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. Maybe The Breakfast Club approaches this level of conceptual and creative profundity, but Freaks and Geeks has eighteen immaculate episodes to develop its themes and characters.
Many moments and situations throughout Freaks and Geeks consider the characters’ reactions to the popular culture of 1980, particularly musical trends and happenings. The core band of freaks loves the hard rock that was prominent in the 1970s. They all seem to embrace that hopelessly frustrated “DISCO SUCKS” mentality that plagued pop music affairs during that time period. It is the very last episode (“Discos and Dragons”) of the series that most prominently features music. In this episode Lindsay has to choose between attending an academic summit at the University of Michigan during the summer or instead spending the time with her friends. It is the ultimate choice between embracing her mathlete expectations or her own self-expression. Meanwhile, the group discovers that one of its members, Nick Andopolis, has been regularly attending a discotheque with his new girlfriend and actually loves the music. They all accuse Nick of using this new scene to make Lindsay jealous, but by the end of the episode it becomes clear that Nick has discovered this new music as a means of differentiating his own personality and interests from those of the rest of the group, and as a rejection of his father’s parental inadequacy. In the meantime, Lindsay is given the Grateful Dead album American Beauty by her guidance counselor to aid in her decision — an interesting route given the Dead’s burgeoning relevance in 1980. Nevertheless, this album as well as the cult of carefree personality surrounding the band has a significant effect on Lindsay’s outlook on her own life, inspiring her to reject the academic expectations placed upon her.
I like to spend time thinking about essence of the music that will eventually define the tastes and apprehensions of “high-millennials” such as ourselves. If history does indeed progress in a cyclical nature — like in theories such as the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, which asserts that time periods and the individuals that inhabit them run on an observable, repeating cycle — then millennials will possess the same pragmatic, communal attitude that characterized, for example, the GI generation that fought World War II. Our popular culture, and particularly our music, should reflect these qualities. It seemingly does, for the most part. There are no easily defined rifts dividing popular music, such as that between rock and disco as depicted in Freaks and Geeks. At this year’s Grammys, artists as varied as Adele and Chance the Rapper can both win awards in the same ceremony (not to give the Grammys any divine power of naming what is good or not good). In general, popular music currently being produced does not seek to alienate anyone, but rather attempts to bring people together, to the same party.
That being said, it is still a polarized world in which we live. This is where that Freaks and Geeks discussion comes in handy. I think we can learn much about ourselves, and others, by listening to music that we have never before considered. Chance and Adele may bring young people together, but those two artists surely do not define the tastes of every person alive, or every person who ever lived. Listen to the deeply introspective hippie music of the Grateful Dead’s era, or the politically fueled hip-hop of groups like Public Enemy (the same hip-hop that ultimately led to the music of artists like Chance or Rihanna). There is no better way to learn about other people than by discovering that to which they get down, or dance, or cry, or yell in agreement. And like Lindsay and Nick, there is a great deal of self-discovery to be had in challenging ourselves with someone else’s music.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.