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With an "awesome beat, an intricate melody and lots of energy," Kanye West and Bon Iver's Lost in the World seemed like a perfect song for XIV Hours, Durham Academy’s auditioned a cappella group. Almost. There was just one problem, recalled junior Kiran Nagar: "When it came time to read the lyrics, we realized that the words had a meaning we did not intend."
With that realization at the beginning of the school year, XIV Hours commenced a months-long exploration of the underbelly of much of today's popular music: the glamorization of unhealthy romantic and sexual relationships. The group's journey culminated in a powerful performance at the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) South Semifinal in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 21.
"Music today, it seems, celebrates an unsustainable definition of what it means to be in a relationship," said XIV Hours tenor MacKenzi Simpson, a junior. The set is divided into three acts featuring a mashup of pop songs, each exploring relationship expectations through a different lens: "Battle of the Sex ...ist Song Lyrics"; "What is it that You Want?"; and "We're All in This Together."
"While our lovers begin with expectations framed by the overtly sexual themes in Ariana Grande and Jessie J’s Bang Bang, the club culture of Get Lucky and the outright misogyny of Blurred Lines, they soon realize that relationships are a lot more complicated than they are led to believe," Nagar explained. "By the end, they realize that communicating openly and supporting each other are key, as portrayed in Taylor Swift and BoB’s Both of Us and Pink’s Just Give Me a Reason."
The performance — which mirrors an ongoing conversation in the Upper School about gender roles and mutual respect — marked the group's first time competing in ICHSA. XIV Hours was among 10 high school groups selected to participate in the South Semifinal on the merits of an audition video submitted earlier in the school year.
XIV Hours was honored with the Best Choreography Award, a tribute to the creativity of Upper School music teacher Michael Meyer and XIV Hours member Ariana Sheeks, who choreographed the set together. While the group was not selected to advance to the finals in New York, Meyer counted the delivery of their message as a victory.
"This is the most I’ve ever seen students of mine get into something we were working on. Since we began thinking and talking about this set back in October, the kids have completely bought into both the process and the importance of the story we’re trying to tell," Meyer said. "They know how important this conversation is to the overall health of our Upper School student body, and still aren’t done wanting to spread the word!"
The significance of XIV Hours' message was borne out in the performances of several of the other competitors, Nagar said.
"Nearly every group in the competition covered a song with hyper-sexualized or unrealistic expectations of what relationships were," he said. "Several competitors said that our piece helped them to reflect on the true meaning of the songs they were singing."
ICHSA judge James Harrington echoed those sentiments in a post on the Contemporary A Cappella Society Facebook page:
"I hope everyone is encouraged by the fact that a bunch of high school students eschewed the standard 3-4 pop song set to continue their campus-wide dialogue on issues of ‘hook-up’ culture and male-female relationships and power dynamics," he wrote in part. "In the process, they made a huge emotional impact on the audience (and judges). They are literally everything that is right with high school a cappella."
For Meyer, it was gratifying to witness his students pour their hearts into the project.
"The process of learning the set and traveling to Florida bonded this group together in a way I’ve never seen," Meyer said. "They absolutely love each other and are unafraid to show it and to show their support of each other. They’ve grown as musicians, sure — but they’ve grown enormously as human beings. And that is satisfying beyond measure to me."