March 10, 2009

Words & Guitar: Replace the University of Chicago

If the University of Chicago were a band, it’d be the Replacements.

Think about it. Calling yourself the Replacements—essentially a filler act for when the main band doesn’t show—has a lot in common with wearing your inferiority to a squirrel on your sleeve.

Pat as it sounds, the metaphor extends quite a ways. Like the kids here, the Replacements had obvious talent; yet they constructed a grandiose loser persona for themselves, and could disappear behind it at will.

What makes self-deprecation our defense mechanism of choice? For Chicago kids, the standing assumption that we’re all hopelessly awkward greases the wheels of social interaction, giving us a universally accepted excuse for most blunders.

For the Replacements, whose album titles include The Shit Hits the Fans and Don’t Sell or Buy, It’s Crap, self-deprecation served the same purpose as their legendary debauchery. The band was mortally afraid of success on anyone else’s terms, so they set rock-bottom standards for themselves, warding off everything from major label deals to reasonable expectations from their audiences.

A University of Chicago education should teach you that this kind of rampant self-deprecation usually means that there’s something pretty serious to be apologizing for under the surface. This was certainly true of the Replacements—even for musicians, the band had an epic record of being assholes.

Rock journo Michael Azerrad tells of a particularly chilling incident in the summer of 1986, when guitarist Bob Stinson, an alcoholic since his teens, went through a 30-day court-ordered rehab program. After Bob had been on the wagon for three weeks, singer Paul Westerberg walked up to him at a show with a bottle of champagne in his hand.

He said to Bob: “Either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage.”

Bob began to cry. Paul fired him from the band a few weeks later. Bob’s addictions returned with a vengeance and didn’t quit until they took his life in 1995.

While plenty of people start out pretty unpleasant, most have to undergo some kind of conditioning to be as much of a jerk as Paul Westerberg. For the Replacements, being stuck in a van with a rude mix of substances and one another for thousands of miles a year helped nurture their asshole tendencies into full bloom.

We have a pretty similar setup at the University of Chicago. The school works as a kind of incubator—the combination of schoolwork, laziness, fear, cold, geography, and prejudice knit the lot of us into a few dozen square blocks. In the face of this concentrated isolation, the nerds naturally get nerdier, the creeps get creepier, and the overachievers learn how to work themselves down to their last ounces of sanity.

But if you called out either the Replacements or Chicago students on their flaws, it’s hard to imagine being met with more than a shrug and a “what did you expect?” The Replacements’ lyrics, press, and performances all asserted that no one should bother expecting anything from them. One show out of every handful was earth-shattering, but if you got stuck seeing the band play drunken covers of Tom Petty all night, what could you do besides grin and bear it? If you were disappointed that the band wasn’t living up to their potential, that was your problem, not theirs.

Being socially maladaptive is similarly tolerated here. One of our school’s big selling points is that you can come here and give yourself to scholarly pursuits at the expense of everything else—social development included. Try to hold onto the notion that your peers can behave like functional adults, and it’ll end up costing you.

So how do we change all this? I have loads of ideas, none of them plausible. Ban the sale of witty T-shirts, for instance. Reward pretentious remarks by braining their sources with The Wealth of Nations. Compile a Most Unwanted List of the school’s biggest creeps, and put the top offenders through some kind of jerk-detox program.

I’m not saying the problem’s a joke—it’s just that hope for a solution probably is. Why? Take it from Replacements’ manager Peter Jesperson. It occurred to him that clueing the band into the actual workings of the music industry might stem their absurd fears of success, and their resulting self-destructive tendencies. Ultimately, however, he tended to isolate the Replacements from the business side of their operation, instead giving them the space he felt they needed to grow creatively.

In other words, there’s a trade-off between talent and sanity. To stop our assembly line of dysfunctional graduates, we’d have to trade theory for practicality, weirdness for social competence, and our academic monastery for something that remotely resembles the real world. And even if individuals are ready to make that exchange, the larger institution may never be.

Basically, the change would amount to replacing the University of Chicago. Mull that over, if you need to.