On a sunny afternoon in Costa Mesa, Cassie Parmenter and a legion of girls are singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the barbershop style. They are thinking, I suspect, in that teenage-girl way, about how much more awesome it is to be singing onstage with 250 of their best friends than by themselves in the shower.

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Kadee, Cassie, Star, Daniela

Parmenter is 16 years old and a junior at Jurupa Valley High School. She and the others have been here at the “Diva Day” festival at Orange Coast College for several hours already, dropped off in droves from high schools throughout the Southland (Long Beach to Ontario, Torrance to Tustin, Alhambra to Fontana, Granada Hills, Riverside, the list goes on). They have been attending voice classes, choreography clinics and performance workshops all about the ins and outs of barbershop.

You don’t need several hundred other voices to do barbershop, just three friends who want to sing. Barbershop is the style of a cappella singing done in quartets. Do you recall The Chordettes and “Mr. Sandman”? That’s barbershop, or “beauty shop” in the ironic, postquaint, postfeminist vernacular of the all-female groups. Irony is big in barbershop right now. At “Diva Day,” I hear a cheeky Starbucks parody of “Java Jive” (“I love Starbucks nice and hot”).

Many of the girls at “Diva Day” don’t know how to read sheet music and learn their parts from CDs that break down the arrangements into their different vocal parts. In her fledgling quartet, Parmenter sings lead, which means she carries the melody. Her best friend, Daniela Godinez, is the deep-voiced baritone. Their classmates Star Rowland and Kadee Patterson sing tenor and bass, respectively.

“I’d never talked to Daniela before except in homeroom,” says Parmenter. “Aside from, like, ‘Can you hand me this?’ or something. But now we’re best friends. We met at the last “Diva Day.” I was off by myself eating lunch, and she was off by herself also eating lunch. We got to talking.”

Barbershop singing is something Parmenter keeps separate from her school life, for the most part. She’s had friends come watch her sing only to see them leave thinking the whole thing is weird. Parmenter, however, is undeterred.

“We would like to practice three hours a week,” she says. “But our bass is very involved in water polo. Our baritone is very involved in AP English work. I’m very involved in choir. And Star can’t go to people’s homes that often. I don’t know why. So it’s been tough to make our schedules work.”

Parmenter speaks in a terse and exacting voice. It sounds crisp and angular, and belies her softly rounded, wholesome good looks. Hers is exactly the kind of elocution you need for a singing mode that asks four different people to match all their vowels.

“My favorite song is the coffee song,” she says.

“You mean ‘Java Jive’!” someone else says. “Why?”

“Because I love coffee.” 

“What do girls love besides
music?” says Nanci Evarts, a longtime barbershopper. Evarts has been guiding me through this old-fashioned world of girls who sing with girls. “They love each other and camaraderie.”

Evarts is a member of the Harborlites Chorus of Anaheim. The Harborlites won the international barbershop competition in Calgary last year. “We have a very dynamic front row,” she says. “They’re practically doing backflips.” The Harborlites were so energetic, in fact, that a rumor began to percolate that they were acting in an unsportsmanlike fashion by loading the front row with 20-year-olds. In response, the women printed their ages on their T-shirts: 55, 42, 30, 16. There is, allegedly, an 80 running around somewhere.

Performers are judged on sound, music, showmanship and the highly subjective category of “expression” — or, how well you tell the story of the song. “Take the song ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’” says Evarts, as Parmenter plunges back into the rehearsal melee. “It’s about a hot and sexy woman. We have to transform from teachers and homemakers, and in some cases grandmothers, into flirty girl Sweet Georgia Brown. That’s, shall we say, a challenge. You have to live the character in order to portray it.”

Another challenge is to make the quartet parts work together while still holding your own within the group. Since no musical instruments are used in barbershop, you must create your own accompaniment using only voice. It’s the singing equivalent of everybody talking about four different things at the same time on the same subject. You have to end sentences together. These skills are the native province of teenage girls.

Harmonizing en masse, the girls onstage sound about as close to a choir of angels as I’ve ever heard. Of course, even if they’ve given up a Saturday to be here, they’re not angels. I heard that one of the organizers heard that one of the other organizers heard that a couple of the girls said that some of the girls — and we’re not naming names here — had been coming by early in the morning for the free juice and cookies, then sneaking out and cutting clinics to drive off to the nearby South Coast Plaza mall, probably, and were planning on sneaking back just in time for the grand-finale performance later in the evening.

Today’s teen girls, Evarts says, love the old songs from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s about falling in love and first love. They’re drawn to the songs about flappers, who started out sweet and innocent, then cut their long hair into bobs and stayed out all night drinking champagne and dancing the Charleston and became not so innocent.

“Just about any song can be arranged in the barbershop style,” Harborlites director Pam Pieson tells me. “Though probably not rap or hip-hop. But Madonna certainly, especially her ballads.”

“The harmonies are similar to the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC,” says Evarts. “*NSYNC, by the way, is amazing. They have accuracy and a lot of energy.”

That barbershop exists at all in this day and age is astonishing. I imagined it had gone out with pianos in the parlor room and straw hats, preserved as an anachronism only in places like Disney’s Main Street USA. But there are 30,000 women in the Sweet Adelines International barbershop organization, which helped to put the day together. It felt like the young girls here were being unofficially inducted into a kind of singing sorority.

“The Sweet Adelines have chapters in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Japan. They’re thinking of starting one in Saudi Arabia,” Evarts tells me. She casts an idle look at the practice session happening onstage. “But it’s hard to put sequins on the burkas.”

“You. Tenor in the back row,” conductor Dede Nibler calls out. “You’re too short. Come down front, honey bunny.”

A small girl skitters down.

There were big girls and small girls; skinny girls and fat girls; animated alpha girls who were natural emoters and sang with a flourishing gusto, and shy, nervous girls happy to settle into the back. There were girls who wore their glittery sashes around their heads like Pocahontas and girls who wore them primly around their shoulders like Miss America. The same variations exist within the women’s groups, which were into it more or less professionally. Everyone there seemed to know that all-female barbershop evolved as a feminist backlash to the all-male quartets and choruses: Husbands went off to sing, and the wives, left behind, began to organize.

By nightfall, a contingent of parents, grandparents, husbands, boyfriends and various vested parties has arrived. From the looks of them, there is a Norman Rockwell painting hanging in each of their living rooms. The young women and the not-so-young women take turns on the risers, five deep onstage. Their jazz hands and jazz arms and stomping in rhythm rock the house. “Candle on the Water” has the audience practically in tears. I mean, good tears.

When you hear it, and even more so when you sing it, barbershop sounds innocent and cheerful. Even the sad songs. It transports you back to a gentler time, before school shootings, metal detectors in classrooms, newborn babies flushed down toilets and drama-rama bare-bellied Britney with her python. When the girls launch into the Beatles’ “In My Life,” I get chills. Chills! And I want to give everybody a hug. Choral music is not for everyone, but if you’ve never seen your Aunt Edna from Oklahoma whirl around in a Phantom of the Opera cape, then you haven’t really lived.

To form your own chorus or join one with Sweet Adelines, call (800) 992-SING, e-mail member@sweetadelineintl.org or visit www.sweetadelineintl.org. Download free barbershop sheet-music arrangements or create your own; visit www.barbershop.org. Harborlites Chorus, (714) 282-1610 or www.harborliteschorus.org; visitors welcome to rehearsals on Monday nights; vocal warm-ups begin 7:30 p.m., First Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 310 W. Broad­way, Anaheim.

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