MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF ALL TIME – WEEK 47: PENTATONIX

I don’t know about you, but more often than not, I look at the sheer amount of musical genres out there, and realise that I’m not across a lot of them than the average joe on the street is probably…then again, I’m probably a case that is different from most. Since early childhood, I was a sheltered individual, due to my premature birth way back when I was born. Throughout primary (and high) school, I listened to a fair amount of CCM, and it was only during the later high school years and well into my university days, that I started to branch out into music that was different from what I was used to. I started to hear the veins and streams of pop, rock, more mainstream music, and the deep, dark crevices of the misunderstood country music as well. If I am to be completely and utterly honest, my blog post journey that I started to undertake last year was as unique and different and new to me as I’m sure it was to all of you. I opened up the can of worms which is mainstream music; and realised that it wasn’t as bad or as evil as what people may have said it was. I dived deep into the punk-pop of Avril Lavigne, while also taking a stab at looking at the underrated rock group Lifehouse, while I was stretched in the challenging genre of opera-pop through artist Josh Groban, while I took a trip through the ages and tried to have a handle on artists like Phil Collins and Bryan Adams. Irish group The Corrs was a curveball in the form of Irish music, in a good way, and who can’t say and smile that Michael Buble, though his albums are littered and full of covers, is as relevant now more than ever today, in this time where familiar songs from yesteryear will trump over anything that is new? As I’ve reflected upon what this year of exploring new musical genres and new artists that I haven’t listen to, well, ever; I’ve found one thing to be true, which is this: acapella music doesn’t get much credit as it should. And for me, I don’t think I’ve delved into that genre enough to say that I’m all across it as I know that I can be…until now that is. While I do acknowledge that acapella, if done right, is considered, alongside other uniquely difficult genres in opera and rap, to be one of the hardest genres of music known to man at the moment; acapella for me is all about the harmonies, and what I’ve heard over the years, from this and that, hadn’t impressed me- that was until I heard Penatonix a few years ago, with their renditions of Christmas classic (and some hymnals) songs. While I can still concede that acapella as a genre can still be hit-and-miss, this group of 5 (borne out of the third season of NBC’s The Sing Off- a singing competition purely around the form of acapella music) has completely blown everyone out of the water with stellar performances and great harmonies, as Pentatonix continues to reign supreme amongst artists and bands whose craft it is to create acapella music.

While most acapella music is usually of covers of popular songs redone through the use of voice techniques and other clever ways to reinvent songs people already know, to arrangements uniquely different; Pentatonix delivered their niche to listeners in a different way- through Christmas carols and holiday songs in the form of 3 Christmas albums, alongside an album of all-original material in 2015, as well as a few EP’s here and there consisting of a mixture of pop-cover songs and a few new ones of their own. In that way, Pentatonix have created a market for their band and brand that has seen them shoot all the way to the top in terms of popularity within the confines of acapella music (not that there’s much competition from anyone else in the genre…well, except for someone like Peter Hollens and Home Free, but both these artists have their home more on youtube than anywhere else!). Regardless, Pentatonix have shown us what it’s like to work together as a group, how to harmonise and also, how to create instrument sounds with just their mouths and other weird and wonderful and wacky techniques. We see the situation in awe and wonder, of how a band virtually overnight- through the success of The Sing Off, went from unknown to stardom, and then continuing on the road of stardom, since their winning Season 3 of the NBC show way back in 2011.

It’s hard to look through an artist’s discography (or a band’s) and try to discuss their songs at length, like I’ve done with a fair amount of my blog posts in the past, when all you have is a lot of cover songs available, plus only one album full of original material in 2015. Nevertheless, Pentatonix and their strength is to showcase their vocal ability and their showmanship through utilising their vocal arrangements to create powerful, emotive and unique representations of already-famous melodies, have shown to us that they have had success aplenty in the places where they want to. That is their niche- to reimagine and recreate pop songs, alongside Christmas melodies and other Christmas-y hymns and familiar songs. They are a familiar-yet-not-familiar band, one of those groups where you enjoy the songs not because you haven’t heard it before, but rather you are impressed at the arrangement of it all and the technical aspect of the melody, rather than the melody itself. Which is a unique way of finding out that this is why you enjoy an artist- and a lot of acapella artists are like this. In Pentatonix’s case, a lot of their material isn’t really new- there’s the classic Christmas carols like ‘Mary Did You Know’, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Let It Snow’, to name a few; the songs on Christmas albums that you know don’t fit there at all, but are songs that could be sung during the holiday-time, like ‘God only Knows’, ‘Let It Go’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘Joyful Joyful’ and ‘When You Believe’; while there are also the other pop-melodies that have been popular throughout the years, that have been given the Pentatonix treatment- from ‘Perfect’, ‘Stay’, ‘Praying’, ‘Problem’ and ‘Rather Be’, to ‘Daft Punk’ (a medley of all Daft Punk songs that has garnered the most views out of any Pentatonix original song/cover on Youtube!), ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, ‘Radioactive’ and ‘Say Something’, to name a few. Pentatonix have delivered some of the better performances of acapella at its finest for the better part of a decade, and while prior to hearing Pentatonix on the radio (in a Christmas playlist no less around December-time), I may not have touched the acapella genre altogether; it is a different story now in 2020, where the presence and popularity of Pentatonix has given people a new-found love and appreciation for the unique talent which is acapella- of which I am also a fan!

