Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Vocal-only student ensembles who cover contemporary popular music at most U.S. high schools and universities, known as a cappella groups, mold students as musical listeners and performers. Though predominantly composed of liberal and progressive people who value diversity and inclusion, a cappella communities perpetuate racialized inequities of sound and representation. I analyze how race, particularly whiteness, shapes the intersecting communities of scholastic a cappella through ideologies of sound (i.e. singing and arranging styles), social structures (i.e. audition processes, competition policies, and judging rubrics), and discourses (how a range of a cappella practitioners discuss, or not, social categories such as race and whiteness). My ethnographic research involved judging and volunteering for a cappella competitions, attending rehearsals and performances, and interviewing a range of a cappella practitioners, including performers, judges, producers, teachers, and critics. I consider how rehearsals, performances, competitions, festivals, online forums, musical arrangements, and films create moments when structural racial inequality manifests. Using a theoretical framework of interdisciplinary whiteness and voice studies, I analyze why white people typically occupy positions of power, even as groups often use songs, sounds, and styles by artists of color and perform in multi-racial ensembles. My research shows how whiteness operates in everyday, ubiquitous musical practices; how whiteness shapes musical aesthetics and listening behaviors; and how sonic and structural whiteness organizes communities not obviously associated with race or inequity.
In my work, I explore several facets of what I call the “a cappella pipeline,” a linear path along which potential participants move through stages. The chapters roughly correlate with some of the nodes and facets of this metaphorical conduit where people try to move through or forward. As I demonstrate, the ideologies of sound and race as well as the social dynamics and structures within a cappella advantage white people at each juncture. In contrast, people of color often face inequitable barriers to entry or promotion and experience discrimination or bias based on their race. In Chapter 1, I examine the first node of this pipeline, auditions, and illuminate the racialized ideologies of voice and singing that undergird a cappella audition practices and policies from advertising to selection. Chapter 2 sets up the following chapters that focus on the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), the largest and most prestigious scholastic a cappella competition in the United States, by outlining the competition’s history and logistics. I investigate the role of the ICCA judging rubric in Chapter 3 to understand the racialized ideologies behind it, how it influences how group singing is scored, and how judges are selected for the competition. Chapter 4 continues the focus on judging and racialized ideologies of voice, turning to how judges determine special awards for Best Soloist and how a cappella practitioners grapple with questions of cultural appropriation in their solo performances and repertoire selection. Chapter 5 concludes the dissertation with an investigation of the recent media sensation depicting scholastic a cappella and ICCA, the Pitch Perfect film franchise. I assess the relationship between how the fictional films depicts race in scholastic a cappella, through tokenized people of color and a racialized social hierarchy, and the real-life practice. I demonstrate how the films’ narrative structures and musical performances teach audiences to ignore a cappella singing’s embedded ideologies and structural advantages toward whiteness while simultaneously illuminating the gender biases.
Chair and Committee
Fister, Daniel, "Scholastic A Cappella and the Construction of Whiteness, Community, and Power" (2022). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2736.