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Oberlin - School of Hard Rocks?

Most people haven't the inclination nor, their lives being ample things, the time to bother with rock 'n' roll ephemera. Most people's lives are too full to notice peculiar phenomena in the indie rock hemisphere. Phenomenon like, say, the fact that a small Midwestern liberal arts college has somehow studded the rock of now with some of its leaders.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the French Kicks, Oneida, Rye Coalition, the Ex-Models, The Seconds, The Prosaics, The Narrator, Trans Am, Songs: Ohia, Josh Ritter, the newly tinted and lacquered Liz Phair, and numerous others all have significant ties to Oberlin College. What the fuck? Seemingly, everyone who graduated from Oberlin in the past decade currently lives in NYC (Williamsburg -- specifically). Is the sheer number of Oberlin post-grads in NY ensuring their success?

Sited in the cross-hairs of Main St. and College St., close to farms, far from coasts, Oberlin's greatest claims previous to its newfound impressiveness were that one of the Ben and Jerry's humane, fat stoners went there, that it is a mecca for gay nerds, and that it has a tirelessly touted history of progressivism and political dissent. (If memory serves, one particularly fervid crusader suspended himself in a hammock off the front of the library to protest rat vivisection.) Is there something in the stubbly fields south of Cleveland's sooty girders that thrusts upon thin men and women unlikely rock excellence? More to the point, what about the Oberlin experience in the last five years of the twentieth century engendered so much rock?

Despite Oberlin's track-record, other schools undoubtedly house a higher number of wannabe rock stars. It is, after all, a small school. Does Oberlin's unstable mix of hedonism, Ohioan cloud-cover and stress make a better rocker? Is there something in the college's cliquish intellectual backslapping, earnestness and worry that guarantees better songs? Was there a certain fin-de-siecle explosion of the arts for those graduates in the late nineties? Or is it some trendoid cronyism, equivalent to the Ivy League's blue blazer and brass button Old Boy network?

I went to school with some of the higher-ups on today's college charts. All that learning and labor - Oberlin's motto - hasn't garnered me much since graduation. At best, I've gotten into some shows for free, and gained some tour t-shirts on the good undergraduate name I built for myself. Professionally, embossed degree in soft hand, my collegiate toil has amounted to a poke in the eye, so, sadly, my education has been better received in rock than in the world. There is a gross hangover we suffer from…all those late nights of bookish excess, the bingeing study sessions and burnt midnight oil left their mark. The past three years of mindlessness, high-timing bromides and constitutionals have taken the edge off, but I still get the sweats. In that flush of intoxication, we innocents thought or hoped that achievement irresistibly begot further achievement. That our grades and papers made us generals, entitled us to glory. It's now panned out and we now know otherwise and opt for rock, not the chintzy crock at the end of the collegiate rainbow. Apparently, failing a job in publishing, rock is the most suitable place for a liberal arts graduate, and for some reason the Obies have colonized it.

The college-guides seem to seize upon and exaggerate a certain liberal weirdness that marks the Oberlin student body, a decided idiosyncrasy, a queerness of Rocky Horror force. Compared to goon rodeos, like, say Clemson, Oberlin's is a novelly dilettantish and colorfully enlightened graduating class: kids work like helots, but with an air of importance that permits erratic insobriety; heavy-duty sex toys and prophylactics are peddled at clearance prices at the student center; dreary January historically staged suicide attempts as the heartland got excruciating; the annually hyped drag ball, a baroquely androgynous affair, has allowed thousands of girls and boys to frisk and play at gay far from home. Fraught poets, brilliant gay Bulgarian composers, implacable hairy activists, tyro-academics abound at the single town bar. Virtually nobody graduates into the business world. Poverty is the mother of the pure, and the typical Oberlin cad can't escape her claws, her withered breast so we stay glum and amid our rooms.

