31 March 2017
The Recorded Performance Brought to Life in Superfruit’s “Rise”
Regardless of personal musical preference, live performances are generally more lifelike than recorded performances. A live performance comes with a visual as well as an auditory representation of a piece of music, which greatly impacts the listener’s experience. Emotion, which drives the majority of musical messages, is much more palpable when it can be expressed through the performer’s face and body movements. Their surroundings are also vital in determining what sort of message they intend to send. A music video of a recorded performance can give these cues, but since the performance is not happening live, there is always an element of artificiality because the performers have the power to create whatever image they want, regardless of whether it can be expressed or replicated live. One effect of the recorded performance often seen in music videos with dubbed audio is that they seem to lack emotional engagement with the music. Since singers have already done the work to record a song, they often concern themselves more with making sure their image looks flawless instead of trying to replicate what they might look like when supporting a difficult or high section of the song, or when they are swept away in the sentiment of the lyrics. This is one way the recorded performance can seem inauthentic and less engaging than the live performance.
As a musician and a fan, I am constantly seeking out new and talented performers, but I am most deeply moved when I come across one who displays genuine passion. I am most often impressed during live performances, where vocal skills are less tampered with and are more immediately recognizable, yet there are some recorded performances that are able to capture the raw emotion of live performance. On September 6, 2016, a musical performance was uploaded to a YouTube channel called “Superfruit” created by Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi, two members of the a cappella band, Pentatonix. The video features the two singers as well as Brian Justin Crum, Mario Jose, and Mary Lambert. In the video, they cover the Katy Perry song, “Rise,” which was released just a month earlier. I often forget the performance is recorded when watching this video because the performers’ passion and emotional response to the music and lyrics is impossible to miss and seems deeply genuine. The vocals and subject matter are so much easier to absorb when the performer can achieve this authenticity so rarely found in recorded videos. This work also provides a prime example of how social context can enhance one’s understanding of a performance and its purpose and therefore enriches one’s connection to the content and performers.
This particular performance of “Rise” is completely unique since it is a cover of an original song reimagined by multiple artists. The collaborative aspect alone brings a new meaning to the song, as it gives the sense of a collective striving toward one goal, rather than the individual, Perry, working toward her own goal in her music video. In the cover, the artists face the camera for the duration of the performance and sing without any theatrics or other potentially distracting features of a music video. The background is simply black, which makes the viewer hyperaware of the performers and focused on their faces as they sing. It includes only minimal piano accompaniment while the rest of the music is provided by the five voices. Because of this choice, I was able to focus completely on the vocals and the words rather than the production of the song. My emotional response to this performance comes most immediately from the combination of the musical structure of the song, significantly changed from the original, which sets a tone of intensity throughout, and the visual display of passion by the performers in the video.
The performance opens with Hoying’s voice unaccompanied by any music for the first two bars of the song. It is quite soft and subdued, and is soon joined by a repeating piano chord, which is also soft, but builds tension with dissonance. His vocal run on the word “thrive” in the second line adds a little more emotion to his performance, and is accompanied by a chord change in piano, sending subtle relief by placing us back in the tonic key with a I chord. The next line, “Can’t write my story,” marks the switch from major to minor, which creates a tone shift from pensive to a little more sorrowful. Hoying’s voice break on the word “story” adds to the somber, more tender tone, and his final line, “I’m beyond the archetype,” is sensibly accompanied by a minor cadence. Grassi’s solo then begins, which is abrupt because of the way his voice is distinct from Hoying’s. His countertenor vocals pierce through the subdued song, raising it a level in intensity, up until the extended seventh chord at the end of his verse. This tense chord is resolved when Hoying enters again on the tonic and when grounding piano notes reenter after a pause in accompaniment. Hoying and Grassi then sing short lines back and forth in the pre-chorus until they sing together for the first time at the end of the phrase, drawing out a seventh chord once again, but this time in harmony. The tension of the leading seventh chord is resolved by another new voice, as Crum enters on the chorus. His portion is a bit higher energy than Hoying or Grassi’s had been, but he still sings alone, so this hints that there will be a rise in intensity to come. Jose then sings his portion of the chorus, and is soon joined by Crum who harmonizes with lower, calmer notes. So in the first verse, there is a sense of holding back with sweeter vocals and hints of intensity, then a peak in intensity in the chorus which calms back down as it concludes and fades into the second verse. There are also shifts from solos to duets which display the contrast of isolation versus a collective – one of the driving forces of this version of the song. The first verse and chorus set up the potential for an even greater impassioned performance to come which creates tension and anticipation in the listener.
After the chorus, there is a pause in accompaniment until Lambert starts the first line of her verse alone, recalling the a cappella opening of the song. However, she is quickly joined by the entire ensemble who provide backup harmony for her voice on a soft “oo.” Her voice is quieter than the others, yet still contains an underlying severity that shows up especially in her extension of the note on “angels” in the third line of her verse, which runs right into “they say” without a breath in between. The note she emphasizes here is the second of the tonic which adds to the climactic seventh chord at the end of the verse. As she reaches this intense portion of the verse, the “oo”s become “ah”s, which proves to be a much more open vowel that builds up the volume and fervor of the piece. Once this is resolved and the pre-chorus is taken up by Grassi, the back-up harmonies provided by the rest of the performers become more present in the song, continuing to gradually rise in volume and intensity. This reaches a climax on the word “transformed,” just before the second chorus, when there is an arpeggio on the seventh chord as each singer joins in one by one on a new note, finally resolving as Hoying belts “when” at the start of the chorus. Like the beginning of the last chorus, this “when” signifies a rise in energy and emotion, but much more so here, due to the greater build up and also to Hoying’s pained facial expression and the force with which he sings the note.
