Pop-trivia question: what do James van der Beek (of "Dawson's Creek") and Osama bin Laden have in common? In their youth, both dabbled in a cappella. According to "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory," by author Mickey Rapkin, the teenage bin Laden—who opposed the use of instruments —organized a group with his pals. That discovery "was pretty weird," says Rapkin. "It just shows that a cappella is everywhere." Love it or hate it, he's right: there are 1,200 college groups in the United States, uniting some 18,000 kids under ivy-covered archways to belt out Coldplay tunes. But Rapkin's book reveals a world with as much discord as harmony. One group (the Beelzebubs of Tufts University) dropped more than $30,000 to record a CD; another (the University of Virginia's Hullabahoos) traveled to the Philippines to sing. The two narrowly avoided a drunken post-performance brawl with each other.
Most a cappella singers don't pursue careers in music; still, their passion is all-consuming. "They stay up all night debating one song," says Rapkin, himself a former performer. It's about the lure of fame, he says. The Hullabahoos can draw 4,000 fans to a show. Harvard's Krokodiloes annually rake in $300,000 from gigs and CD sales. For just as many people, listening to 15-man harmony is the ninth ring of hell. "Khaki pants, vests and snapping are never going to be cool," Rapkin says. "You have to embrace the humor of it." Or run away screaming.