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It's Muzak to My Ears

By Philip M. Rubin

IT WAS hot, my head was pounding and crippling cramps ran through my legs. Near fainting from fatigue and water depletion, I rested my head on the back of the hard wooden seat and stared up at the ornate ceiling of Sanders Theater, wondering how much longer this torture would continue.

The occasion was the Harvard-Yale weekend a cappella concert involving two Harvard groups--the Dins and the Pitches--and two groups from Yale--the Whiffenpoofs and the Whim N' Rhythm.

It was my first--and last--such concert.

Not that there is anything inherently offensive about a long performance per se. After all, art is something that should defy definition and spring from complete creative freedom. But this wasn't art. This was the musical equivalent of a bowl of oatmeal mush.

A big bowl.

Fortunately for me, I don't have to submit to any more such "concerts." But no Harvard student--no matter how careful--can avoid the sickly sweet melodies and chipper smiles of a cappella groups in their classrooms, on posters and in their dining halls.

At the risk of sounding paranoid, they're everywhere.

I WAS first victimized by a cappella music as an innocent high school student. Visits to my school from several campus a cappella groups, from Bowdoin, Columbia, and Yale made me drowsy and nauseous. From the first "doo-wap," I found the music boring and all the songs the same.

The groups link themselves with the most banal and commercial of today's pop stars--people like George Michael and Phil Collins whose primary lyric is "I miss you, baby." With their pleasant, sleep-inducing hum, a cappella groups sing in a manner reminiscent of Muzak, that great piped-in music so often heard in certain Woolworth's branches.

I wanted no part of it. So after carefully perusing the Harvard application and finding no mention of a cappella groups, I decided to apply. Thinking Cambridge, Massachusetts was an a cappella free zone, I enrolled.

Imagine my surprise to find dozens of posters and hear dozens of announcements announcing the Orientation Week a cappella jam in Sanders Theater. I had been betrayed, but consoled myself with the thought I would never have to hear a group sing.

I was wrong. One of these groups came to my very first class. I had arrived 20 minutes early, with a box of blue Bic pens and a stack of clean, white Harvard notebooks. Soon, hundreds of people surrounded me, chattering and laughing and introducing themselves to each other.

Suddenly, a quasi-melodic hum from a group of grinning men and women in the front broke through the din. My peers smiled with them and some even tapped their feet. Students on my row became so enthused that they refused to get up, thereby blocking my escape.

I have sat in the aisles of large lecture classes ever since.

Ten a.m., it's freezing outside, and these guys are as bright as chipmunks, singing in putrid unison and forming a sea of ear-to-ear grins. There's something wrong with anybody who can be this happy this early in the morning.

And that "something" can be encapsulated in one word: hallucinogens.

Just look at their posters.

A cappella advertisements are big, glossy, and multi-colored, displaying everything from a crocodile crawling on a piano to millions of little pumpkins. In Currier, where I live now, the posters attack me as soon as I step into any elevator. (It's kind of fitting, since in the real world, I would expect to hear a cappella tunes in an elevator.)

Posters on the ground between Widener and Lamont. Posters on Science Center bulletin boards. Posters on the trees lining the walk between the Quad and the Yard. Posters hanging from Holworthy. Posters on every kiosk recognized by the University.

They've even begun to invade my subconscious. Last night, I dreamed I was being serenaded by a group of insane and drooling tuxedo-clad Kroks waving around florescent banners.

I woke up in a cold sweat.

ALTHOUGH there are other singing groups on campus, the a cappella groups reap the most publicity and support. They certainly have the most money; they love to brag about their spring trips to the Caribbean or "around the world." Why do they have to come back?

And why do they seem to get Sanders Theater for their concerts at the drop of a hat? They might have the ability to fill the theater, but so might a student musical or play if given the chance.

It was in a period of vulnerability several weeks ago when I gave a cappella music its last chance. As I sat in Sanders Theater, wringing my hands and looking all around me, I realized that I had come to that moment of self-hatred. They had annoyed me, driven me to drink, and, finally, dragged me into their concert.

What had I become?

But it was at that lowest moment that I recognized a solution to the problem. For free speech reasons, a cappella music must have a place at Harvard. So why can't that place be the Mather House television room?

It's spacious enough to accommodate all a cappella groupies. Its design provides the quality acoustics that the music deserves.

And it's far enough away to keep them out of my mind.

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