corner Symphony - Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Rumours of my man-crush on Jeremy are only slightly over-exaggerated.