It is the way of the world that everything fashionable will become passé. And then, as night follows day, it will come back into fashion – first ironically, as sported by inaccessible hipsters, then in earnest by the majority. Then it will be unfashionable again, and the whole process repeats until the end of time.
Disco is a prime example: it was as popular as the plague in the mid-70s, considered the height of naffness in the 80s, and then –thanks in part to a remix of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ – it was back, complete with flares, platforms, and unnecessary covers of ‘It’s Raining Men’ by tired Spice Girls.
With this in mind, I want to wind the clock back to the end of the 19th century, when barbershop singing was fast becoming the latest craze. Everyone was talking about it and doing it, and by the early 1900s it was everywhere – well, everywhere in the US, us Brits were still listening to music-hall and the such-like, but you get the picture.
By 1920 the wheel of fashion had turned and barbershop singing was as dead as boot-cut jeans and curtains. Depression era America had no need for cheerful harmony groups, and troupes of singers had to join the breadline like the rest of the country.
Then, true to form, it got a boost thanks to retro-chic. Just when everything seemed doomed for the medium, close harmony singing’s own inaccessible hipster Owen C. Cash founded the Barbershop Harmony Society as means of preserving the art, and singers and fans crept back out of hiding to join the growing chorus.
Fast-forward to present day and you will notice there is a distinct lack of barbershop music in the hit parade. There was a Christmas number one by The Flying Pickets in 1983, and there are the obligatory harmonies thrown in by JLS and One Direction, but it’s not really barbershop in the truest sense. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the art has died out in the mainstream.
However, if you take a closer look, the corpse of close-harmony singing may just be twitching a bit. On the periphery of popular culture there are signs of life.
As is traditional for anything of any popularity whatsoever, Barbershop singing has made occasional appearances in The Simpsons. Homer forms The B Sharps, a quartet whose career rise is so monumental it can only be compared to that of The Beatles, and in another episode the whole town bursts into harmony singing about a monorail – a direct reference to The Music Man, a musical that heavily features a barbershop quartet.
More recently, we can see regular appearances from harmony groups in Family Guy and Scrubs. In both instances the music ticks all of the relevant barbershop boxes – it’s a cappella, it uses cycles of fifths, etc. – and is given a very prominent place in the show, which is great for the resurrection of the art: very little for the serious aficionados to complain about.
The purpose, though, doesn’t seem entirely honourable. More often than not these shows tend to ridicule the medium, rather than to rejoice in it. In Scrubs, for example, it’s the downtrodden Ted who leads the quartet, and it’s just another weapon to beat him with: not only is he a disappointingly pathetic man, he’s also a barbershop singer – what a loser!
Can this be good for barbershop or is it just popular media figures kicking an ailing tradition while it’s down?
My belief (slightly biased, being as I am a close-harmony singer myself) is this is the beginning of a Lazarus-like return. Nothing attracts inaccessible hipsters (the Jesus Christ of this analogy) like something being considered the height of naffness. May I bring your attention to thick-rimmed NHS glasses: early 2000s you couldn’t give a pair away, now Jay-Z has them, and every grinning T4 presenter (male and female) looks like Deirdre Barlow.
Barbershop isn’t cool. At least it isn’t cool now. And that could be its secret weapon. Give it time and in a year or so the streets of Hoxton will see a lot more candy-stripes and straw boaters, the synthesisers will be put away, and the air will be thick with the sound of close-harmony singing. And before you know it, you’ll all want to be those losers from Scrubs, like I do.