“Manufacturing Cool,” the September issue’s pop-music story, has an ambiguous title—it stands there without a time, without a subject, without a place. But the author, Jordan Coley, is happy to locate who is doing this “manufacturing” at Yale right now, and it happens to be people and places dear to me. As a member of WYBC for the past four years and an executive board member for the last two, and a current resident of 216, I felt that my organization, my home, and my character were attacked.
Coley writes of “a number of acts on campus embracing a less accessible sound”—who are these acts? Coley writes that “students […] cultivate what some would call a more ‘alternative’ type of music”—again, which students are doing this cultivating, and also, who are the “some” that are calling it alternative? To me, these vague terms, which no one can really refute outright, display a lack of thorough investigation. But the greatest objection I have to this underreporting is how conveniently it lends itself to a reductive portrait of Yale.
Coley writes: “You would probably find it hard to believe that [Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”]—or one like it—would ever be performed at 216, the dim basement venue that features local and student bands. There is an accepted division: bands and independent performers at Yale are the indie rockers, bar spitters, jazz players, electronic DJs, R&B singers—the ‘alternative.’ Pop blares from the speakers of a crowded party or is preceded by a pitch pipe.” Who accepts this division, exactly? Certainly not me. Certainly not the people who dedicate themselves to bringing shows to 216, and certainly not the bands that play there. To provide just one concrete example from a show at 216—which is more than there are in the article—our most well-attended shows last year were headlined by Slam Dank, a group whose own lead singer Keren Abreu calls a pop act. Keren is just one person whose tastes and craft complicate the simple narrative of this article, and I refuse to believe that she is an exception. The pop-music makers in this article share a feeling that they are judged, as Sarah Solovay succinctly puts it, because “the kind of music you make reflects how complex you are, so making mainstream music exposes you as shallow or basic.” I don’t doubt that her experiences have led her to believe this, but when I think back on a basement full of eager Slam Dank fans, it is clear to me that this is not every pop musician’s nor every pop fan’s experience at Yale.
While the article reads like reportage about “manufacturing cool” on this campus, it glosses over its own role in this manufacture. When Coley calls “the indie rockers, bar spitters, jazz players, electronic DJs, R&B singers” alternative, he manufactures his own definition of the genre. One only needs to think of Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Diplo, and Mariah Carey to realize that not all pop acts fit into his narrow (and remarkably white) model of “Pop that birthed talents like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber” and to see how poorly such a division between pop and alternative holds up. When Chris Capello, one of the few sources, accuses a party at 216 of playing Taylor Swift alongside PC Music as a display of coolness, he crafts a cynical image of people obsessed with status, leaving out the possibility that people were just enjoying the music.
Good, responsible journalism does not thrust definitions and worldviews onto people who may not share them. It does not ignore the complexities of subjects as vast as mainstream culture in the United States or as contained as the music scene on campus. I write this not just as member of WYBC and a resident of 216, but also as a reader who expects better from the things we write and publish at Yale.