Why Barbershop?

To traverse the tunnels, timetables, and shopping concourses of Grand Central station feels something akin to being in the world but not of it; to have the freedom to watch well-dressed city-dwellers rush away to untold trains, offices, and jobs unknown.

This time last week, I was still reeling from the Sirens’ Harmony Classic win and preparing for our kick-off “mic tester” performance (10:03 AM!) to launch a long day of mid-size and large chorus semifinal performances, many hailing from outside the States.

Here are a few snippets captured from the weekend. Many thanks to good friends, late nights, and experimental tags!

And here’s a post I started writing about this time a week ago, still drunk in the post-contest haze:


Even now, a trophy emblazoned with eighteen years of small and mid-sized chorus victories in placards along its sides sits at the edge of my hotel bed. It is the hard-won result of a performance routine over a year in the making, finally revealed on the contest stage last night and for which we won plaudits from observers for being “elegantly bold” and “unapologetically ourselves”—sentiments thrillingly and affirmingly in line with our core values.

This is my first Sweet Adelines (international) event. The constant, chaotic buzz of tags and talking that seems to characterize the men’s international convention is not on display here; instead, polished reserve reigns supreme. Perhaps there is a fear of messiness, of not being perceived as refined (and, dare I say, perfect)? Also unlike the men’s convention, this event appears to be attended primarily by competing participants and members of the organization; there is a limited contingent of ‘outside’ barbershop fans or curious onlookers. In a word: insular.

Despite having skirted barbershop’s borders beginning around 2010 when aca-friends of mine introduced me to the Westminster Chorus and American Harmony, buying in has proven difficult given the tenuous gender relations that pervade both the craft and its communities (misogyny and sexism abound). The recent #MeToo phenomenon, for all of the pain it has unearthed, has (hopefully) inspired some reflection on the part of those who would perpetuate harmful, exploitative narratives in the name of preserving antediluvian social mores.

Which brings me to a topic of much contention and confusion: what are the core values of the prominent, American barbershop organizations (BHS, SAI, HI)? The BHS’ “everyone in harmony” initiative seems like a laudable effort to begin the effort of combating barbershop’s heterosexism, yet the cynic in me can’t help but view it through the lens of the BHS attempting to stave off dwindling membership. One ripple of this appears in SAI’s doubling-down on their hyper-feminized brand image, perhaps to emphasize their ‘for-women-by-women’ ethos—backlash to which may have prompted their recent attention to addressing the lack of inclusion of an ethnically diverse membership.

At this peculiar juncture in barbershop history, it seems all affiliate organizations will have to reckon with what they are actually seeking to preserve and promote. To center this conversation on purely musical grounds (e.g., contestable arranging rules) is reductive and dangerous, regardless of how charming as Dave Stevens is in his Harmony College address, What Are We Trying to Preserve? (which, on first watch, appeased my inner, audiation-based music educator to no end).

Barbershop arranging convention (and, later, rules) appear to have developed a querulous relationship with popular music after the “golden age” of the 1890s to 1920s (particularly the 1910s). With this historical snapshot playing an integral role in barbershop’s origin story, it may be tempting to conflate preserving the music of this era with the social values embedded in the era’s music. Sadly for barbershop, no musical style—however pleasing in the most culturally unwedded, formalist sense—is a purely sonic phenomenon; it is always a byproduct of a larger cultural moment comprising countless intersecting social narratives. To discount sexism and racism in the lyrics, promotional imagery, and messages of barbershop-conducive Tin Pan Alley (and later) songs as harmless bygones of a previous time is to exploit your privilege to engage in dangerously ignorant myopia.

Where does the line between patriotism and Southern Pride inarguably materialize? Is it kosher to sing panegyric heartsongs in praise of Dixie? Or of American exceptionalism? (Hint: no.) As an international barbershop singer, what is your obligation, if any, to an awareness of the relationship of certain songs or lyrical references and metaphors to larger American history, especially in the cases where they bespeak values no longer considered basically decent (much less politically correct) in the global community?

It is not inconsequential that the “golden age” of barbershop was a time when women had not yet been granted suffrage, and the bulk of whose non-domestic participation in society primarily took the form of (often religious) temperance organizations; a time when the stylings of African-American vocal quartets were being aggressively borrowed by a growing contingent of white barbershoppers, who would later codify and “protect” these as a craft institutionally sanctioned by the racially exclusive SPEBSQSA.

It’s great to be a barbershopper! …is it?

Out of fairness to barbershop, it may be worth adding that the centering of white, male, European(-influenced) narratives/composers across choral music is a problem deeply entrenched and well-documented. But that’s no excuse for it being allowed—for “following the crowd,” as it were—nor does that mean we can’t take immediate steps to constructively and sensitively address it.

One of many; more to follow.

Kari Francisblog