July 31, 2013

A cup, a local star, and song's a hit

Actress Anna Kendrick's version of the tune becomes a summer phenomenon, with Maine youths learning how to do the routines.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Go to any summer camp, any park or any backyard in Maine, and you're likely to find youngsters who have become musically adept with a cup.

click image to enlarge

From left to right, Hannah Johnson, Caitlin Guthrie, Katherine Concannon, and Tatum Strunk, all 10 years old and from Cape Elizabeth, share a laugh while practicing the "Cups" song at Johnson's house in Cape Elizabeth, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

Paper or plastic, disposable or unbreakable. In the right hands, any kind of cup can make beautiful music.

Fueling the national trend is the hit song "Cups (When I'm Gone)" by actress Anna Kendrick, a Portland native. She performed the song – with a plastic cup as her sole accompaniment -- in the 2012 film "Pitch Perfect." Since then, the song and its accompanying hand moves have become the biggest thing in cups since Dixie.

A radio version of Kendrick's song reached the Billboard Top 10 in July – it was holding at No. 10 in the July 27 issue of Billboard. And dozens of tutorials have surfaced online, making the "Cups" routine easier to learn than "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"It's fun because so many people know it," said Lynnea Harding, 15, of Falmouth, a member of the girls choir Musica de Filia. "You can just be hanging out, and somebody will say, 'I know the cups song,' and everybody will start doing it."

Many aspiring singers, including Waterville Senior High School show choir members Cassidy Dangler and Crystal Comfort, have made YouTube videos of themselves doing the "Cups" routine.

The song's popularity has prompted children to think about – probably for the first time – what sort of cup they want to play.

Musically, that is.

"I don't want to use a glass cup, because they can break. The disposable plastic cups are a little too loud for me, and they can fly out of your hand," said Cassidy, 16. "I like a hard plastic cup. Something that's sturdy, with a nice sound."

Here in Maine, the "Cups" song is especially popular with young people who look at Kendrick and see someone from their state who has shot to singing and acting fame.

"It's just so cool to see someone from Maine make it big," said Cassidy.


So how did a pop song played on a cup become a pop-culture phenomenon?

A slightly different version of the song was recorded in the 1930s by the legendary country group The Carter Family. The song was done mostly by bluegrass groups for years, until the British duo Lulu and The Lampshades did a version of it in 2009, along with the cups routine for percussion.

In 2011, it became something of a YouTube sensation when a 17-year-old from Indiana named Anna Burden released a video of herself singing the song and doing the very specific and intricate cup routine with her hands.

Kendrick was nominated at age 12 for a Tony Award for her supporting role in "High Society" on Broadway. She appeared in the "Twilight" movie series as a supporting player, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar playing opposite George Clooney in the dramedy "Up in the Air" (2009).

Her singing skill helped her land the lead role in "Pitch Perfect," a musical comedy about an all-girls college a cappella group.

In an interview with David Letterman, Kendrick said she saw Burden's video and spent hours learning the song and routine because "I'm a huge loser."

The creative powers behind "Pitch Perfect" heard Kendrick talk about the routine on the set, and thought it would be perfect for her character to perform while auditioning for the college group in the film.

"Pitch Perfect" premiered in late September. It was a box office hit. But Kendrick's song and video were even more popular, landing her on Letterman and other talk shows. The 76-second version of Kendrick's song on the film's soundtrack made the Billboard singles chart in January.

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