These Are the Biggest Studs on Campus?
To the women of Boston University, no guys, not even the hockey players, are hotter than the Top 40–crooning, pun-loving, fairly average-looking members of a cappella group the Dear Abbeys. How did that happen?
The after-party at the small Allston apartment has started to crank up, even though one of the hosts is being a total prick about the noise. Everyone else seems oblivious to the possibility of being raided; nor does anyone notice that the keg’s gone flat—and forget beer pong, because the sign-up sheet is full. The place is crammed, the crowd at least 75 percent female. Which means that roughly 75 percent of the hearts in the room flutter when the cowboy appears.
A hard-to-miss 6 foot 4, Hunter “Tex” Young nods to his public with a grin as he struts into the room, wearing his signature black Stetson. As he passes, large red Solo cup in hand, girl after girl offers a “Heyyy!” or a “What’s up!” At least one expresses a desire to trade digits. Tex has a long, boxy head and a confidence that overshadows the fact that he looks a bit like Andy Richter. He’s a junior at Boston University, an econ major who makes good grades—but that has little to do with his popularity.
“We’re all here,” Tex booms. “Let’s do it!”
Every university has its Big Men on Campus, those who attract the admiration of the ladies and the envy of the lesser males, and most fit a predictable model: At the University of Texas in Austin, where Tex grew up, it’s the broad-chested football stars; at Duke, it’s the rangy lords of the basketball court. Here in one of the world’s biggest college towns, though, sports stars are disproportionately scarce. (The football players at Boston College and hockey players at BU do okay, sure, but they fall far short of the giddy heights reached by their counterparts in places like Ann Arbor and Columbus.) And given that scarcity, what gets the girls quivering at colleges like Tufts, Harvard, and especially BU is a well-formed set of vocal cords.
BU has a lot going on, musically speaking—along with an orchestra, a wind ensemble, and a choral society, it’s home to countless student bands. These days, though, the hottest thing on Comm. Ave. is Tex and his fellow Dear Abbeys. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that BU is in the throes of Abbeymania. Members are stalked online, whispered about in the cafeteria. Each spring they perform at a dozen or so pledge events, where all they have to do is serenade a crowd of baying sorority sisters to end up with a bunch of new, generally hot fans who keep coming back for more. Without question, says Kenneth Elmore, dean of students at the university, “the Abbeys are rock stars around here.”
That might be easier to understand if they were, in fact, a rock-and-roll group. Or even a grunge, punk, hip-hop, metal, trance, or R&B group. Instead they perform a cappella, Italian for “in chapel style.” As in: church music. No keyboards, no drums, no guitars—just a bunch of guys layering vocals to create a wall of harmony. It’s the kind of thing your grandmother might like, if your grandmother were a Gregorian-chant-loving nun.
And yet the Abbeys’ many fans can’t get enough of it. A few hours before the Allston party, at the group’s big winter concert at BU’s Morse Auditorium, Tex had single-handedly hushed hundreds of screaming women by launching into a twanged-up rendition of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Now, he makes sure all his bros are around, and without warning starts to sing, beer in hand. The throng of girls joins in, some writhing and closing their eyes as they meow the words. Later, many will attempt military-grade maneuvering to get closer to the singing cowboy.
Tex isn’t exactly complaining, but at times he does find the attention a bit wearisome. “When people walk up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re in the Abbeys,’ I will admit that feels kinda good,” he says, “but also you walk away thinking, Man, I wish I didn’t have that. I don’t like thinking that’s the reason they like me, for being in a group. I think it’s very weird.”
He has a point. Not that long ago, even at BU, the finger-snapping Abbeys would have been prime wedgie targets. Take group member Nathan Brenner, who has a crown of tight reddish curls he calls his “Jewfro” and who drives audiences wild with his signature dance move, a white-boy hybrid of the robot and the twist. “The girls love it,” says K. C. Geen, a senior Abbey’s girlfriend, “when Nathan shakes his little tushy.”
Like the man said: very weird.
Not surprisingly, the Dear Abbeys bristle at the suggestion that a cappella is stuffy. They will tell you, firmly, that the bow-tie-and-boater stereotype is outdated and unfair. Instead of glee club oldies, their repertoire is full of modern crowd-pleasers like Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” They wear “baggy-ass” jeans and untucked button-downs. “We’ve got that very rock-and-roll thing, jamming to the music and just snapping our fingers, swinging back and forth,” Tex says. “We don’t do the dance moves”—Nathan’s tushy shaking aside—“or the clapping. That’s not our style.” There are a few a cappella conventions the Abbeys do observe, though. Like puns: Three of the group’s CDs are titled, in order of release, Abbs of Steel, Not Too ShAbbey, and Abbeys Road.
