Not everyone is a fan.
On hearing that we were running a story about a cappella groups on campus, a student we know made a face and rolled her eyes. But even she admitted that, in general, “Penn is crazy for a cappella.”
“Everyone’s Song,” this issue’s cover story by Molly Petrilla C’06, traces a bit of the history of the local infatuation with this musical genre, which took flight in its modern guise in the 1980s and 1990s, was accelerated by Glee and reality TV shows in the 2000s, and supercharged by the Pitch Perfect movies. She also surveys the current campus scene.
With no fewer than 14 groups included in the Penn A Cappella Council, and several more operating without official support, that scene is a thriving and varied one offering plenty of musical choices, from the Hindi-English mash-ups of Penn Masala (which has the biggest audience these days) to the jazz and pop of Counterparts (where John Legend C’99 Hon’14 got his start) and even an all-Disney ensemble.
In Molly’s interviews with current group-members, the essence of the appeal for them, aside from the joy of performing itself, seems to be a combination of inclusiveness—everybody sings!—and the chance to express something of themselves and their cultures. For some, participation was a conscious goal, while others more or less fell into a cappella unawares.
One student, who was determined to go to a college with a Jewish a cappella group and is now a leader of Penn’s Shabbatones, says, “I’m like, ‘Wow, this is exactly who I wanted to be three years ago when I was applying.’” But another landed a spot with Penn Masala—which he’d never heard of—after inquiring about a business manager opening. At his callback audition, “It all clicked. All of a sudden, there was a song.”
Classical Studies Professor Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey was a scholarly and artistic achievement that also became a major media event, drawing widespread attention for being the first translation of the poem done by a woman and for giving Homer’s epic what the New York Times Magazine called “a radically contemporary voice.”
Those two statements are not unrelated, but the story is more complicated than gender. Just how is one of several issues taken up in “An Odyssey for Our Time,” in which Wilson is interviewed by her departmental colleague Peter Struck, about whom we’ve written recently [“Peter Struck’s Odyssey,” May|June 2017] and who teaches a popular Penn undergraduate course on the poem. Associate editor Trey Popp, who had the idea of bringing them together, condensed and edited their conversation and threw in a couple of questions himself.
One of the most famous episodes in The Odyssey is the story of the Sirens, whose seductive song draws hearers to their doom. The general lesson on the dangers of clouded judgment is a relevant one in our own era of “fake news” and widespread mistrust of science and authorities in all fields.
In “Confronting Denial,” JoAnn Greco profiles Sara Gorman C’07 and Jack Gorman C’73, the daughter and father coauthors of Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that will Save Us. Their book analyzes the key “siren songs”—or psychological drivers—that can lead many of us astray when it comes to making rational decision around issues of health science, such as vaccine safety, gun ownership, and the use of genetically modified organisms.
Odysseus, of course, filled his men’s ears with beeswax so they couldn’t hear the Sirens, and had himself lashed to his ship’s mast so he couldn’t act on their song’s false promises. Those aren’t options today, but the Gormans do offer some recommendations for thinking more clearly about health and science decisions, and suggest some respectful and effective ways to help others do the same.
Finally, Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 recounts an impeachment drama that prominently featured a Penn alumnus—in 1805. That’s when Joseph Hopkinson C1786 G1789 successfully defended Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase against being removed from office for offenses that amounted to being high-handed and unpleasant in court and annoying President Thomas Jefferson.
At a time when the Constitution was still young, the outcome of the case helped establish that impeachment, whatever it would become, was not “a device for picking off the other party’s judges,” Dennis writes. And, in fact, while it’s probably safe to assume that “hundreds of federal officials have abused their power or betrayed the public trust” in the country’s history, so far only 18 cases of impeachment have run their full course. See “The Judges’ Lawyer” for the details.
—John Prendergast C’80