Barbershop Reality

Last night Oxygen network’s reality series Fix My Choir featured the Sweet Adelines International chorus Sirens of Gotham on the episode, “A Choir with Two Heads.” Fix My Choir‘s premise is Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, and gospel musician Deitrick Haddon meeting with choirs across the country to help solve administrative and musical problems each group may have—basically making each choir more meaningful and enjoyable for its members. The episode featuring the Sirens of Gotham is perhaps the most public, non-comedic exposure for barbershop music in recent memory, and as someone who was peripherally involved in the creation of the show, it was also an interesting lesson in reality television.

The conceit of “A Choir with Two Heads” is that Sarah, the director of Sirens, wants to modernize the chorus and Alexis, Siren’s Team Coordinator, wants to succeed in competition. All barbershoppers* know about the restrictions of competitions, and likewise, we’re all aware about the endless debate between preservation and innovation that occurs within the barbershop community; however, rather than delve too deeply into the particulars of this debate, Fix My Choir focused instead on the conflict between Alexis and Sarah, and how that conflict threatened the Sirens of Gotham organization.

*For those not familiar with barbershop music, barbershoppers (or practitioners of barbershop) are largely organized into three organizations: the Barbershop Harmony Society (the world’s largest men’s organization), Sweet Adelines International (the world’s largest women’s organization), and Harmony, Inc. (which is another large organization of female barbershoppers); in addition there are a variety of smaller organizations of barbershop singers throughout the world. All of these groups organize several different competitions for both quartets and choruses all across the year.

Before I go on, let’s acknowledge that reality television is not reality. More appropriately it should be called unscripted television. Scenes are regularly set up and directed for the sake of getting the best shot, and second and third takes are made if someone flubs a line or for any reason that might make a better show. From my own experience this was evident when I sang a tag with Deitrick Haddon during a filmed afterglow that both Sirens and Voices of Gotham have each Thursday night after rehearsal.

The moment began with us singing the tag, “Back in my home town” with Deitrick, and immediately after we finished the producer directing the scene asked us to switch positions for a better camera shot. We even shot a few more tags, and neither the later tags where Deitrick fared much better, nor Michelle’s participation in singing tags (who by the way is pretty good at singing tags) were broadcast.

The producers are more concerned with creating an entertaining show than being honest. If those things can align, then fantastic, but fudging reality often makes for better television. Focusing on a conflict between two leaders of a chorus, and then connecting it to simmering family issues, is much more interesting than an esoteric debate about the future of the barbershop style.

sirens-logoAs another example of the producers trying to make a more exciting and entertaining show, Brian (Sarah’s boyfriend, and one of the guys singing “Hello Ma Baby” in the pub scene) told me that one of the producers called him before the taping to ask him if he was planning on proposing to Sarah anytime soon. Brian’s response to the question was, “Not on your show,” demonstrating that reality television’s job is to entertain more so than to present reality.

How important is the reality of reality television? In the the case of “A Choir with Two Heads,” there has been some concern over the portrayal of barbershop to wider audiences. I contend however, that Fix My Choir doesn’t address much about barbershop at all (besides mentioning strict contest rules and some brief allusions to the debate about preservation and innovation within the genre). The only major inaccuracy presented were the comments about choreography not being allowed in contest. The show, for the sake of entertainment, instead focuses upon the conflict between Sarah and Alexis, and how they eventually resolve their differences.

As someone who participated in a bit of the taping, and as someone who knows and works with both Sarah and Alexis, I should say that those who might be bothered by the episode should remember my previous statement: “reality television is not reality,” and to not take the show too seriously.

Finally, for those concerned by the inaccurate comments about choreography being against the rules, feast your eyes and ears upon the Rich-Tone Chorus, the current Sweet Adelines International Silver Medal Chorus:

7 Responses

  1. Michelleintel December 6, 2014 / 9:08 PM

    Reblogged this on Living Over The Hill and commented:
    This article caught me completely off guard at the very end. As a proud member of that Rich-Tone Front Row, it was thrilling to be acknowledged for our choreography. As the newer-generation Barbershoppers like to say, “This ain’t your mama’s barbershop.”

    • Jude Thomas December 14, 2014 / 12:10 PM

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the reblog; I’m glad you enjoyed my article. When I was watching the broadcast with Alexis, Rich-Tones came up when all the nonsense about choreography was mentioned. I was delighted to find that SAI had posted their Saturday night performance online.

      • Michelleintel December 14, 2014 / 12:53 PM

        We were thrilled to be mentioned and thrilled the video was released, as well. So many of our best performances could never be recorded or released due to ascap requirements. Thanks again.

  2. The Grammar Belle December 10, 2014 / 12:34 PM

    I’ll have to second what my dear friend Michelle wrote. Thank you for clearing some things up . . . and for sharing our Rich-Tone finals package with your readers. It was certainly a BLAST to learn and perform!

    I will add that I am immensely proud of our organization–not just my chorus, but of Sweet Adelines International as a whole. The overwhelming feeling from the top of the organization to the individual choruses is one of innovation and growth, even as we preserve our unique art form.

    • Jude Thomas December 14, 2014 / 12:12 PM

      It was my pleasure to write the article so I’m glad you liked it! Also, thanks for the amazing performance in Baltimore.

  3. Retirement Lifestyle / Nomadic Adventurer December 26, 2014 / 12:45 AM

    i’m really impressed with the larger choir group with the choreography and the harmonies they maintained throughout their performance. Great posting Jude.

    • Jude Thomas December 26, 2014 / 11:45 AM

      Thanks for reading; I’m glad you liked it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *