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Pep Poise

Harvard cannot pull off a pep rally, and that’s fine

By James M. Larkin, None

So the Girl Talk pep rally ended in ignominy. Audience members were shoved and crushed to the point of bruising, pregaming retroactively devolved into mere “gaming,” and dozens of cold, slightly drunk students never got to hear what the Krokodiloes would sound like remixed with Birdman and Lil Wayne’s 2007 hit “Pop Bottles” (the answer is “incredible”). The DJ himself skipped off early, back to his hotel, presumably to watch Starz until he fell asleep.

Of course the real loser in all this was our beloved football team, who went without a much-needed last-minute dose of pep. Football games are won and lost on pep, as any real fan knows. Luckily, the Crimson carabinieri went on to thrash the Bulldogs, 10 to nothing, in front of a frostbitten, largely vegetative crowd. There seemed to be more enthusiasm about the announcement of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s attendance at the annual competition than any one of its actual happenings.

Indeed, this year’s Game seemed to accomplish all its traditional ends. Undergraduates were given the opportunity to experience the irrational thrill of passive out-group derogation firsthand, as a caravan of Yalies almost entirely indistinguishable from ourselves became the target of generalizing groans and Othering invective. The alumni breezed through town, a moneymaking mistral the administration is all too happy to greet. Harvard showed Allston what’s what, Yale lost, and HUPD intervened—decisively and wherever it could. By Sunday morning, Harvard’s imagined community had gotten to know itself again, flaws and all.

Yet the abbreviated appearance of Mr. Gregg Gillis, the tiny engineering student behind the pseudo-copyright-infringing Wizard of Oz that is Girl Talk, still seems to cast something of a pathetic pall over the whole weekend for many participants. A glance at the Crimson archives reveals that this stricken reaction to the rally’s collapse is actually more striking than the collapse itself—given that the odds of success were so extremely low.

The inevitability of this year’s disappointment is prefigured by an enormous body of pep-rally (non-)history. Unlucky weather, New England’s perennial deus ex machina, has played a frequent role. In 1994, a much-ballyhooed bonfire in the MAC quad was rained upon, and went unattended by many of its organizers. Last year, the rally was driven inside the Queen’s Head Pub by rain, where it unfurled as an apparent mixed bag. In 2006, Fun Czar emeritus John T. Drake ’06 cancelled the event—again, because of rain—matter-of-factly citing the chance for mass electrocution. (Rumor has it that the rally was actually cancelled because people kept leaving the period off the end of Drake’s band name, “Blanks.” The rule is that, even if it appears in the middle of a sentence, Blanks. ends with a period.)

No need to get nostalgic, though—Harvard’s Game-centric school-spirit gatherings have never been perfect, rain or shine. The rally in 1962, held on Widener steps, suffered from the same stifling police environment that inhibits its latter-day cousins; it was closed out with two arrests, one of which was for “standing on a ladder”. The 1980 rally seems like it might have been an oasis of fun bisecting two almost-twenty-year dry spells. At it, the then-associate dean of freshmen worried that “the damn balloons” might get stuck in the rafters of Annenberg Hall—a sure sign that something’s gone right.

Since that year, though, there has apparently been exactly one stimulating pre-Game corroboree, which came in 2005. The Crimson recap quotes football coach Tim Murphy as stunned that disinterested undergraduates had thrown together the event, and generally conveys a confused introduction to school spirit in all its Caligulan, stuffed-bulldog-shredding fervor. Justin H. Haan ’05, then fun czar, was triumphal, proclaiming his organization as “all about…reviving a Harvard tradition.”

But how long can a practice languish in obsolescence and still be called a tradition? If anything, Harvard has proven itself actively hostile to the notion of a Game-inspired festival of self-celebration, a surprising counterpoint to the self-obsessed character many ascribe to our student body. Whether this sorry record is fuelled by a collective lack of interest in football or a collective inability to become excited, it must mean something.

At very least, it means students shouldn’t look to assign blame for the Girl Talk incident of 2008 to the CEB, or the lack of barriers, or the Masonic ministrations of the Fly Club. No: For whatever reason, the cosmos themselves are aligned against any such rally held on Harvard’s grounds. No more than five have been pulled off in a half-century. And if 2005 was any indication, these rallies are pretty stupid, even when they succeed. If anything, we should be happy that, these days, Harvard spirit can only barely induce shoving. Everyone, get back to work.

James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.

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