Why Pentatonix? How the A Cappella Group Became -- and Stayed -- Charts Conquerors

Vijat Mohindra
Pentatonix

In April, the a cappella group Pentatonix released a cover of Elvis Presley's 1961 standard "Can't Help Falling In Love," the lead single off of PTX, Vol. IV—Classics. The official music video -- which racked up three million views on YouTube in a matter of days -- was standard Pentatonix fare: a straightforward rendition of a classic tune, given a modern spin with pristine production and austere presentation. The group's chemistry was the star: the five members standing in a circle, their faces – and harmonies – front and center.

It's the kind of performance that might have anchored a particularly dramatic moment on Glee, the FOX series that kicked off a cappella’s pop culture re-entry in 2009 and inspired The Sing-Off, the NBC singing competition that gave Pentatonix their national debut in 2011. But nearly a decade later, Glee is off the air and The Sing-Off but a faint memory. Even the a cappella-centric Pitch Perfect franchise -- which is set to release a third iteration this December -- hasn't quite maintained the critical acclaim of its original 2012 film.

Meanwhile -- no matter how many industry veterans balk at the very term “a cappella” -- Pentatonix has not only succeeded in the pop landscape but has dominated: by all measures, the group is currently one of most successful in America. Since 2012, the quintet has racked up an astonishing seven top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, and since 2015, they've won three consecutive Grammy awards, including this year's trophy for the best country duo/group performance for their rendition of Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene,” with Parton herself featured on the new version. 

That cut is the centerpiece of PTX, Vol. IV—Classics, which recently peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and arrived on the heels of A Pentatonix Christmas, last year’s biggest-selling album by a group according to Nielsen Music (a feat all the more remarkable considering its October release). Further, the only group that sold more albums overall in 2016 was Metallica -- a legacy act with a fan base built over three decades, who released their much-anticipated first album in eight years (Hardwired… To Self-Destruct) that November.

So, the question lingers: Why is Pentatonix the one a cappella group to not just survive, but thrive? Part of it is timing. Pentatonix won The Sing Off in 2011, just as the a cappella phenomenon was cresting. Their debut EP, PTX: Volume 1, dropped mere months before Pitch Perfect hit theaters (winning near universal praise and ultimately grossing $115 million at the box office worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo), and squarely in the middle of Glee’s six season run, when the show was regularly achieving mainstream charts success via its weekly digital single releases.

The more prominent groups to emerge from this initial a cappella boom, like Straight No Chaser and Home Free (another Sing Off graduate) styled themselves as happily nostalgic, but Pentatonix always looked, and sounded, thoroughly modern. All five members are millennials of diverse backgrounds. 24-year-old founding member Mitch Grassi is openly gay and while his childhood friend Scott Hoying, 25, has publicly chosen not to state his sexual identity, the pair collaborate on the LGBTQ-friendly YouTube comedy show and vocal duo Superfruit (they just released an "evolution of Lady Gaga" medley). Kirstin Maldonado, 24, is the daughter of a Mexican father and Spanish-Italian mother; 28-year-old Avi Kaplan is Jewish; and 28-year-old Kevin Olusola is the son of a Grenadian mother and Nigerian father. But the group’s diversity never precedes it -- it’s simply presented as a matter of fact.

Pentatonix’s progressiveness extends to its musical approach, but the group smartly built a fan base through a solid traditional a cappella foundation before branching out into original fare. Their first real blockbuster was 2014's That's Christmas To Me, a holiday album showcasing their harmonic chops via familiar melodies, which became the fourth-best-selling LP of 2014 (behind three true pop behemoths: Taylor Swift's 1989, the Frozen soundtrack and Sam Smith's In The Lonely Hour).

The next year, the group took a risk on that rarest of a cappella animals – an all-original album, Pentatonix. Though no single became a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, "Can't Sleep Love" reached No. 19 on the Adult Contemporary airplay chart and No. 36 on the Pop Songs airplay chart and the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (it has sold 517,000 copies according to Nielsen Music). Now, the group regularly incorporates elements of R&B and hip-hop in their rhythms —  Olusola, the group’s beatboxer, is also a respectable rapper  — giving their sound an eclectic elasticity other harmony groups lack.

A diverse cross-section of artists has taken note, bringing Pentatonix in when a track requires a better-than-usual choir of backup voices and happily guesting on the group’s own albums as well. Jason Derulo appeared on "If I Ever Fall In Love" on Pentatonix. The group’s spiritual godparents The Manhattan Transfer showed up on 2016's A Pentatonix Christmas, which was accompanied by a television special with appearances by Kelly Clarkson and Reba McEntire. And prestige acts have been tipped to the group’s talents as well: in addition to Parton, Tony-winner Billy Porter called in the group for his recent album The Soul Of Richard Rodgers.

That wide appeal has ultimately made Pentatonix the star harmony group at a moment when they lack for any real competition on the pop charts. There’s no other group quite like them: a millennial, progressive answer to the boy and girl groups of the early ’00s, who stand strong on their own while lending a dependable dose of musical authenticity to any act with whom they come into contact. But unlike a group like *NSYNC or Destiny’s Child, the most striking -- and, perhaps, the most notable thing about Pentatonix in 2017 -- is the fact that it is, first and foremost, still a group: while Hoying or Maldonado could easily be singled out as a star, Pentatonix always presents itself a whole made strong by the unique sounds of its individual members.