In Henderson, TN there exists a private Christian college called Freed-Hardeman that once a year engages in an extravagantly amateur school-pride-boosting “performance art” tradition called “Makin’ Music“. If that rings a bell for you, keep reading. If it does not, you probably won’t get the rest of this.
In this competitive musical extravaganza, 4-7 social clubs (the sober, co-ed alternative to frats and sororities) design a 7-minute musical number suited for small children, the elderly, tools, people with a permanently sunny disposition, and alumni who forget that they graduated to start a career and a family twelve years ago.
Every year the clubs are judged based on the following categories:
1: How likely your plot sounds like a rejected Pixar movie
2: How hot the music videos were your choreography came from (not dancing—choreography)
3: How quickly and quietly you left the stage after the lights went out
4: Which Wal-Mart pattern you bought
(and subsequently had sown together by a willing faculty in her spare time for a couple bucks in order to break even on supplies, a percentage of which the university would then deduct from her pay since she was “performing a service to the school”)
5: How well your cast is motivated by positive reinforcement
6: How much you didn’t talk in certain areas of the auditorium at certain times
(and how much you snapped your fingers with other clubs as they cheered at the right time, except for one certain club, who is exempt from cheering with everybody else, because they are the Mickey Mouse club)
7: Straight lines, with a 6-mm margin of error
Some people don’t mind practicing for two months, plus twelve hours in one day, for a small rush that lasts about ten minutes. But believe me, people are serious about it. I mean, there are some redneck good ol’ boys who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing make-up, eye liner, lipstick—none o that! But if you tell them it’s for a trophy—they’ll go the whole shebang!
But I never did it for a trophy. And I didn’t do it because I have a secret passion for putting on make-up, jumping into sequins, and dancing the balls of my feet off. So why did I do it for four years?
I’d like you to think back to when you were a little boy or girl taking voice, band, tap dance, drama, whatever. Your performance wasn’t anything special. You messed up a couple of times. You weren’t trained by a professional. You didn’t draw any large crowds. But your parents were there. They looked beyond all the mess ups, the undertrained lack of talent, the cutesy puff—they saw THEIR child doing something they enjoyed. They didn’t care about how well you did. They just wanted to see out there. In the moment.
“That’s my little bobby!”
“That’s my Suzie right there!”
It was the moments after when you could hug your parents and have a sno-cone, whether you were first or last. And before you knew it you forgot all about it. You being you, performing something you worked on, and having a good time made them proud. It was times like these that the foolish parents would rush in, fists flying, spoiling their children with dribble about who’s son or daughter was better. It was people like them you felt sorry for.
So I thought of these little underdogs, for whom the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. It was for this reason my favorite performance was the Thursday morning when the elementary kids would take a field trip to a college auditorium and watch grownups wear clown makeup and put Sesame Street Live to shame (true story). Even though the directors thought it was a rehearsal, we broke all the rules.
When it was time for the kids’ show, the real fun began. We swung our money bags around, did leapfrog, did the worm, made boogie faces, and screamed. I mean, when I saw we, I really don’t know how many of us there were, but the directors were angry about it.
Every year, at the end, I told myself I would not do it again. But every year, like countless others, I was convinced they needed our energy.
I did it for the children! Okay? I did it for the old alumni. I did it for the confused yet amused look on the old people’s faces. I did it for those freshmen who never ever came out of their demure shell until they realized they’re standing together in front of 2.5 thousand people doing a dance number—sorry, choreography number. I did it for the absurdity, to drive the people crazy who took it too seriously, to participate in am elaborate self-commentary. I did it to increase the number of the people in the show who weren’t taking it too seriously. I did it because I was a good little hipster: I did it to be ironic. Before it was cool.
I also did it because it was a good workout. I think. I might be wrong about that.
So if you were crying because you worked so hard and didn’t get first place, and this being your senior year you thought you deserved it, I was laughing at you. And if you were leaping up and down because you won over the opinion of Tennessee’s own Simon Cowell, I also laughed at you.
While many of you were wither screaming with ecstasy at the taste of gold or crying with disbelief in your shattered illusion, the rest of us were standing in the corner looking out at all the faces of proud parents, nostalgic alumni, local townies, and excited, innocent, attentive little children who came to see a campy, hokie show like this solely because it’s a part of their lives. They’re the reason I went out there.
So take some advice from an alum/alumnus/alummer/alumnite—whatever: Don’t do it for the gold. Or the gilded plastic set in engraved faux marble.
Ask Eric Clapton if the reason he became so great at guitar was to prove that he was the best and win all the music competitions. Ask Andy Warhol if he ever really listened to his critics. The artist who works hard because they love what they do—art for passion’s sake— is more impressive.
Of course, it’s a harder argument to buy for a show like this. Call it “art” and we might get a little carried away.