By the time this chorus is reached, the intensity of everyone’s singing has increased and multiple harmonies have been added which, always reflecting the lyrics of the song, rises the energy level. The melody began as solos exchanged by each performer, but now more often consists of two or three voices in harmony, and also switches between performers more frequently. There is also an additional three-part harmony on the word “when,” which echoes the powerful opening of the chorus, and then “rise” for the second half of the chorus, emphasizing the emotional message of the song. At this point, all five performers appear to be fully emotionally invested in the song, squinting and straining their voices as well as gesturing with their hands and moving their bodies in what appears to be involuntary ways, as they seem to be moved by the music. Hoying hunches over as he belts his opening notes, Grassi balls his fists as he hits a particularly high note, and Crum points toward the camera as he sings “when you think the final nail is in, think again.” By the second chorus, the performers are fully immersed and at their most passionate, which drives the video’s power to captivate an audience.
The chorus then slips back into the pre-chorus with an unexpected high note by Grassi which is held as the others continue the “rise” echo, now sounding fuller than ever. This transition keeps up the intensity for a bit longer, but it soon very gradually dies down. This is due in part to an intricate riff sung by Grassi that is featured amidst the chaotic and powerful harmonies, which displays a moment of individual tenderness. There is still passion on everyone’s faces at this point, including Grassi’s as his voice comes out of the harmonies and sings alone “You’re out of time but still I…” Then there is a brief pause, which largely stands out as it comes quite in the middle of the climax of the song. This is quickly followed by three repetitions of “rise,” just like the echo in the previous section, though these are unaccompanied by any piano and belted by each performer on a different note, providing a rich harmony that, through three repetitions, progresses from minor to major. Their bodies hunch over, clench, and move with the intensity of the music once again. The reoccurrence of this “rise” theme is especially impressive because it was nowhere in the original song by Perry. This addition creates organic unity within the cover and provides an effective method of gaining intensity by introducing a motif and building on it. After the three harmonious repetitions, in another unexpected move, the ensemble sings “You’re out of time” in unison, decreasing the energy with softer voices that act as one. The final line, “but still I rise,” is sung alone by Lambert, who keeps this softer, quieter tone while retaining a hint of the previous intensity in the last word, “rise,” by singing it with a subtle riff and vibrato. Thus, though it takes a transformative journey in intensity, the song ends as it started: one quiet voice without any accompaniment.
I like to think that the musical structure reflects the lyrics and message of the song, in that the beginning demonstrates the quiet spark of determination, which gradually grows into roaring flames of confidence as the five vocalists feed off of each other. When a voice sings alone, it stands out, it feels bold and brave, but when voices join together, they feel even stronger and more stable. By including both, the styles act as foils of each other, emphasizing the notion that even though one voice alone can be powerful, multiple voices for the same cause are even more impactful and meaningful.
Without cultural context, this performance is extremely emotional and moving, but with context it is even more so. Because this performance was originally posted as a YouTube video, a message — or program note one might say — could be posted along with it by the artists themselves. In it, they state their motive of creating this cover in “celebration of the LGBTQ+ community and all of our fans who love unconditionally and see no barriers.” They also dedicate it to “anyone who has ever felt pride in who they are, and for anyone who has ever doubted the power of your own uniqueness.” These sentiments provide a lens with which to watch the performance that allows the viewer to become even more emotionally invested. The fact that this video was posted at such a charged time for the LGBTQ+ community in America, shortly after Donald Trump, who has never been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, became the Republican nominee for President, adds even more important context. This video can be seen as a response to adversity and an encouraging message of self expression and perseverance. Furthermore, this video was reposted by Superfruit on their Facebook page on the day Trump was elected as a way to provide support and hope to those who may have felt particularly dejected on that day. When watching the performance with this context of relevant world issues in mind, the performers’ emotion is more determinable and the impressive vocal effects become less about a display of talent, but more about a display of passion and love for a particular cause and those fighting for it alongside them.
Superfruit has created a video that allows the viewer to focus solely on the voices and faces of the performers as they bare genuine emotion while simultaneously creating beautiful, and at times haunting, harmonies. Everything about the performance, from the musical progression to the visual performance to the social context, strives toward the common theme of rising amidst adversity. The vulnerability displayed by all five vocalists and the lack of any visuals besides their faces makes this performance more directly tangible to those watching it. Despite it being a recorded video, these factors breathe life into the performance and give it an extremely prevalent authenticity. The fact that they sing for a cause that means something to the performers in real life, as opposed to their personas as vocalists within the context of the song, provides yet another level of this authenticity. Even though it is a recorded performance, I feel like I am able to connect to the performers’ very real emotional responses each time I watch this cover. When striped away of all the technological and aesthetic elements of a song, this human connection between audience and performer is the very basis of the musical experience.
KatyPerryVEVO. “Katy Perry – Rise (Official).” Online video clip. YouTube, 4 August 2016. Web. 31 March 2017.
Superfruit. “RISE (Katy Perry Cover) by SUPERFRUIT, Mary Lambert, Brian Justin Crum, Mario Jose.” Online video clip. YouTube, 6 September 2016. Web. 31 March 2017.