Oberlin - School of Hard Rocks?
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
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
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.