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These Days…Oberlin is More than just its Stereotype

MOLLY BRYSON // SEPTEMBER 27, 2019

The Christmas before I left for college, my uncle Rob, a music aficionado, gifted me the record Chelsea Girl by Nico. “If you’re going to liberal arts school, you have to have this record,” he said, unblinking. He said it as if it were law. I nodded in earnest, embarrassed for not having known about this requirement prior to enrolling in Oberlin, a school whose notorious alternative art and music scene was already something I had become anxious over keeping up with. And so, for the six months or so before I left Chicago for Ohio, Chelsea Girl became my soundtrack. I was desperate to catch onto the album’s melancholic tone, desperate, too, to understand the moody, intellectual pace of my to-be peers, whom I imagined as a flock of mini Nicos, all curtain-banged and high cheek-boned and smoky-eyed. In my fantasies, Oberlin was the overlooked epicenter of nostalgic, folksy America; it was a place where young, disparaged urbanites came to bask in the off-beat beauty of the rural Midwest, to read Marx in the rain, to smoke rollies and string pick guitar. I spent the spring semester of my senior year sprawled across my bedroom floor, listening to Nico croon from the speakers on my cheap Crosby record player and hoping that some of her ennui might rub off on me. If Chelsea Girl was really the musical equivalent to liberal arts school, I thought, then liberal arts school must be dismal indeed. Publicly and defiantly dismal, that is, and in a compellingly raw, subtly sexy way, which was everything that I thought Oberlin required, and expected, me to be.

If you’ve ever listened to Chelsea Girl, you probably know it best for the hit song “These Days.” The tune is exquisitely composed and effectually somber, marked by its descending fingerpicking pattern and its majestic, almost classical-sounding string and flute accompaniment. It begins, despondently sparse in its poetics and tinged with a quiet sense of regret: “I’ve been out walking/I don’t do too much talking these days/These days I seem to think a lot about all the things that I forgot to do.” The lamentation continues; “I don’t do too much gambling these days…I had a lover/I don’t think I’ll risk another,” Nico sings, sounding tiringly morose, as if she were a jaded middle-aged ex-creative who had all but given up on romance. Certainly, such lyrics boast an emotional maturity beyond the kind of performative teenage melodrama that had dominated my musical tastes up until then (think Alex G, Frankie Cosmos, the Sunflower Beam version of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon)—or so I thought. As it turns out, Jackson Browne, “These Days’” original writer, was only sixteen when he penned the song, a fact which now strikes me as absurdly funny. Did Browne really know what it was like to fall out of love, quit gambling for the sake of sobriety, and in effect resign from life, all before the legal age of adulthood? I doubt it. Then again, had I not identified with these exact tropes myself, and at the ripe pre-collegiate age of eighteen, nonetheless? 

In hindsight, I suppose that “These Days” must have offered me some kind of consolation. A recourse to the unattractive starry-eyed giddiness I witnessed in my ivy league-bound peers, Nico’s passivity seemed a much more modest and respectable option—akin, one might say, to Oberlin’s own anti-glamorous sense of humility. Yet, in proclaiming “These Days” my theme song, had I not inadvertently accepted that my life was over before I had even had a chance to begin living it?  My diary from the summer of 2016 suggests something to this extent. “I feel very old, as if I have already experienced everything good in life,” reads one pathetically angsty entry. In reality, I was an anxious Oberlin-bound, wannabe intellectual with a sixties music infatuation, a tendency towards pessimism, an overly romanticized notion of sadness, and a record player at my disposal. Rather than anticipating my transition to college in that stereotypical over-the-top high school way, I decided to take a cue from Nico and be radically, artfully miserable instead.

  When I arrived at Oberlin my first year, misery sure as hell wasn’t absent from campus culture, but it wasn’t rife, either. If anything, over these past few years I’ve witnessed the student body’s transition from being largely apathetic to being largely optimistic and engaged. Oberlin students are generally more active than they are resigned, more self-aware than they are narcissistic, and more emotionally giving than they are frugal. I’ve spent my time here, not locked away in my room (over)sentimentalizing my feelings of loneliness and discontent, but (over)dedicating myself to classes, clubs, friends, and activism. I run around constantly, hardly ever with a moment to myself, and am almost never tempted to consider withdrawing before I consider immersing myself further. I am speaking for myself, but I don’t think this is unlike how many of you also exist in this space. It is hard for me, now, to see Oberlin as the backdrop for Chelsea Girl, when so much of the school is grounded in a sense of duty far more honorable than Nico’s sequestered sense of cynicism.  

 

What about Chelsea Girl as a whole had inspired my uncle Rob to claim it as the defining album of the liberal arts school experience? Why did liberal arts school have to be the butt of every suffering artist joke, the institutional surrogate of the manic pixie dream girl, the default setting for the indie genre at-large? Perhaps it is because we liberal arts school-ers are sensitive—not in a demoralizing way, but in an acutely perceptive way that makes us, well, prone to artistry! 

 

Since that Christmas, my uncle Rob has gifted me a slew of similarly-toned records: Yoko Ono’s Season of Glass, Circuit Des Yeux’s Reaching For Indigo, the complete discography of Maki Asakawa (one album cover features a blurry black and white portrait of the singer, whose face is half obscured by a lit cigarette and dark, sweeping bangs). Their music is all dark, and forlorn, and slightly eerie, but I no longer feel that my uncle is trying to ascribe an undeserved over-the-top solemnity to my liberal arts experience by giving me these records. Nowadays (or “these days,” rather), I cherish the records. Their longevity comforts me, as does their theatrics, their confessional quality, their sheer intensity of sound. 

 

All this to say, coming to terms with the reality of my day-to-day life as an Oberlin student didn’t mean I lost my love for 60s music, or my tendency towards sentimentalism, or my general nostalgia. Sometimes, when I am fed up with all of the commotion and the to-do lists, I retreat to my room. I put Chelsea Girl on my turntable. I light a candle. I lie on my floor, trace the circular wobbling of the record with my eyes, and cry.

 

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Got a story about the sad, angsty music that defined your transition to Oberlin? (Come on, we know you do!) Write to us at thegrape@oberlin.edu!