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strange thing to be part of an infamous organization, but joining this one was my destiny. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band has been in my life since the day I was born, and too often it has almost been the death of me. It was, and still is, family tradition to start each birthday with the LSJUMB’s recording of the Beatles’ “Birthday” as reveille, all the way back from 1977. Irreverence as tradition. It’s a hard thing to uphold, especially when you’re the “face” of a world-class research university. Using that intersection as its entry point, my story comes careening through the sky only to slip through a fissure and detonate below ground, resulting in barely felt surface tremors. It is a story of ego and of censorship. It’s about a grueling, cutthroat world of entertainment rife with infighting and drug use. That’s right folks, my story is about marching band field shows.
It is Tuesday night of finals week, Autumn 2010, and I really should be working on my take-homes, but I am distracted. Distracted, because we are going to the freaking Orange Bowl. The is the biggest moment for the Band since the 2000 Rose Bowl, where I remember my dad frantically searching through his video library to find a blank tape in time to record the Band’s halftime show (2 years ago, I dug up the tape. The show’s not that good). Freshman year, I was at home watching some BCS games, watching the cameras point to these lame bands from Oklahoma and West Virginia for reaction shots, watching their lame halftime shows, dreaming of the chance for that spotlight. Now, it was my time, my time to write something awesome. Like many of my cohorts, my decision to join the Band came during New Student Orientation. The clincher line was when I overheard somebody say “The Band are the only people that have any fun at Stanford,” and just like that I was pulled in. The people in charge unearthed an aluminum upright bass for me to pound on and the next thing I knew I was in the Los Angeles Coliseum watching the greatest upset in the history of college football, playing music in celebration until they kicked us out of the stadium. On the bus ride back from that trip, I knew that I was going to be a lifer in this so-called organization. In the middle of this finals week of one of my roughest quarters yet, due in no small part to one of the most exhausting football seasons to date, this organization consumed every inch of my mind.
One of the more astounding aspects of the Band is that it takes dozens of Stanford students doing dedicated work to run it. This leads to a great deal of heartache and self-theorizing. Every staff (staph) meeting is an exercise in narrowly avoiding a group existential crisis. There is a strong undercurrent of nihilism and fatalism among the most involved members, usually symptomatic of a disappointing football season. This year though, we were going out on top, with a crowning achievement instead of a slow return to entropy, so I was going to make damn sure that crown was shining. Throwing myself into this organization with aplomb, I quickly found myself in a couple of staff positions, including the thankless task of field show writer. Everyone wants to know how our shows get made, what goes into the process to make them so either beautifully crazy and incise or maddeningly pointless. In terms of sausage factories though, the field show process ranks at about the level of Morningstar Farms. The process takes three weeks, which is two more weeks than the creators of South Park need to make an episode. Three weeks out, we brainstorm a bunch of ideas (with a very loose definition of the word “brainstorm”). Two weeks out, the writing team stays up until 2AM on a Monday night trying to make a coherent script, which then gets chopped up by the Field Show Review Committee (this is a real committee that involves the Dean of Students, the head of Student Affairs, and three high-ranking members of the Athletic Department. True story). We then turn around and remove the offensive parts/completely rewrite it the next Monday in order to have the committee rubber-stamp the new scripts so we can begin rehearsing them that Wednesday before the game. It is not exactly a process that engenders creativity. For 2010, I decided to take more chances in the scripts I was writing, to try to match some of those legendary shows from the 70’s that at this point, really function more as albatrosses than as anything else for the Band. My shows about Los Angeles’s trouble with outdoor raves, Things That Won’t Be Relevant Until 2012 (for the USC game), the security dilemma that results when bros icing bros gets out of control, and Oski’s new future as a homeless man all found themselves rejected by the committee. Instead, the committee preferred a series of themed shows called “Dinosaur Poems,” which need no further elaboration. This continual rejection led to contentious relations with that singularly hated part of any worthwhile organization: management. Over my tenure, it was inarguable that I had done more work than anyone who could not be described as part of management. In addition to writing scripts, I found myself pulling two stints as head of public relations, one season as tuba section leader and de facto section leader for half of another. On top of all that, I spent my time arranging around ten to twelve songs for the Band to play, three of which are actually in the current rotation. Indeed, I tried to join the ranks of said management, twice, by auditioning for drum major, a process that requires months of waving a stick in front of a mirror and spending hundreds of dollars to make a
costume from scratch. I list all of these duties only to say that before this football season had even started, my ego was suffering from perceived underappreciation. And if that were not enough, the assistant manager, let's call him Mark though that is not his name, who actually assumed the most authoritative pose, was a relative stranger. Most of the time, the Band has nice, incestuous quality about it. Everyone has spent too much time together, such to the point that any real authority does not exist. It's hard to fear someone you've seen hurling into a toilet multiple times. But Mark, he was two years older than me—which meant he was part of the bad old days known as suspension, and he acted it too. Mark had taken what were my first two years in college to do something grown-up and mature sounding. I had heard of him, but had always assumed he was one of those Bandies that just started flaking (you would be surprised at how many of those people there are). Magically, he reappears, and before most people