Friday, February 19, 2016

COLUMN: Stanford Band

Well, it's 2016 -- and as per usual, the world's in turmoil.

Conflict continues to plague the Middle East. North Korea claims to be testing hydrogen bombs. Gun violence rages. Human rights violations run rampant. Upcoming elections showcase the ever-widening political rift in our own nation. Extremist terror. Oregon militias. Gender inequality. Racial profiling. Homophobia. These are crazy times.

But this past week, social media has shown us the REAL trouble plaguing our fragile world:

I speak, of course, about the growing threat we face from the international terrorist organization known as the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band.

If you were on Facebook this past week, you would have thought that the antics of this pack of college musicians was THE most abhorrent, reprehensible, and shocking thing to ever be broadcast on national television. Sorry, Janet Jackson's right nipple -- you've been dethroned.

Like most timeless tragedies, I bet you remember where you were when you saw it. I was in the bathroom, because that's what one does at halftime. I am NOT a sports guy in the slightest, but even I had the game on last weekend. After a Cinderella season, the Iowa Hawkeyes footballed their way to the Rose Bowl and a final matchup against the Stanford Cardinal -- who were, as it turned out, a wee bit better at footballing than Iowa.

Funny, though, that few Hawkeye fans on my Facebook feed were discussing the actual game. Instead, all anyone could talk about were the antics of the Stanford marching band. Known for their tongue-in-cheek performances and rebellious streak, the Stanford band took to the halftime field with some kids in a dancing cow costume, marched in the shape of a sad frowny-faced guy in a straw hat, and centered their performance around mocking the existence of (yes, it exists) the dating site It was a quick five-minute send-up of bad Midwestern stereotypes designed solely to make us look like a bunch of hick yokels.

And I, for one, laughed my head off.

But it seems like I was the ONLY one in the Midwest laughing. Friends of mine who I normally consider to be intelligent, rational people were suddenly up in arms, launching letter-writing campaigns, demanding apologies, and calling for everything shy of heads on spikes and public floggings.

I don't get the big deal. Was it dumb, juvenile, and classless? Absolutely. Could they have used a better comedy writer? For sure. But would YOU have laughed if the Iowa band had come out with a dancing cable car and a horn section belting out the Rice-A-Roni jingle? Absolutely.

Musicians and rebellion have gone hand-in-hand for years. Did you know that Mozart once wrote a piece called "Difficile Lectu" with lyrics in Latin that went "lectu mihi mars"? Now, those words don't mean much in Latin, but Mozart knew that this song would be performed by a popular baritone singer named Johann Peyerl. Peyerl sang with a thick Bavarian accent, and Mozart knew that with a Bavarian accent, "lectu mihi mars" would sound a lot like "leck du mich im Arsch," which is German for something we're not allowed to say in a family newspaper (apologies to any German families reading this.) Mozart was a cheeky bugger.

Yet we're all supposed to be outraged when a pack of goofy college kids tries to inject some rock-n-roll rebellion into the otherwise wholesome, family-friendly, high class world of football? Yes, let's all write letters because poking fun of farmers doesn't belong in the same upscale world as concussions, victory dances, trash-talking, and an audience that's been tailgating since daybreak.

I loved the Stanford band's performance, and not for the juvenile antics which were fairly pedestrian at best. I liked it because the kids in that band looked like they were having a blast.

I was in marching band for a little while in junior high school. We were pretty good, in fact, and took home many a statewide trophy back in the day. It was also one of the most miserable times in my life. Our band director was a wiry little chain-smoker who taught through fear, intimidation, and bullying. Over time, he turned me into a pretty great drummer. He also darn near taught me to hate music, which is one of the reasons why I dropped out of band before high school.

The Stanford band represent everything my junior high band didn't. Before you trash-talk these kids to death on Facebook for their admittedly cheap shots at the Midwest, know a couple things about them:

First off, they let ANYONE in. If you want to join the Stanford band, all you have to do is show up. They don't even care if you know how to play. "Just show up to rehearsal at 7 p.m. on Monday nights," their website says. "We'll have an instrument for you, as well as people willing to teach you how to play it if you want."

"Imagine a shiny, neatly packed precision marching band stepping in time to a single snare drum, silently advancing onto the football field," their site explains. "As they unfold into their first geometric formation and the first notes of 'Sonoran Desert/Rocky Point Holiday: A Tribute to the Music of Ron Nelson' are heard, an audience member comments to his 67-year-old companion that this is the pinnacle of organizational discipline. Now imagine the opposite of that and you've got the Stanford Band."

No auditions. No uniforms. Practice just once a week. Their drum line includes pots, pans, and stop signs. Anyone can join. Their mascot is a raggedy old tree (for no discernable reason.) They're entirely student run. They pick their own music and write their own dumb, juvenile, classless bits. But most importantly, go watch that performance again. You can't find ONE kid without a smile. I probably would've been kicked out of my junior high band had I dared smile mid-performance.

Sue me, but I think it's fun watching people have fun. It was sure more fun than watching your local team take a beating. I'm no fan of bullying, and if I thought the Stanford band's performance had truly crossed that line, I'd be joining the miffed Midwest masses on Facebook. Instead, I look upon them with jealousy and wish my alma mater had given me an outlet to go bang on pots and pans once a week.

We live in a world that's in desperate need of fun -- so for now, can we unruffle our feathers and give the Stanford band a pass for their dancing cow?

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