Pentatonix released an album in 2015, aptly and appropriately titled Pentatonix– full of all-original material, and while that particular album sadly pales in comparison to all the covers they have acquired and released prior and after this album release (for obvious reasons- the public’s demand for covers and the excitement for that particular niche Pentatonix has been pigeonholed into, always wins against originally written, unique and ingenuous melodies), for me I have enjoyed the album quite a bit. ‘Sing’, one of the songs on the album released as a music video, is a joyous dance-pop song that reminds us all to sing whenever we are feeling down, depressed, or just sing even during the moments when we’re feeling happy- the song book for life is pretty big, and thus when we sing, I’m sure we’ll find a song that will suit the situation we are in, whatever that may be. ‘Sing’ itself is an upbeat track, but even if we don’t feel like singing upbeat songs because of our own circumstances and issues, there are still other slower ballads available for us to sing and declare out- Pentatonix have used this song as a way for us to feel ok to sing in any circumstance, because sometimes the power of music and song, and declaring things out loud, often through song, can have power to heal our hearts and impact not only ourselves but other people as well. ‘Can’t Sleep Love’, another standout on Pentatonix, is a groovy soul-infused track that tackles the issue of love- the right kind- as we realise that the love we are looking for and the love that’s on offer from the world to us, are two different things. What we as humans are searching for is something more permanent, while the world is wanting us to buy love that is rather a quick fix, than anything longer than that. ‘Can’t Sleep Love’ allows us to think about the relationships we have in our lives, be it romantic or otherwise, and see if what we have is more superficial, or more long-lasting. ‘Ref’, a song full of sweet revenge, calls back to Pentatonix’s own experience- shortly after they were signed after winning Season 3 of The Sing-Off, they were dumped from the label, because ultimately, the executives and powers-that-be didn’t have full confidence in the band, and thought initially that acapella wasn’t a thing that we popular around the time, and a thing that the band themselves should’ve been doing. And so we fast-forward to the band when they wrote the song (2015)- their career had taken off, and so this song ‘Ref’ was in response to all the people that didn’t believe in them before. Mind you, the song can also be explained in a ‘boy-girl-relationship-ending-wanting-to-come-back-way’; and that’s the beauty of songs that have ambiguous meanings- the message can be applied to a lot of people listening, from all walks of life.

‘Misbehavin’, a song with a musical beat (ironic because it’s all voices rather than instruments) of something akin to ‘Stand By Me’ from a long time ago; speaks from the POV of the persona who is away from their significant other, for whatever work reason there is, and they are reminding their other, that even though they are away from them, they’re not ‘misbehavin’- a polite way of saying ‘cheating’. ‘First Things First’ reminds us all to focus more on the finer things in life, and to not always think that you need more things in order to be content and satisfied- that love and humility is what we need rather than whatever has a price tag; while ‘Water’, a solo song from the sole female of the group, Kirstin Maldonado, speaks of a love that someone has for another so bad, that they need them like water, a realisation that only comes when you’re either in the true-love phase, or the obsession and stalker-ish phase. Nevertheless, ‘Water’ hopefully makes us ask the question of whether we need people in our lives like water, and what we’re going to do about it. Pentatonix also present to us heartfelt and emotive themes throughout the rest of the album, from a parent consoling a child and reminding them that they’ll always be there, to calm them down and try to rid the fear and darkness from their children’s life (‘Light in the Hallway’), to trying to find a place of belonging and hope, a place of safety and security, where people can be themselves and their potential to rise up and become what they were destined to become is mined for all its worth (‘Take Me Home’).

