Orange Bubble

If you spend most of your time down-campus, you might be able to pass an entire day at Princeton without seeing Gothic architecture. If you and your friends don’t talk much about grades, you might even go 24 hours with the bogeyman that is grade deflation out of sight and out of mind. But there is no escape from the “Orange Bubble” (“the bubble” for short). Maybe the most ubiquitous phrase in the 08544 zip code, its syllables echo through dining halls and eating clubs. On any given morning, “Orange Bubble” may appear in two or three of the Prince’s opinion columns; in a recent Nass issue, the fateful words could be found in not two or three, but seven, articles. It’s not just meals and print media—we hear “Orange Bubble” as we walk to and from class, to and from activities and Frist and the Street, to and from everywhere. Once in a while, someone might even bring it up in precept.

It’s a strange phrase: sometimes the words are dripping in sarcasm, sometimes they’re completely earnest. It speaks to Princeton students’ worldly recognition that life goes on beyond the borders of our idyllic campus, yet it reeks of our blissful ignorance and acceptance of those goings-on. In other words, we talk about the Orange Bubble to pay lip service, rather than real attention, to the existence of a world outside of Princeton. Bizarrely, the phrase has also become tied to the idea that Princeton is somehow not part of the “real” world, despite its real people (both on-campus and in the town itself) beset by real problems. It’s not that Princeton’s not a safe, wealthy, white enclave, but even Stepford isn’t perfect. This is not to mention the real people here making real contributions to society; or our increasing connection to the rest of the world thanks to regular and social media; or the fact that—in an age when the Princeton dining halls consider anything grown within 250 miles of the school local—we live just nine miles from Trenton, a decaying urban center.

This all is nothing new. At this point, we take it for granted that the phrase “Orange Bubble” is ubiquitous, that it possesses a complex and somewhat controversial meaning. But how did it become that way?

It turns out that, like everything else at Princeton, the Orange Bubble has a history. And like many other Princeton histories, the early years of this one are rife with ignorance, isolation, and ignorance of our isolation. Looking through the Prince archives, which date back to 1876, we find that no author even conceived of the Ivy league life as a “bubble” until 1938—despite the fact that over those 62 years, Princeton was many times more isolated, both physically and socially, than it is today. As for that 1938 mention of the “nice bubble of your [college] existence?” Here’s the problem: it’s from a Yale Daily News article that was reprinted in the Prince. The first time a writer imagined the Princeton campus as constituting a bubble came fifty years later, in 1988. For those keeping track, Yale beat us on this one, and it wasn’t even close.

April 1988, then, brought the true birth of the Princeton bubble, with a Prince editorial excoriating the lack of campus response to the AIDS crisis. The writers accused students of being “encased in… [a] protective bubble” that kept the young disease out of sight and out of mind. It would be far less than fifty years until the next Prince mention of the bubble; that came in a piece about grading policy published exactly one week after the AIDS editorial. The idea had caught on. Over the next 15 years, the bubble—often dubbed the “Princeton Bubble” during this time—pops up intermittently in the Prince, suggesting that the phrase also popped up intermittently among Princeton students over these years. The Princeton bubble became a particularly common motif in the days and months following the September 11th attacks, with writers realizing the safety and serenity of their Princeton life only after those constants had been violently shaken.

Though 9/11 is the most jarring example, the bubble was talked about in this way for most of the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Articles mentioning it almost always focused on some negative uncommon to campus; disease, poverty, war, even drug arrests—these were weird things that somehow made themselves known in Princeton, either through some physical presence or conversation, and made Prince writers think about how strange it was that these commonalities were so unusual to us. How strange it was to be in such a secluded place. How strange to be in a bubble. During these years, then, the “bubble” was a phrase of critical thought, of recognizing but not necessarily accepting our lucky place as Princeton students; it was also often accompanied by a call to action. But even at Princeton, things change, and the arrival of Drew Fornarola ’06 on campus in fall 2002 meant that the bubble was about to expand.

In his four years at Princeton, Fornarola, a transplant from the greater Buffalo area, wrote a thesis on the comparative politics of Eastern Europe and was a member of the Glee and Tower clubs. But his lasting legacy at Princeton has, for better or worse, nothing to do with those pursuits; rather, it draws from a single song he composed on what he calls the “terrible” piano in the basement of Campbell Hall during the spring of 2003. As the U.S. plunged into its second war in the Middle East, Fornarola tapped into campus conversations about apathy and Princeton students’ place in the world when he coined the phrase “Orange Bubble” in his song of the same name. An attempt at “mild social commentary and satire,” as Fornarola describes it, the song was formally debuted in Triangle’s fall 2003 show, “For Love or Funny,” and has since become a staple of the Triangle Frosh Week show (among other things).

