Pitch Perfect’s ‘Cups’: How a Traditional Folk Song Went Top 10
By Kevin Rutherford
The Cup Game is easy enough. You need a plastic cup, rhythm and a little bit of patience to play. After learning the order in which you drum on the cup, move it and toss it over your forearm before resuming the procedure again, you increase your pace, going faster and faster until the plastic object goes flying.
It’s a game that’s been around for years, played across summer camps and, slightly more famously, on PBS’s long-running educational TV series Zoom, which showcased the Cup Game as a multi-person test of intense rhythmic concentration.
Many years later, the game is reaching new audiences yet again, all thanks to a chance, one-minute inclusion in a film about a cappella singing groups.
Pitch Perfect, a musical comedy by Universal Pictures released in September 2012, follows the Barden Bellas, an all-girl a cappella group, as the team competes against a fellow group from Barden University to win the Nationals competition. Along the way, the group gets help from an unlikely source — Beca Mitchell, played by Anna Kendrick, an aspiring DJ with a penchant for creating mash-ups of popular songs who decides to join the club.
Mitchell’s audition for the Bellas is a rendition of the song “When I’m Gone,” performed to the rhythm of the Cup Game. It not only gains Mitchell admission into the club; it also became the film’s rallying cry, spawning a number of YouTube covers and how-tos.
Then, radio noticed.
Today, the song has been transformed into a bona fide single, having added an extra 50 seconds to its original length, coming in at just over two minutes. On this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, “Cups” reaches its highest peak yet, jumping one spot to No. 8 after finding a home on both pop and adult contemporary radio. Performed by Kendrick herself, the single version has also earned a Platinum rating from the RIAA, having sold over 1 million downloads. Its continued success has ensured the longevity of Pitch Perfect‘s impact; the movie is approaching its first birthday, has been out on DVD since the Christmas season and sees frequent airings on HBO.
That’s a high accolade for a soundtrack song performed explicitly for the film from which it comes. Though the ’80s and ’90s saw a number of film songs rocket up the charts — sometimes to No. 1 — the trend has softened in recent years. In fact, the song’s chart placement ties it with Adele’s “Skyfall” from the James Bond film of the same name, though the single fell outside the Top 10 in its second week. Other songs recorded for the song in which they’re featured have found radio spins in recent years, but reaching the top 10 on the Hot 100? That’s a whole other animal.
Not bad for a song whose lyrics were penned around the time of the Great Depression.
The origin of “Cups” can be traced back nearly a century to one of the foremost names in country music. Prominent folk music recording group The Carter Family (featuring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter as well as, eventually, Maybelle’s daughter June Carter, Johnny Cash’s future wife) recorded the song “When I’m Gone” in 1931 (which shares similarities with, but is not the same as, an earlier recording of theirs, “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?,” cut in the late 1920s). The Carters’ rendition of “When I’m Gone” fits snugly into the legendary group’s repertoire–a mid-tempo, three-minute tune that features three-part harmonies and recurring lyrics about a certain character (either a man or woman, depending on the lead vocalist’s preference) that’s going to miss the singer when he or she is gone.
The Carter Family recording spawned additional versions, too, including a sped-up rendition by Charlie Monroe (the older brother of bluegrass founder Bill Monroe) and another by J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.
But while two people are credited with writing the song in the Pitch Perfect soundtrack’s liner notes, only one has the last name of Carter (that would be founding member A.P. Carter), it’s the other name listed — Luisa Gerstein — that helped shape “Cups” into the song it is today.
Gerstein is a member of Landshapes, a British folk-pop group that was, until recently, known as Lulu and the Lampshades. Under that name, the band recorded a version of “When I’m Gone” in 2009, adding two key ingredients. First, the group added additional verses to the song (“I’ve got my ticket for the long way ’round/Two bottle whiskey for the way,” and so on). Then, the band set the song to the rhythm of the Cup Game, even uploading a YouTube video in which they performed the song — cups and all.
The song caught the attention of Anna Burden (whose last name is interestingly one letter off from the university Kendrick attends in the film), an Indiana singer who covered the Lulu and the Lampshades version with the Cup Game. Burden’s video, below, eventually made the rounds all over the Internet, having garnered over 3 million views to this day. After Kendrick saw Burden’s rendition, it was inserted into Pitch Perfect as her character’s audition song, skyrocketing its popularity.
Still, says Billboard‘s Keith Caulfield, the song didn’t necessarily take off with airplay appeal right away. In fact, it was another milestone in the film’s timeline that helped push it along.
“The song began gaining serious traction in late December and early January, shortly after the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Dec. 18,” says Caulfield, Billboard’s associate director of charts. “We saw the sales of the song — and its streams online — jump tremendously right after Christmas.”
Still, the song wasn’t exactly pushed onto radio at the onset. The fact that it picked up steam was natural, according to David Nathan, senior vice president of radio and video promotion at Republic Records.
“When the movie came out, we recognized that we were in the midst of a pop culture moment,” Nathan says. “The movie and the viral nature of it spread organically. It’s interesting that the song gained its strength in terms of airplay months after the film was even out on DVD. There has been a complete resurgence of the movie as the record continues to grow. ‘Cups’ has almost sold 2 million singles since we starting working it at radio.”
Both Caulfield and Nathan agree that the song’s participatory nature is a huge part of the ascent of “Cups.” Through covers of the song posted online that allow mass watching, practicing and then performing, whether online or at, say, a talent show, “Cups” becomes a number that’s as much about doing as it is listening.
“The song, and its performance on record and in the film, has a unique appeal,” Caulfield says. “It came with a fun little cup routine that Kendrick does, and a lot of people wanted to learn. So that helped fuel the song’s popularity too — repeated viewings of the scene online.”
“The visuals, placement and Anna all combine to make it the perfect moment in the movie,” Nathan adds. “Anna completely captivates the audience and invites every girl and boy to try and follow along. The song is so easy to learn that it makes it very easy to program in and out of on the radio.”
Today, the Pitch Perfect album is one of the top-selling soundtracks of 2013, despite seeing a September 2012 release, with over 770,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Cups,” aside from its radio success, is also the official song of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a soccer competition held every two years between teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The song has given Kendrick, known to most as an actress but who scored a Tony nomination in 1998 for the musical High Society, standing as a recording artist as well. Even the “Cups” video, which clocks in at over four minutes, has garnered 37 million YouTube hits since its April release — and counting.
Does the film’s success, coupled with having a Top 10 radio single, spell good things to come in the way of considering Pitch Perfect a potential franchise? A sequel has been confirmed for 2015, with Kendrick currently in negotiations to return. With the first film’s inclusion of a score of different songs and performances by nature alone, that assumes there will be plenty of other opportunities to put together another hit (or more) that resonates beyond the film itself.
Nathan thinks it could be done. “Republic is the No. 1 soundtrack label in the business right now, [and] we spend a lot of time to make sure the right songs get the right shot at radio,” he says. “It is very hard to have lightning strike twice, but that is always our goal.”