Pentatonix have been a group where it’s been less about the lyrics and the actual songs, and more about the song delivery and the arrangement- considering that they undertake and record a lot of covers, songs that people already know…everyone knows how the song goes. They know the lyrics, they probably would’ve sung the song, day in, day out. What makes Pentatonix unique, different, and a band to definitely check out if you haven’t, is the way that they craft the songs that everyone knows, but in a way that everyone doesn’t- via just their voices, acapella style. Granted, considering that they’re only using their voices, the way that all the tracks turn out is miraculous, remarkable, marvellous and a joy to hear. And what I’ve also realised from hearing Pentatonix and their music thus far, is that I myself have thoroughly enjoyed much more of their classic songs- the Christmas carols, the holiday-esque anthemic melodies present on the Christmas albums, alongside their throwback EP titled Pentatonix Vol. IV: Classics, much more so than their other more current material. That’s not to say that their current material isn’t good at all, the opposite, actually. Songs like ‘Shallow’ (A Star is Born), ‘Waving Through a Window’ (Dear Evan Hansen) and ‘The Greatest Show’ (The Greatest Showman) are also songs over the last few years that have resonated with myself, and to hear Pentatonix record the songs in their own way, makes me a fan of them more and more. But if I were to pick the style of songs the band certainly excels in, is recreating something unique and fresh out of something older and more antique- namely, delivering songs from yesteryear, in a new light. ‘The Sound of Silence’ (Simon and Garfunkel), ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ (Elton John from the movie The Lion King) are the two stand-alone singles released by the group in 2019, while songs from their Classics EP, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Imagine’, ‘Over the Rainbow’, ‘Take on Me’, ‘Jolene’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, are all songs that have impacted the general public, and just people who love music, for years, upon years, upon years, and to see Pentatonix creating the song again in their own trademark flavour, is something to beyond and to be in awe and wonder of.

Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint Pentatonix into a certain genre- they’re acapella, but they’re pop as well. They sing upbeat, but also present to us songs of heartfelt reflection and introspection. They create covers, and then turn around and deliver a joyous song in ‘Sing’. They create fun-filled holiday songs like ‘What Christmas Means to Me’, but also pull on our heartstrings in the emotive and hopeful words of Christmas melodies, like ‘Mary Did you Know’, ‘Grown-Up Christmas List’ (sung with American Idol alum Kelly Clarkson, and about someone writing an anonymous letter to Santa, asking for the pain in the world to stop), and ‘Where Are You Christmas’ (from the movie The Grinch, about the persona wondering where Christmas is gone, because the sprit and joy and magic of the holiday season is replaced with misery and cynicism). And the fact that Pentatonix cannot be placed within an neat box, is what I reckon is one of their strong suits- they are able to carry their sound into almost every single classic and current pop song and redo it to fit their style of singing…well, maybe they can’t emulate rap or even rock music, but I’m sure hopefully they can have a stab at country music in the future I guess.. Regardless what the future holds for this 5-piece acapella group, who basically had their success moved along to higher heights through the introduction of singing teen drama Glee and the movie series, Pitch Perfect; I know I’ll be there every step of the way, checking out their music as I become more and more impressed at how they make all the music, with just their lips.

‘…there haven’t really been any worst moments, but there have definitely been setbacks. For example, when we won the TV show The Sing-Off, three weeks later we got dropped as an artist by our label, Epic Records, because they just didn’t believe that a cappella music could have a significant place in the industry. I can’t blame them for that. At that time, there hadn’t been any a cappella groups that had mainstream success, which these labels want. But I think that’s kind of one of the best things that could have happened to us, because from there we were able to kind of create the brand that we wanted to create, and figure out what ticks for us and what ticks for the audience. I think we figured that out, so we have a better understanding of self, so that if we do go to another label, which we are now, we are signed to RCA, they said ‘We can’t change you guys because you have built something that people want. So continue with that. We will just figure out how we take that and market it to a wider audience.’ So those setbacks have really been a blessing in disguise…I think a cappella has done some amazing things these past few years with Pitch Perfect and Glee, but I think for our band, what we just want to do [as a goal] is make great music. Whether people see it as a cappella or not, honestly. We literally just see ourselves as a normal band, we just happen to use our voices. The sound that you hear is not us trying to mimic different instruments, this is voices. We want to see if our music as Pentatonix has a place in this industry. Can we have chart-topping hits? Can we win Grammies? Can we headline big tours or be a supporting act for a big headlining tour? We just want to be a normal band that everyone enjoys, we just happen to not use instruments…I think the best part of this journey is learning about myself in the context of music and working. I think the success, yeah, you see on paper. But the thing about that success is that I had to learn how to get to that place. You have to continuously seek who you are. That search for self has been so important to this journey. I feel like I have a better understanding of who I am and where I want to go in my life, musically, professionally, and also as a person, just where I want to be…’

