It’s a rare thing for the Bay Area’s biggest tech companies to set aside their differences and work together, but on a recent night in San Francisco, representatives from Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and Twitter all found themselves in a big meeting room in Google’s Spear Street office.
They were there to shake it off.
This was the night of the Techapella Holiday Concert, the second annual gathering of A cappella singing groups culled from the engineering, sales, and management teams of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Among the performers were the Songbirds, Twitter’s group that “harmonizes in 140 characters or less,” according to Aaron Roan, the night’s co-MC and musical director of Googlapella, Google’s group. Also making appearances were Syncopation, who represent cloud storage leaders Dropbox, and The Vocal Network, harmonizing on behalf of Facebook.
If you have any doubts that the theater kids have won the culture, look no further than the ascendency of A cappella. The once widely mocked feature of college life–really, is there anything funnier than the name of Yale’s Whiffenpoofs?–group harmonizing of pop songs and old standards went huge in 2012 with the movie Pitch Perfect, which spawned a sequel, out next year. Pitch Perfect‘s near-anthropological attention to the rites and mores of competitive singing groups transformed those beat-boxing, jazz handing, smizing performers from dorks into, well, slightly cooler dorks. It also showed that if you can’t find the pure pleasure in non-superstars making “Since You Been Gone” their own, you really ought to see a proctologist about that stick up your butt.
Kelly Clarkson’s breakup anthem was not performed at Google during Techapella, but Taylor Swift, whom one member of the Songbird’s hopefully referred to as his “future wife,” made a strong showing, as did Imagine Dragons, Van Halen, Tom Petty, and Mariah Carey. In a nod to the holiday season, the Grinch made a cameo as well.
Between sets there was some playful inter-company banter, mostly at the expense of Google+, which came in for some gentle ribbing by Laolee Xiong, Roan’s co-MC who’d left Google (and Googapella) to join Facebook, where he founded The Vocal Network.
“A Cappela’s always kind of goofy in nature,” Xiong said after the show. “We really embrace this event because we’re all tech workers, we’re all normal people and really goofy. We like having a lot of fun.”
According to Xiong, who is 33 and a training program manager at the social network,The Vocal Network practices twice a week. Recently they sang “Happy Birthday” to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at the companies HQ. (Sandberg, evidently a fan, posed for a photo with them and had previously posted a video of the group singing Coldplay’s “When I Ruled the World” on her wall.) That night, they performed a version of Van Halen’s “Right Now” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” among other numbers.
“I didn’t do A cappella in college, but I was always an aca-fan,” said Alexandra Feldman, 26, who works in the Dropbox partnerships team and sings with Syncopation. (The group had originally been called In Sync, but decided it might be confused with a certain multi-platinum boy band.) “When I got to Dropbox I was like, ‘I don’t have to audition? Sure!'”
That night syncopation performed Sara Bareilles’s “Many the Miles” with Feldman soloing. She said that when they perform the song at internal Dropbox events they change the lyrics to “Many the Files.”
“It’s a really nice release,” she said. “It’s completely different from everything else I do in my life. It makes work feel more like college.”
“We all feel like the tech world is basically a college campus,” joked Aaron Roan, 32, who when not organizing and MC-ing Techapella is an analyst at Google.
In keeping with Google’s hegemony Googapella had nearly twice as many singers as the other groups, with its members in brightly colored Google-themed ties, suspenders, and sashes. Their rendition of “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch,” was a feat of group coordination with its 20 performers executing perfect (well, charmingly un-perfect) dance moves. “We have all kinds of diversity,” Roan said. “We have lawyers, engineers, people from all parts of Google.”
Roan and Xiong, who used to sing and work together, organized the event in the spirit of camaraderie. “There’s just a lot of mutual respect, you know,” Roan explained.
The night ended with all each group taking turns belting out verses of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” which Roan described later as “clearly a very topical song.” (A version performed at an earlier Techapella concert in Redwood City can be seen here.)
Picked by the “Techapella council,” a decision-making body comprised of one member of each group, Swift’s anthem of self-empowerment and shameless silliness clearly resonated with the audience, many of whom were pulled to their feet for an impromptu dance party. To see employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Dropbox literally working in harmony was to see the Darwinian, zero sum demands of capitalism suspended for one brief, shining moment as its workers metaphorically shook it off . . . Or maybe it was just a bunch of kids putting on a show and having a ball. Whatever it was, everyone was pretty damn happy.
“Some of the companies have worked together in the past or are currently working together, I don’t know, but that’s always business-business-business,” Xiong said later. “I don’t know of any tech companies that work together [like this].”
“It’s honestly a great way to network and meet people,” he continued. “We get to perform in front of a crowd and hear the crowd cheer our names because we’re all failed theater majors.”