Okenshields has a big role to fill on campus. As the only swipe-in dining hall on Central Campus, the volume and variety of people it must serve is extensive. Catering to that number of restrictions and preferences is task enough, but what about catering to that many open ears?
Starting with a solid mix of pop-chart songs from the mid-’90s through the aughts, the only real genre it fits is familiar but out-of-date. Occasionally, an ’80s throwback or recent hit graces the speaker, but they’re used sparingly. “Sexy Back” and “Dynamite” are right at home, and “Africa” by Toto is a special treat greeted by rippling chuckles.
One of the great senses I get from the playlist is a general interest in being as innocuous as possible, generally cheery or catchy, though occasionally reflective or sad.
A friend who says he’s been listening and analyzing the playlist three days a week since he arrived at Cornell two-and-a-half years ago said, “It’s the nostalgia that keeps me coming back.” While the music covers enough of a time period that it doesn’t seem to be pandering to nostalgia, it covers most of the popular music that we’ve lived with throughout our lives. It’s comforting and heartwarming to hear the music that accompanied middle school dances and family barbeques, without the crowd density to bring out the inner disdain for those events.
Despite the lack of complexity and innovation, there’s a lot to be said for just comforting, fun music. It’s a consistent conversation starter and a midday pick-me-up. If you added much more character, or artistic prowess, that decreases its ability to crowd-please, and to serve the interests of the visitors in all. For example, when a slightly more controversial song comes on the speakers — Monday around 1:30 it was an Evanescence tune — the sense of camaraderie wanes as people are no longer united in their tastes. The playlist gives the dining hall character and solidifies the vibe. In the rooms of Okenshields where the tunes do not reach, the refraction of all of the conversations coming together and the lack of music creates chaos and anxiety. The complete lack of taste and freshness are tragic necessities, but compensated by the convenience and lack of otherwise reasonable options — oops, I’m supposed to be talking about the music, not the food.
But does Okenshields have a larger role to fill? Should it challenge the simple musical canon, and worry more about being vibrant than unexceptional? Does it do well enough presenting a variety of musical styles and narratives?
I don’t know. Part of me wants to say that, while students are being challenged by their courses and their extracurriculars and their peers, they should be able to come back to the consistency and banality of a meal at Okenshields. But the other half says that any opportunity to put the margins of art on display should be taken. What could the music that didn’t make it big offer to the diners of Okenshields? What opportunities are being lost by presenting the same music that many diners already know?
Further, the narrative I so often hear about Okenshields — and one that I have furthered in this column — is that it shines because it’s familiar and nostalgic. But who isn’t that the case for? I’m sure many of the people at surrounding tables didn’t grow up with the songs on this playlist. I somewhat did, but in the years since coming to Cornell, I’ve revised my memory of the soundtrack of my childhood to include the songs that my friends remembered. I don’t think I knew the Kelly Clarkson . . . or was it Christina Aguilera . . . no it’s the Carrie Underwood song “Before He Cheats” before I listened to it on drives around the Finger Lakes. But I feel and act as if I did. While sharing music like this has proved to be beneficial and an enjoyable part of my time at Cornell, I worry about this revisionist memory. The demand of creating a dominant playlist fundamentally serves to whittle away at the diversity of art which we enjoy and share, privileging the music chosen as our nostalgia when there is no simple unanimously nostalgic playlist.
I don’t know if that could or should be considered in creating the playlist, and the large number of people who do find enjoyment in the playlist surely is an indication that it is doing good things for campus; cheering people up, calming them down, comforting them. It’s hard to disagree that it is fun. There is, sometimes, more to music than just that.
Katie Sims is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.