One member recalls being lectured on the rigors of Abbeydom upon joining the band a little over a year ago. As an Abbey elder succinctly told him, “This isn’t just a way to get ass.” The Abbeys practice a minimum of six hours a week, and put on about 35 performances annually. In the past six months they’ve been on two tours, to Alaska and California. (“I’ve been recognized by a few people in North Carolina, in elevators a few times,” says one-time band member Paul Toms.) After winning the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella—the genre’s equivalent of the Grammys—
two years ago, they further raised their profile by getting their music onto iTunes, which means it now has national exposure. “We’ve shown that we have some talent,” says Tex, “and that puts us above.”
Given that a number of the Abbeys graduate every year, maintaining the group’s talent level is an ongoing challenge. To further complicate matters, each of the band’s 13 performers has a distinct, Spice Girls–y personality—so choosing new members requires a certain amount of calibration to avoid ending up with a glut of Sportys or Scarys. Accordingly, getting into the band is notoriously difficult.
Early every fall semester, the Abbeys hold two nights of auditions. At this year’s, 60 hopefuls turn out to vie for five available slots. With the exception of sorority rushes, which also involve awkward conversations, superficial judgments, and forced enthusiasm, the Abbeys tryouts are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As the only entry to the only all-male a cappella group at BU, they’re a tense, borderline sadistic process. “We’ll be able to tell by looking at you if you’re not an Abbey,” says Jordan Feinstein, a group alum. “Some guys walk in and you’ll be like, ‘You’re going to have to impress the hell out of me right now to make this group.’”
Adds Scott Williams, the band’s tenor, “For some of them, it sounds like the only experience they have is singing in the shower.”
During the auditions, each would-be Newbbey stands in front of a chalkboard in full view of the current members, who sit at the back. There’s a brief introduction, a bit of throat clearing, some foot shuffling, and then—look away!—the actual singing. Tonight we’ll hear such hits as “Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Rock This Bitch,” and “Who Got the Hooch.”
The first candidate is a rotund guy with a coif reminiscent of Mario Lopez’s. Nathan reads his profile: “He’s a tenor. He does not do vocal percussion, and he has a mean flip-flop tan. He founded his own a cappella group in high school. And he’s arranged music for several different groups.” The kid walks in, nails his vocals—and doesn’t make the cut. “He was perfectly qualified to be in the group,” says Scott afterward, “but he just came off as being very cocky and sure of himself, and he wasn’t a star.”
Also, he wasn’t funny enough. “You have to have the musical base, but personality is the most important thing,” says Paul, who just graduated. “We want guys we can put on stage and trust as entertainers.” And so, having survived performing before a frowning, note-taking panel of his peers, each applicant is asked to end his audition by demonstrating how entertaining he is—basically by man-flirting with the judges. Tell us something funny, they say. Make us laugh. Understandably, many freeze up. Chris Giordan is one of the few who don’t. The freshman education major has a head of blondish curls and a Cheshire cat smile. His voice is good but, to the untrained ear, no better than many others. What puts him over the top, in the end, is that he once tumbled into the orchestra pit while performing in a high school production of Beauty and the Beast. The Abbeys crack up. He’s in—in all the ways that word implies.
Even before they become official band members, the Newbbeys are beset by groupies. Outside the door of the callback auditions, held in a Mugar Library classroom a week after the preliminaries, a group of girls sits at a nearby table, “studying.” One whispers into her cell phone, “Yeah, they’re up here…yeah, I can hear them. Come. Up. Here.”
I have to confess, I’m no stranger to Abbeymania. My first experience with the group was as a BU sophomore, in 2004, when a friend of mine who had a crush on the band’s designated “Party Guy” dragged me to an Abbeys concert and after-party as her wingwoman. It didn’t matter that he was cheesy, full of himself, and less attractive than she was. He was an Abbey, and that was enough.
Ask people at the school why the Abbey boys have this effect on women, and you get some variation of: “Dunno.” It is a bit of a puzzle. There might not be the next Tom Brady flashing his winning grin around the BU campus but, you know, there’s still the hockey team. And don’t think the girls haven’t considered this point. “My friends would much rather date an Abbey than a hockey player,” says Paige Clark, a sophomore who’s already been to more than 20 Abbeys concerts. “They keep that boyishness, that raw male energy alive.”
Well, they try.
