With a Song in My Heart: K is for…

“Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine, 1992.

Surprised you a little with this one, did I?  Not exactly fitting the mold of what’s come before, but nonetheless evocative of a chunk of life that was formative if not necessarily pleasant.  Twenty years ago this fall, I entered university for the first time.  After coming to terms with high school and managing to forge something of an identity for myself, it was time to sponge off the blackboard and start over from the bottom with new people in a foreign environment – you know, the perfect circumstance for an introspection-minded introvert with only a few close friends, each of whom had decamped to a different life and future.  I had not felt this out of place since, well, ever, and as much as I craved connection, the new fishbowl offered few guppies I had any desire to swim with.  At uni (as my British friends would say), things started off badly enough when I was stuck in my last choice of residences – the sole remaining all-male hall on campus.  Frosh week there, by order of the sophs (second-years) mandated dressing daily in a progressively sweatier ridiculous skull cap/T-shirt/shorts combination, eschewing showers, screaming slogans and saturating one’s blood with beer and shots each night.  Let’s just pause and ask, based on what you’ve read of my work here and elsewhere, if you think this sounds like my scene in the slightest.

As the week ambled on, I was taken aback repeatedly by the apparent downgrade to group Neanderthalism that had accompanied the step up in educational stature.  My assigned roommate, Sanjeev, was nice enough, but we had very little in common apart from being relatively quiet non-smokers, and we wound up spending the year ignoring each other.  It was not as easy to ignore the cabal of cretins on the rest of the floor, however; the sorts who would put songs like this one or anything from the Beastie Boys’ oeuvre on repeat, crank the volume past eleven, lock their doors and go out for the night.  Sanjeev had an acquaintance he’d made there whom I recall only as “Assman,” for his gripping account of an encounter at a campus party:  “I was dancing with this chick, and she put her hands on my ass, and I had the biggest f—ing hard-on.”  This erudite raconteur was actually one of the more tolerable personalities there.  An inexplicably popular protozoan who got into the school apparently by sole virtue of his ability to not drop a thrown football, was fond of offering the following rationale when cajoling mates to join him at the local bar:  “You’ll get your d— sucked.”  (I am sorry about the language, but I’m not going to pretend it was a G-rated environment.)  The lot fancied themselves a horde of badasses sticking it to the man by chugging through every available keg to the sounds of Zack de la Rocha opining over Tom Morello’s thrashing guitar on whether or not he would do what you told him.

The idea of rebellion against authority has fascinated me for years, never more so than then, because we seem to be constantly readjusting downward the scale by which being a “rebel” is defined – to the point that a rebel can be merely someone who wears mismatched socks.  At that time, listening to loud, angry music, peppering your dialect with a plethora of F-bombs and spurning personal hygiene was enough, not to mention threatening to throw a punch at anyone who looked at you twice (the guy at the top of the pecking order at our residence was known for this latter trait; I just remember that he walked funny.)  This is, of course, while having your parents pay a significant portion of your inheritance toward your attendance at an establishment facility of higher learning.  Che Guevara got nothin’ on them folks, right?  Most of the drooling jackanapes made fun of me without mercy because I was the reserved, mannered English and film major who couldn’t participate in their conversations because he knew nothing about hockey statistics and didn’t care to engage in misogynist speculations on the quality of the ass of the rare female who wandered into our cafeteria.  (I kid you not, every time a girl from the neighboring all-female residence strolled in, the ambient noise level dropped about fifty decibels, and every pair of eyes shot immediately in her direction.  It was positively Pavlovian, not that any of these guys would have understood that reference.)  But they considered themselves rebels because… why, exactly?  What part of Rage Against the Machine’s message did they ever emulate?  Were they going to mouth off at their professors and refuse to write their term papers?  Raise the freakin’ flag, boys, let’s go storm the Bastille.  “Killing in the Name” was appropriated soon after its release by the worst of the posers, effectively neutering it.  Just like the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party” was embraced by the jock culture that didn’t realize that song was actually making fun of them.

Everyone has something of a rebellious streak in them; it’s part of our nature to chafe against constraints, no matter how comfortable we might otherwise be.  What I have always found distasteful is those who pretend at rebelliousness while conforming to a media stereotype (crafted, ironically, by corporations in order to sell you things) of what being a rebel is supposed to mean.  Wannabe Fonzies with preserved faux-leather jackets and pierced, upturned noses.  In point of fact, the most truly rebellious people I know wear suits and ties to their “establishment” jobs.  A real rebel doesn’t waste breath on advertising it.  The guys in my first year university residence were a joke, fueling their self-applied image on the mistaken concept that playing ROTM to deafness-inducing levels was the only action required, because – ooh! – there were swears in it.  I’m sure the majority of them have since settled into happy family lives and regular nine-to-fives, and Rage Against the Machine has been usurped on the playlist by Maroon 5 and Pitbull.  Many of them probably achieved their degrees.  Karmically, the most egregious of the bunch were “Christmas grads,” flunking first term and departing prior to the resumption of classes in January, not that they were missed.  Cue the Nelson Muntz laugh.

While I wasn’t bullied in my residence, and I did ultimately find one or two guys I could at least have a non-hockey-or-ass-related conversation with, I was dismissed by the great unwashed (literally – the body odor on some of those floors was practically an independent lifeform) as an outsider, a square, someone who refused to run with the pack.  I initiated my own private rebellion in Frosh Week by waking up early to make sure I could (horrors!) shower every morning, and by day three I abandoned the planned activities in favor of dignified clothing and exploration of the campus on my own, getting on with the chief reason for being there.  It did not stand me in good stead with the rest of them, but quite frankly, my attitude at that point was was, “f*** you, I won’t do what you tell me.”  I needed to be who I was and not force myself into the artificial fraternity the sophs were trying to forge using methods more suited to a summer camp for juvenile offenders.  We were all better than that; at least I thought so.

But maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I was just a snob.  Maybe some of the others formed lifelong friendships over pints and crude jokes.  Maybe the girl who gave Assman the hard-on of his life is the mother of his three beautiful children.  Maybe in rebelling against all the shenanigans, I missed out on something wonderful.  I deeply doubt it, but the possibility lingers.  I do have plenty of regrets about this time in my life, about opportunities lost and paths not taken, but what I never question is my choice to avoid conforming to the group mentality and to remain true to who I was when I first arrived.  It wasn’t always easy, but it was necessary.  And whoever would have imagined that simply being yourself would be the rebellious thing to do.