A cappella counterculture: Waterstreeters

Anticipation filled the jam-packed entry common rooms in the Frosh Quad and Mission long after the sun set over the serene Williams campus on Sunday, Sept. 7. As a JA of Willy F, I witnessed this frosh excitement first-hand as their faces revealed uncertainty and exhilaration regarding Entry Sings. On that fateful night two weeks ago, the answer came as a surprise – a bolt of lightning from Zeus himself that struck the campus! A lightning bolt that came in the form of a group called the Waterstreeters.

Like a drunkard who wakes to a mind-splitting headache after a night of heavy intoxication, so did 2000 Ephs rise on the following Monday to hear stories of a renegade a cappella group who crashed the age-old tradition of Entry Sings. The Williams community was dazed, unsure of exactly what happened and intrigued about how the happenings of the last night would affect the future. The facts differed depending on who told the story, but some things were for certain: a group of male sophomore students, potentially chemically imbalanced, singing songs sans instruments, punctuated other a cappella groups’ performances in freshman entries.

Beyond these basic facts existed only rumors and speculation. So the Record sent yours truly to investigate exactly what the Waterstreeters were cooking in their proverbial kitchen in the most thorough way possible: an audition.

It was clear very quickly – even before my mind-bending audition – that in many ways, the Waterstreeters were no different from other a cappella groups. But as I negotiated an audition with the Waterstreeters – or “Waters” for short – it became apparent that in the Waters’ world, Williams a cappella as we knew it, had been turned on its anti-instrument noggin. For one, their unorganized and carefree culture became abundantly clear I was told of my acceptance
into the group simply because of my expressed interest.

I hoped that my audition would clear up these inconsistencies. So late one night I struck out for the Odd Quad (Prospect basement to be specific), acorns cracking under my feet as each step brought me closer to what I hoped would be answers to my questions: were they going to make me sing? Will these renegades be offended if I show up on time? What if I make the group?

The last question was the one that I kept repeating over and over in my mind as I crossed Route 2 and began walking past Goodrich, so deep in thought that not even the yanic eye sculptures – pierced as they were by those sharp blue lights – could distract me. What I pondered most was the allure of inclusion and the fear of rejection and of course, its spiteful sibling, exclusion. But to be accepted into an a cappella group is much more than an achievement in singing. Like any other group or activity, inclusion into an a cappella group dictates identity. Like it or not, people are characterized by the groups they associate with. For example, “Do you know John Doe? He’s that rugby player who always hangs out with the dudes who were in Willy C freshman year.” Fact: group membership defines image and image determines public perceptions, if not identity entirely.

As I stepped into Prospect foyer, eight Waters erupted through the stairwell door sporting sunglasses, obscure garments and various forms of partial nudity. I was then quickly ushered into a common room where three sophomore women stood waiting. I seized the moment to find the answers to my questions.

During my interview, Jeffrey Putnam ’11, an original Waterstreeter, comfortably reclined on the couch next to me and stretched his bare legs across the table towards me. At the same time, one of the young women massaged my scalp as he told me about the Waters. Putnam spoke in a mock-serious tone – a clear attempt at comedy – and met my questions with much jest. I soon decided I would need to hear from the entire group.

Suddenly the rest of the Waters crashed through the common room door demanding to weigh in on my questions. Though the group reminded me of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, four stuck out as ringleaders: Michael Leon ’11, John Foster ’11, John Morgenstern ’11 and Isaac Nicholson ’11.

Next, I probed the group about whether they considered themselves an a cappella counterculture. The response
was unanimous: “Without a doubt.”

“So does that make you anti-a cappella?” I asked. This garnered a negative response. Each question I asked produced at least one straight answer and then a chorus of one-liner jokes. Morgenstern even exclaimed that the Waterstreeters are “99 percent spirit and 1 percent looks.” It was abundantly clear that the Waters, above all else, enjoy each other’s company, value self-deprecation and think their existence is hilarious.

However, one problem bugged me about the Waters: word on the street was that they were co-ed but encouraged women to try out as “groupies.” It should be noted that most affiliated women with whom I spoke claimed to be the preeminent Waterstreet groupie. When I asked the Waters about this blatant sexism, they conceded that they tired of singing falsetto and would be happy to accept female performers into their midst.

As conversation with the Waters dwindled, Putnam nervously repeated a critical Waters phrase: “When you become part of the group, the group becomes part of you.” This statement was met by much wild laughter and inspired applause. With that, I was rushed upstairs to another common room where my audition began.

Suddenly, I found myself in front of the nine young men, dancing, answering prompts, bobbing for apples, brushing my teeth to the beat of a song – all for the opportunity to join the illustrious Waterstreeters. However, I was quite perplexed and relieved that I was never asked to sing during the entirety of my audition. During all of this, Putnam’s last words repeated in my head. With each absurd test, I came closer to allowing the Waterstreeters to become part of me. I was at ease with the sense of humility they all shared, excited for the irreverence that comes with their image, but unhappy
with the prospect of being part of a group that encouraged its female members to relegate themselves to groupie status.

What sacrifices do we make to achieve group inclusion? Must one always give up some part of individuality to earn group membership? I emerged from the audition a bona fide member of the Waterstreeters. My spirits were high,my conscience regarding sexism low and my journalistic integrity somewhere
in between.

The future holds much uncertainty for our group, but two things I know: I am pushing for Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to become a Waterstreeter classic, and the desire to change a group from within can prevent individuality from dissolving upon inclusion.