The Abbeys chalk up some of their appeal to BU’s lack of big fraternities—they like to think they’re filling a testosterone void. Aside from throwing frat-tastic keggers at the so-called Abbey House, where three of them live, the guys have fratty rituals such as fines for being tardy to meetings and “lighthearted” secret initiations. During a practice I sit in on, Scott spends a lot of time farting, burping, and announcing how bad he must smell. At one point, the boys pass around a laptop showing a topless photo of a member’s aunt, a ’70s-era Playboy bunny. Meanwhile, John Gilling, the group’s star vocal percussionist, seems to be stricken with a rare form of musical Tourette’s: “Suck my titties, suck, suck my titties,” he warbles. “Good gracious ass is bodacious…shake your thing….”
Still, none of this can take away from the fact that this is rejiggered church music we’re talking about here. If you really wanted “raw male energy,” surely you’d look somewhere other than a bunch of jumped-up choirboys. Like, say, the hockey team. After all, slamming your forearm into an opponent’s windpipe will always be a more manly thing to do than snapping your fingers and shoo-wapping to Seal’s “Don’t Cry.”
When you get down to it, the secret of the Abbeys’ appeal is this: They aren’t just like the boy next door; they are the boy next door. An Abbey could be in your class. You might bump into one in the dining hall. Most importantly, you could safely bring him home to your parents.
“While hockey players are buff and could be pro athletes one day, the Abbeys are these cute-dorky guys who sing and are so sweet!” says K. C. Geen. “They’re more attainable, whereas the hockey players are so far away, behind the glass.” Behind the glass, and a tough veneer of masculinity. Boston’s college girls—at least as represented by the girls at BU—apparently want something else, something closer to “cute-dorky.”
As Dean Elmore bluntly puts it, the Abbeys are “average guys—not the most beautiful guys.” And if “average” hasn’t traditionally been the most potent aphrodisiac when it comes to college-age girls, things have clearly changed in recent years. These days the BMOC—the swaggering all-star—just doesn’t seem that hot. In fact, his bloated self-regard makes him a bit silly. The Abbeys, meanwhile, are funny and unabashedly geeky, which makes them cool. In a Napoleon Dynamite/Seth Cohen kind of way.
There are times, though, when you wonder how long it will last. Celebrity and boy-next-door charm tend to be mutually exclusive, and the more the Abbeys’ renown grows, the more the Big Man attitude creeps in—particularly when it comes to Scott, who says of his female following: “Like, Bon Jovi have millions of screaming girls, too.” Scott is the Abbeys’ musical director, but he’s also working on a solo career. “I’ve always had the mentality that I would be a famous musician with a huge fan base and whatnot, so for me, [being in the Abbeys] is like, ‘Okay, things are going the way they should be.’”
Morse Auditorium can hold A bigger crowd than the Paradise or Avalon, and the Abbeys draw more than 700 for their winter show, easily selling out the venue. Some kids who fail to score a ticket try to sneak in. Latecomers are forced to squeeze in at the back.
To wild applause, the Abbeys sprint onstage, opening with their anthem: “We’re the Dear Abbeys from Boston U. / Purebred Terriers, through and through….” Shrieks punctuate the 14-song set, but everyone quiets down for the ballads. During Tex’s Elton John number, girls actually well up; you half expect to hear shouts of “Marry me!”
And yet the most devoted fans here aren’t female. Shoulder to shoulder in the first rows are former Abbeys. One of them is Victor Sandman, class of 2004. By all accounts, Vic is a legend, the Abbey Idol, blessed with a killer voice and charisma to match. “He, like, was Justin Timberlake,” says K.C. But Vic vanished after graduation. Rumor had it that he and his band, Platnum, were doing big things far away, possibly in Brooklyn. Or maybe Jamaica Plain. The real story: Platnum broke up, and Vic’s working as a trainer at Boston Sports Club.
There’s something a bit sad about watching former Abbeys watching current Abbeys, especially Vic. Like the star quarterback sitting on the sidelines, he must be torn between pride and envy. And if he doesn’t exactly embrace the comparison, he does see similarities. “I think of being in the Abbeys in the same way as a college athlete who ended up going to the NFL thinks of going to college for football,” he says. As for Vic’s own postgrad career? Well, he was in a local a cappella band for a while, a moderately successful outfit called Hyannis Sound, and now performs with his new group, Firedrill. “I wouldn’t call that the NFL,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d call it.”
Still, you can say this for Vic: The charisma, the old Justin Timberlake appeal, is intact. The female patrons at BSC must love that.