Fornarola, now a songwriter and playwright based in New York, downplays his contribution to Princeton’s campus culture, arguing that the “phrase didn’t invent the thing,” and—as to the popularity his term has gained—stated twice during the course of a brief interview that it was just “the right thing at the right time.” It certainly was “the right thing at the right time”; in the past decade, Orange Bubble has taken off in a way that even Fornarola describes as “pretty incredible.” Perhaps more surprising, though, than their ascent to ubiquity is the new connotation the words have taken on. Asked about his intent in writing “Orange Bubble,” Fornarola strikes the same chord as the Prince pieces in the years from 1988 to 2003: a gentle desire to call attention to how protected Princeton students are, without arguing that such protection should be, or already is, complete. Yet, as Fornarola’s phrase has grown in popularity, it has increasingly become attached to a complacency hinted at only briefly in his generally cheerful song. In the last couplet of the chorus, its singers proclaim, “Nothing will have happened in Princeton,” before ominously adding, “which I guess is why we all came here.”

More and more, Princeton students are not just eschewing the critical thinking that came with the way Fornarola and his forebears thought of the bubble, but using that very phrase specifically to avoid such thinking. A look at more recent editions of the Prince supports this theory: after all, who among us hasn’t read column after column written by students who used a break or summer outside of the “Orange Bubble” to connect with the rest of humanity and engage in political or social issues? The Orange Bubble has become an excuse. It’s allowed us to settle. Princeton is too secluded, too far gone; we shouldn’t even try to be part of the “real world.” That’s reserved for breaks.

And then there are those who’ve used the phrase Orange Bubble to encourage Princetonians to settle. In a particularly noteworthy 2007 editorial, the Prince applauded the academic benefits of existing within an Orange Bubble—“if students and teachers cannot detach themselves from contemporary passions and controversies,” it asked, “how can they engage seriously with unorthodox thinking?” Here, we’ve gone one step beyond just “owning” the Orange Bubble. Rather, the bubble had blown up so quickly that, within four years of the phrase being coined, it was being viewed as an inexorable part not only of the Princeton lifestyle, but of the Princeton education.

Elizabeth Mertz, a linguistic anthropologist and visiting professor at the University, is intrigued but unsurprised by the growth and evolution of “Orange Bubble.” In fact, Mertz suggests that this case study offers a “perfect window into a number of aspects of how language works on the ground in communities.” A phrase such as “Orange Bubble,” she notes, can frequently serve not just as a model of, but also as a model for, behavior. Further, it’s not unusual to have an “overt conscious struggle” to define such a popular phrase, as we see with a younger generation facing off against Fornarola and the older Prince writers.

Ultimately, though, what we know about a term that can both become immensely popular and take on a life of its own so quickly (particularly in a place where individual students like Fornarola tend to leave a minimal institutional legacy, if any) is that, as Mertz says, it strikes “the right tone at the right moment.” The language has to be right—“Orange Bubble” is catchy and utterly Princetonian in a way that “the bubble” or “Princeton bubble” just isn’t. And the meaning has to be right, too—and maybe this is where Drew Fornarola misinterpreted the feelings of the student body. Maybe where Fornarola and his friends were concerned, if not quite dismayed, by apathy on campus, a louder group—made cynical by Bush v. Gore and the War on Terror, made hopeless by increasing stratification in the U.S.—wanted that apathy. Maybe Fornarola’s phrase fed the fire of a group that wanted an Orange Bubble, no questions asked. That last throwaway couplet in “Orange Bubble”—“Nothing will have happened in Princeton/Which I guess is why we all came here”—may just ring the truest of any in Fornarola’s song.

This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the first real appearance of the “bubble” in the Prince and the 10th of the composition of the now-classic “Orange Bubble.” As we think about how to “celebrate” these milestones, we should consider a return to the older definition of the “Orange Bubble.” As Fornarola tells us in his song, “nothing’s gonna happen in Princeton”—as long as all of the current undergrads are here, at least, we’ll continue to study at a secluded, wealthy university in a secluded, wealthy town. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no “real world” here, or that we should use a silly phrase to keep “contemporary passions and controversies” at bay. At an institution intended to foster intellectual curiosity (in addition to churning out the next generation of management consultants), shouldn’t we be examining our relationship with the outside world rather than simply shutting that world out?

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