So "The Dalton Academy Warblers" (quotation marks intentional), the fictional prep-school a-cappella group on Glee, made appearances on NBC's Today show yesterday. I will not go into all of the many reasons I dislike Glee, but amongst the few things I do like about the show is The Warblers, who are a top-notch (albeit unrealistically coordinated) pop a cappella group, using some really killer arrangements and singing them well; all-around they put on a reasonably good portrayal of idealized pop a-cappella performances. That said, the singing and arranging is actually being done by long-time collegiate a-cappella studio wizards The Beelzebubs, and mixed by their brilliant MD emeritus Ed Boyer. (Not coincidentally, The Beelzebubs appeared on season 1 of The Sing-Off, and Ed is that show's house mixer.) The Bubs/Warblers performances I've seen on the show are solidly mixed without too much processing, and when they're lip-synched by The Warblers (i.e. the actors) it comes across quite seamlessly; in the context of the show the tracks don't sound much less realistic than a superlative set at an ICCA competition or in the competition portions of The Sing-Off. I also appreciate the lead performances of Darren Criss, the de facto front man of the group (on the show and now in real life). Criss's character has also added another layer to the anti-homophobic message of the show, which I appreciate greatly. The Warblers have taken on a life of their own, with numerous best-selling singles on iTunes, including a stunning debut at #1 for their (that is, The Bubs') cover of "Teenage Dream", and talk of a spin-off for Criss.
But fake life clashed with real life yesterday, and it wasn't pretty.
Darren Criss and The Warblers "singing" "Hey Soul Sister”:
Although this isn't strictly musical, I do have to mention how odd it is that a fictional singing group is being introduced as though they're actually singers. Matt Lauer says "Their performance of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' hit number one on the Billboard charts..." Both Lauer and Kathie Lee Gifford (in the next clip) say "Its lead singer, Darren Criss, has become the breakout star." This is weird, right? When Broadway actors come on the Today studio to perform a number from a new show, they're not introduced as their characters, they're introduced as actors playing characters. The only fictional performers who have license to be referred to on television as though they are real are the Muppets, and that's mainly because we don't want to ruin it for the kids.
The actors (or "the Models", as a-cappella impressario Deke Sharon likes to refer to them) do get individual real-life introductions as members of the group, but... but... they're actors! They're not singing! I mean, yes, some of them have had minimal dialogue on the show, but... they're appearing on live morning TV as representatives of a singing-centered show and they don't actually sing! And Darren Criss is the "breakout star"? Uh, yeah, no crap, he's the only one who sings. What is happening?!?!
Actually, this meta-ness issue is relevant to a musical critique, because while watching this I'm not sure what I'm supposed to critique. Do I assume the producer expects us to be fooled into thinking this is real live singing, in which case I should think it's a bad performance with weird mixing? Knowing that it is lip-synched except for Criss, do I deem it a mediocre lip-synching performance? (This is going to bite Glee's promotion machine in butt: do The Beelzebubs go on tour, or the Models? And do they risk that the teenyboppers won't know the difference?)
So how about the performance itself? Yikes.
The music (except for Criss's lead) is prerecorded, and not all of them are wearing or holding microphones, so the filtered effect on the guitar chords sounds bizarre in context. That said, on headphones, the pads ("ooh"," ahh", "let you blow my mind", etc.) do sound fantastic, and it sounds good in general, although I can't count that as a plus for a group that's not really singing. Man, it's really hard to get past the inherent absurdity of this performance. Anyway, if you can get past the absurdity and close your eyes, you've got about a minute to sit back and enjoy the combination of the squeaky-clean backing tracks and Criss's not-too-shabby Taylor-Hicks-esque lead. I say close your eyes, because the movement isn't impressive if they're not really singing, and some of the Models aren't even changing the shapes of their mouths when the recording changes vowels.
And when that minute is up, things start to go even further south. And by "things", I suppose I mean Criss's lead alone, because, again, no one else is actually singing. Criss needs to build up his endurance, because he already sounds exhausted by the beginning of the first chorus! The lame lyrics "so gangster, I'm so thug" sound even lamer with Criss trying his hardest to fight the limitations of his own vocal cords. If this were a live competition, this wouldn't fly at all, and it's made worse by the perfect tuning of the backing tracks. And when he adds any sort of spontaneous character to his singing, it makes the backing tracks look bad for having the nerve to be well-tuned and pre-recorded. And the Models continue to phone it in in the movement department, which is the bland icing on this rapidly collapsing cake.
Darren Criss and The Warblers "singing" "Raise Your Glass":
(Is it me, or is "Raise Your Glass" and "Teenage Dream" basically the same song?)
Again, here's a killer contemporary a-cappella recording being inconsistently lip-synched in a live context. So bizarre. Criss holds it together for the most part, which is no surprise as this is a far less taxing song on the voice, but the Models often look like they can't handle moving and fake-singing at the same time. They look like a typical mediocre college group that threw in movement at the last minute. Oddly, they look more enthusiastic on the larger movements-- the twin circles, following Criss around the stage, etc.-- but totally lose their commitment when they're simply grooving to the song, which is where it counts the most. I mean, if you're recreating the experience of a TV show on another TV show, freakin' commit!
If The Warblers as a "real life" entity are essentially a movement troupe with a front man singing, they didn't even do that particularly well. For a fictional group, they've really gotta put it together. I mean, there's a long, storied history of fictional groups from a cartoonish television comedy topping the charts and performing live on a major network: