I find myself undergoing a mid-college existential crisis as I finish what has proven to be a rather formative sophomore year here at Cornell. It is not so much a cerebral catastrophe, one marked by some bleak, emotional indifference, but rather the overwhelming curiosity one experiences when discovering the utter vastness and complexity of the world, or less loftily, our own university’s community — less L’Étranger and more the end of Boyhood. I recall a moment that occurred in one of my first lectures at Cornell, ECON 1120: Introductory Macroeconomics back in the fall of 2015, when our professor offered us a bit of sage guidance: “During your freshmen year of college, you do not know anything, but you do not know that you do not know anything. In your sophomore year of college, you realize that you do not know anything. At the end of your junior year you definitely know some things, but you do not know that you do know something.
I would like to initiate this piece by making the rather bold assertion that Freaks and Geeks is a most profound creative portrayal of white, suburban and American high school life. Although it was tragically cancelled after its first season, it has surely attained cult-classic status. Yet, for those of you who do not know about this masterpiece of American television culture, Freaks and Geeks takes place in 1980 Michigan, and follows student Lindsay Weir in her attempt to abandon her confining, “mathlete” persona and hang around the burned-out group of “freaks” in her high school. This is not some desperate call for attention, or a problem that needs resolving, but rather an act of personal expression on the part of Lindsay. This is perhaps the thesis of the entire show; that youthful expression is both liberating and emotionally healthy, and it is crucial that young people surround themselves with accepting peers in the process.
I haven’t even seen La La Land, so this is not a review of that film. The picture accompanying this article is only related to the subject in spirit and is primarily there for bait to increase readership. La La Land seems like a pretty cool movie, and from the brief snippets I’ve heard of its soundtrack, its music is probably intoxicating, jazzy, and maybe even original. Its two starring actors manage to look highly attractive and suave in all of the ads and stills I’ve seen and I bet that this translates into captivating motion on screen during the actual event of watching La La Land. I’ve gathered from some media outlets, including Saturday Night Live, that La La Land may represent yet another tiring instance of Hollywood “whitewashing,” as it is a film about jazz that stars two white actors (this criticism resting on the implication that jazz music was gradually formed by the profoundly unique experiences and reactions of African-Americans in the twentieth century – an assertion I can adamantly defend).
“Well this is some old-school, Ivy Leaguer, boys and girls, three-feet-on-the-floor stuff,” I thought to myself. We were going to Wells College for a semi-formal. My friend’s girlfriend goes there, and his girlfriend has a friend, and through the potentially awkward workings of social arrangement, it was established that I would be her friend’s date for the evening; so it goes, so it goes. For those of you who don’t know, Wells College is a small, liberal arts institution situated on a dreamy, picturesque campus in Aurora, New York, about 25 miles north of Ithaca. Founded in 1868 as a women’s college by Henry Wells, the institution — in true, 19th century Utopian fashion — was intended to produce the “ideal” contemporary woman.
When I was much younger, around four or five years of age, I played soccer on a YMCA little league team. Yet, as I’ve been subsequently told, rare was it that I actually joined in and played the game with the other kids. I possessed no interest in the ball and I instead preferred to run around carefree behind my team, acting out my own fantastical Power Rangers- or epic action-adventure. After soccer came a brief, two-year stint in little league baseball during elementary school. My brazen defiance of the rules in both of these sports indicated to my parents that organized sports were indeed not my forte (and around this time I began taking piano lessons).
One time I was having a classical music listening session with a friend of mine, and when he asked what we should listen to next, I suggested some of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He acquiesced, but not before mentioning that my choice was a very “mainstream” one. Whether I’m a classical poser or not, there are several moments in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that are — for simplicity’s sake — exemplary. Take, for example, the sudden thematic shift in the second movement, from an inevitable, definitive minor to an unhindered, lively major. Beethoven hinted at the possibility of such tonal fulfillment earlier in the movement, but it is not until this stark contrast that the extent of his creative vision is recognized.
It’s a grand old time. I stand at the edge of the dance floor, that ambiguous event horizon beyond which lies the vociferous, collective rampage of too many young people crowded into too small a square. That’s an alienating sight, especially to the likes of an introverted Pisces such as myself. Besides the massive swarm of individuals and their sick dance moves, perhaps the most antagonizing gesture is the rapid fire of ironic lip-syncing to songs with lyrics to which I have never given thought or bothered to discern. Sometimes a light shines out in the wilderness and a certain song plays, the lowest common denominator, that even the most reserved folks know and love (“SO BABY PULL ME CLOSER IN THE BACKSEAT OF YOUR ROVER…”).
I was at a party one time and I was introduced to someone through a mutual friend. “This is Nick,” my friend said. “He’s really into music and he plays the piano.”
“Cool, that’s sort of interesting! What do you like to play on the piano?”
“Well, I’m classically trained, and my favorite composers are Bach and Chopin.”
“Wow, you must be really sensitive and have an exquisite taste for the nuances of creating art, like Bach’s subtle suspensions and dissonances in ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and other works!”
Or, some derivative of that story occurred, sans the closing remark. Being introduced as a musician of the western classical tradition often garners a vague, uninspired response of awe and not much further dialogue.
2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Beastie Boys debut album Licensed to Ill, and in commemoration, the work will be reissued on vinyl, which is set for release on October 14. Licensed to Ill was wildly popular when it was initially released in 1986, and has since been certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). A quote by Chuck D of Public Enemy is included in Def Jam’s press release for the reissue: “The breakthrough of Licensed To Ill in 1986 paved the road legitimizing Rap to its USA masses… This record also expanded HipHop diversity allowing Public Enemy’s Takes A Nation to be its antithesis.”
Chuck D’s words here pose an interesting question: what exactly does it mean to “legitimize” an art form to the “masses” of fans in America and the western world? The answer to that questions seems to vary and possess its own degree of complexity. However, the case of Licensed to Ill is relatively simple.
The lineup of the newly formed Prophets of Rage is an extraordinary one: Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine, along with Chuck D and DJ Lord of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill. I have a profound sense of respect for all of these artists and their musical innovations and output. I particularly identify with their political ideology and the unprecedented aplomb with which they conveyed it. My young imagination can only vaguely fathom the sublimity of listening to Fear of a Black Planet as a new release in 1990 or thrashing to RATM and Cypress Hill in concert during their heydays of the same distant era. Despite the considerable length of time between now and then, each group’s body of work still manages to sound relevant and assumes a timeless quality.