It is in this quote above, by beatboxer and celloist and all-round happy and funny guy Kevin Olusola (who provides all the drum and percussion noises for the band), that I have become more and more appreciative of the band, and have enjoyed their music for what it is- cover music when it comes to pop songs, and a niche band for acapella Christmas songs that give us something unique, and fresh and different from all the Christmas/holiday albums that release every year. By definition, I don’t really see Pentatonix as an original-writing-music band- maybe that perception of them can change in the future, maybe not (considering they only wrote one album), but that’s beside the point. Everyone has their skills and talents, and Pentatonix’s is to create within the niche of Christmas music…but then, what happens if all the Christmas songs have been already recorded by the band? Dunno, maybe record more classic covers, but whatever the case, Pentatonix and their quirky style of making music through acapella (that frankly was popularised through the release of the Pitch Perfect movie trilogy) is something that is so far out there, that this quintet is as much needed in culture, music and society that their presence within it has created a new dimension to how Christmas music can look and sound like. They have made Christmas music fun again with their vocal talents- gone are the days where we think Christmas music is just slow and operatic hymnals found in a church hall. Pentatonix have set the bar very high for Christmas song quality, and if just one acapella group becomes inspired by what Pentatonix have done with their career, and aspire to become like them (and maybe, just maybe, they’ll succeed!), then Pentatonix’s role is a job well done.

Pentatonix’s joyous acapella and upbeat style is nothing like I’m sure we have thought acapella to be- for once we thought of acapella to be just voices singing melodies and more voices joining in, like a choir in a church. But what was once thought of as being a lesser-form of a musical genre/style, is now considered to be a unique and very difficult art-form- Pentatonix, and maybe even to a lesser extent, the Pitch Perfect movie franchise with their viral video hit ‘Cups’, have led the way in a genre that is becoming more and more of an enjoyable way of listening to music. While for me it took some time getting used to, listening to songs without music, but still music-sounding nonetheless; Pentatonix have carved a bright future- and with a lot of songs recorded of late, harkening back to a lot of classics of yesteryear past- ‘God Only Knows’ (Beach Boys), ‘When You Believe’ (Whitney Houston), ‘Hallelujah’ (Jeff Buckley & Leonard Cohen) and ‘Grown Up Christmas List’ (Amy Grant) to name a few; we have been blessed to see a quintet with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. From pop to old classics, to slow ballads and heartfelt anthems; Pentatonix have created a brand that they themselves can decide where to go from here. Another Christmas album perhaps? Or maybe another album full of classic songs? Maybe tackling the genres of country or rock? Who knows? But whatever comes next, the world will be watching, and whatever it is, I’m sure the songs will be great. Because there is a need for acapella during such a time where the weird and wonderful, the unique and different, are often the ones that bring something new and much-needed to the table of discovery of different music styles in this world of today.

Acapella is something that has been living in the hearts of people ever since Pitch Perfect, The Sing Off and Pentatonix. And as 2020 continues to roll on, this nature of a pandemic and social and physical distancing restrictions that are now becoming the norm, is a reminder to always have things in our lives that we can depend on- acapella music by Pentatonix I’m sure being a great comfort to many during this time. It is in moments of difficulty and crisis where we realise that music that we know and songs that we have grown up with can be a reassurance like no other, that things are going to work out, oddly enough, it is the songs like ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘Take On Me’ and ‘Over The Rainbow’ that are going to bring us through the other end of uncertainty, rather than songs from the radio at the moment. Regardless of how we as humans push through a collective unifying disaster like the one we’re in right now; we can all agree that Pentatonix, acapella music and oddly enough, Pitch Perfect, have all had a hand in our own journeys of late, some more than others, and some more than we would like to admit ourselves. Pentatonix have influenced a lot more of the music industry than we often realise, and have impacted and influenced our own personal lives in a way where we don’t fear acapella music as I’m sure we once did (I know I did, once upon a time). This quintet from Arlington, Texas have shook up what we have known to be acapella music, turned it around and twisted it inside out, to create one of the most beautiful and misunderstood representations of music arrangements that we have ever heard of in the decade of the 2010s.

Does Pentatonix (in all its forms- Christmas music, pop music and old-school classic music) make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song (aside from ‘Sing’ ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘When You Believe’) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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