The school's 2,600 students are hardly all proto-Brooklynite chowdurheads, odd illuminati and disheveled darlings. There is, of course, a general herd of squares, nondescript collegians, hippy-dippy douches and nitwits, not to mention a thousand talented and uptight conservatory musicians. Throughout, though, a potent poseur cool endures, a vein of wannabe stars - achieving underachievers, stylish nihilists, fashionista Sandinista, rock literati, sassy hairdos. Nurtured by Oberlin's permissiveness, indulgence and bookish strain, rock flourishes. This is due in large part to the paradoxical fact that Oberlin is not an urban center, it is in the sticks. Everyone has the luxury of living in a free-standing home with a basement, so practice and party space abounds. While other schools release their students with promise and a put-on adulthood, Oberlin gives you a shaky intellectualism and an achy irreverence. Ideal for rock, Oberlin grants a false urbanity weaned on envy and egotism, the pose of weary sophistication and studied disaffection. All the while, the institution insists like Mr. Rogers on your uniqueness, and the intrinsic value of learning and your exceptionality. Plus, the students were moody from the age of 15, and disappoint themselves, so they drink a lot of Pabst.

The Oberlin cad personifies the liberal arts cliche - assiduously, expensively educated but without application, unfairly destined to do good, rather than well, outrageously open-minded, yet severely scornful and righteous in our indignation. Many can't find decent jobs, or overcome their cynicism so time is occupied with long-loved guitars and record players. When the world expects you to ruin your day with unintelligent and deadening work, music is the great consoler, certainly more so than the telly, or those papery things we once read so diligently. The books, you see, failed us some - we read them in earnest and believed they would better us and burnish us. We slaved over them, naively expecting recompense. Having done the same with rock, at least its elusive gods granted us, if briefly, drunken sex, loud guitars and the grand illusion of a high-held head.

Oberlin's illustrious rock credentials might lie the outside of the school, in the homes these trim collegians came to Ohio from. Oberlin parents might be able to better afford their kin's dereliction and its rock career, and in their liberalism, be apt to support the hobbies and whims of their feeble children. Once having paid the ransom for their children's extravagant white-elephant education, they are accustomed to providing, believing that excellence, at some approaching point, will have its returns. Or, in the jolly bless-us-all delusions of their own success and wealth the parents actually equate the personal pursuit of pleasure with the path to achievement.

Finally, if it's not the mentality or the money it's the body that recommends Oberlin's sons to rock. Oberlin is a waif haven; the student body has a ribby, wheezing, narrow-hipped and tight-clad constituency. The thinness of the campus gives it a cultish feel and separates it from the region's cornfed behemoths. Many students know how to wear shirts and pants effectively, how to style, and they would get their scrawny cans kicked by most any other college, excepting Reed. In every dust-up, the womyn's rugby team would be our only defense.

The big mystery is why the college's contribution to rock is concentrated in the last 5 years. I doubt if any changes in the curriculum or a modish zeal for multicultural studies ensured greater rock. The town's water had a grimy bite; I am reluctant to believe that the farm slurry and agri-sludge that leached into our drinking cups caused a positive, tuneful mutation.

In the end it is the combination of artistic wantonness and aspiration, not commonplaces like sunk cynicism and sloth. Maybe having cut their teeth in the libraries and classrooms, they are abler than others to put to music their tiffs and thrills with the world? More likely, the kids move to a city and, being either lame or high-minded or peculiar, continue to hang out exclusively with schoolmates and bandmates. In the end, it takes pitiless energy to be pompous enough for fame, but I think Oberlin's sons have it in spades, graduating with a tasteful haircut, a commendable record collection, high literacy and passably cultured affinities. They chose rock because it's a finer thing to be a wannabe king in hell rather than a droopy servant in heaven.

As for the rest of us, we aren't in bitchin' bands, but we know the drill. There is no use in going out to meet trouble halfway, so we'd sooner not go out into the world to bow and scrape, but retire dissolutely to clubs. Rock kids, like you, fair Reader, are quick learners; it doesn't take us long to get wise to the wretchedness of the drudge workweek, that faceless modern Moloch. How much better to rock? So go ahead, eye the professional ranks with a stony contempt born of jealousy and defensive superiority and crabby underuse and pursue those easygoing pipe-dreams. And maybe, finding that storied fold of likeminded attractive hipsters we'll have our soulmates to grouse about the world with, we'll make retro-girls and turn our hopes to finding practice space and eventually sounding cool.

--Sam Howard




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