even know who he is, he finds himself interim (soon to become permanent) assistant manager. That was a year ago, but even now I am still having some trust issues,1 issues which made me even less thrilled those times he would deliver bad news from the review committee. But what is this, a high-school cheerleading squad with its own reality show? We're going to the Orange Bowl. My motto was and still is, “never let interpersonal B.S. Interfere with rocking out.”So while all these thoughts and emotions are all fighting for prescription-strength stimulant modified brainspace, because I am currently working with the greatest idea for a field show ever: an Inception parody. The Band was going to go into a dream within a dream within a dream in the minds of the BCS voters, in order to assure that Stanford got its rightful spot in the BCS. The first draft I produced and sent out was heavy on exposition, short on jokes (not good considering we had less time for this show than any all season), but that was not supposed to matter because the script could be in draft form by the first meeting, which was supposed to happen a week ago. None of the members of the administration showed up to that meeting, because their time is very important, or at least that's what they told us, but the verdict was that they were leaning toward a show that mostly consisted of “Find and Replace 'LeBron James' with 'The Stanford Band'” and the phrase “taking our talents to South Beach.” It was about as clever and cutting as your average MadTV sketch. Typical. But I am not fazed. This show just needs a little editing, take-home finals be damned. Next comes the very focused hours 3AM to 7AM, which I spend on two pages worth of material, twice as long as I had ever spent writing a script. It's all
1 At the risk of sounding even pettier, Mark is married. One typical Band insecurity that I will unashamedly subscribe to is that we are no cooler than any other typical marching band. Even in a moderate scheme of things, this shouldn't matter, but no college student wins cool points for being married. This judgment is irrational and pointless, yes, but I found it to be real nonetheless.
worth it though, because I've got the rare parody that fosters a deeper understanding of both its subject matters, revealing the inherent convoluted logic of the BCS and Inception. And it's puntastic too. “Why is the Tree here? Oh, he’s the Shade.” It plays to an audience that knows likes sports but knows very little about them, perfect for Miami sports fans, and it was not offensive in any way. I mean, how could they have a problem with making fun of the BCS? Rick Reilly, a man Donny Osmond would find corny, had just written a column making fun of the BCS. It's fair game, right? I tighten up a couple sentences and lean back, proud of my work. This show is exactly what the Stanford Band was put on Earth for, to hold up a mirror to all the self-seriousness and absurdity that comes with College FootBall. We're the court jesters, the idiot savants. I had always wanted to come to the review committee meetings to defend my material, but for most of the quarter I had a class that had conflicted in the same slot. I told Mark, who is now running this deal thanks to the annual staff rotation that occurs with 00:04 left in Big Game, that I could go this week, but he said that there were too many people at the meeting already, so I'ma just load this bad boy as an attachment, hit send, and take a nap, waiting for a reply.
Mark's e-mail came back, and it led with him praising my show and thanking me for all my hard work, which is the same way all my job rejection e-mails begin. I was shaking with anger, which overwhelmed me to the point that I misread the actual e-mail, thinking that Mark had said that they hadn't actually had time to read it, and responded angrily, and in turn Mark sent a response critiquing my show. Just what I needed, comedy advice from a philosophy major. Sitting in my house's computer cluster alone, the futility and cowardice of twenty-first century communication became clear. I would never get to express my frustration in person. It would all just go into an e-mail that I couldn't even tell had been read. To say I was blinded by rage would be incorrect because I had visions, of a month later, of me taking the award I would get at the Band’s awards banquet and smashing it on the ground in front of everyone, just to show them how stupid this system was. The worst part? The knowledge that I would get over it, that my anger would be gone even by the actual game, and that scream through text as I might, the system would never change because no one has the time or the heart for the fight. Over that year, I learned a lot about me and authority figures. For example, The reason the committee says a show is problematic is usually the reason I find the idea funny in the first place. What better time to make fun of the BCS than at the Orange Bowl? No amount of politeness will change the fact that I tend to see an issue from the opposite side of whoever is in charge. In some ways though, it was validating though. Despite my claimed internal and external devotion to the Band, throughout that season, I was wondering if my commitment was slipping. Joining the LSJUMB produces a newfound childlike sense of excitement in almost everyone who doesn't suck, but that excitement lasts at a maximum of 1.5 years, and it usually
ends up replaced by bitterness and that aforementioned fatalism. I had seen this happen year after year and had sworn that it would never happen to me. It's gratifying to know that even the most painful and frustrating of conflicts aren't enough to shake me from a cause I truly believe in. But what does this all have to do with sports? College athletics is a multibillion dollar enterprise, and central to its appeal is the spirit and pageantry of the games. Beneath the cheers, All Right Now, and carefree spirit that are all so endemic to Stanford's version of that pageantry lies a hulking, monolithic, bureaucratic nightmare that chews up and spits out people's emotions like they're rotten sunflower seeds, all in the name of a marketable “family-friendly game day atmosphere.”All, OK almost all, of my involvement with the LSJUMB has been in service of Stanford athletics, and yet I will forever dislike the Stanford Athletics Department. Come gameday though, I have to put all the pettiness and bureaucracy behind me and rock the f out. Learning to cut through administrative B.S. and remain focused on what's important to you may not be the most typical lesson one learns from sports, but the again, we've never been a typical marching band.
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