I am hesitant to write this article. Distaste for the Princeton University Band is already so widespread a feeling on campus that writing against them feels neither constructive nor beneficial. There is little observational worth in pointing out the kids with the orange blazers and bass drums in the dining hall for the sake of saying “don’t you just hate that?” as if unearthing a new and unnoticed vexation. Worse yet, to call the army of brass and drums annoying is less of an insult than an indulgence. The band is not simply aware of their role as campus pest, but have made it into something of an identity. They celebrate their role as traveling burden; they revel in the nuisance. But this is precisely what motivates me to write this piece—the element which I struggle to understand: the appeal of membership in a group so hungry to be despised, so loud in its aims to bother.
Just a few nights ago, I was eating at Whitman when the band came to play during dinner. Their entrance was met with the usual palpable dread. Aside from a few clapping friends, the reaction of the dining hall was mostly a muffled groan, rolling eyes and petulant, commiserative stares at nearby friends. As always, a few in the dining hall took it upon themselves to shout “Leave!” and “You suck!” to the members. Nonetheless, the band played through three songs. The first, a brassy “What is Love,” served as a Valentine’s Day Band-Gram. They followed this up with an instrumental “Gangnam Style” which they deemed a sensible token of appreciation to the dining hall staff. Upon finishing the second song, the band loitered in silence. Before cutting into a muddled “I’m a Believer,” they lingered for a full five minutes to soak in Whitman’s disdain. They waited for conversations to reignite, only to take pleasure in drowning them. Every set of angry, clenched teeth provided fuel to their lungs. I seethed as I devoured a taco. “To Wilson!” they cried as they exited, only able to leave with the pleasant thoughts of future annoyance.
After stewing in my contempt for the band, I realized there remained only a slim chance that the band genuinely did not know how intrusive it was. Of course they must know, I thought I had to appraise the awareness of my adversary before launching an attack. Looking for answers, I consulted the band’s own website. Of course, the “About Us” section proved useless; all it offered was a welcome and some crap about maintaining campus traditions. Their blog, however, revealed flickers of their true nature. Under “A Year in Review” I came across the following passage:
“The year starts off as always with thrilling Dean’s Date Eve and Dean’s Date gigs where the band made its way across campus, into various dining halls and libraries, disturbing the peace aiding stress relief across campus. We gave out candy, okay? And we all know how much students like free food.”
Okay, so disturbing the peace is something of a joke to them. They understand it’s a part of their ethos, and they accept it. But coming to terms with an undesired consequence is far different than existing for its very sake. The former is a parasite; the latter is sinister.
But maybe there’s another explanation for their being. An idea I’ve heard is that they serve as a statement against the achievement-centric activities culture at Princeton. Most student groups on campus—arts groups in particular—pride themselves in high selectivity, and often commit to excellence over enjoyment. The band is the notable exception: no audition process, no experience necessary, and hardly any time spent building skill. Foremost, the band aspires to provide fun for its members, and I do not doubt that it succeeds in doing as much. If it were not enjoyable, it would not maintain a membership. That said, I cannot believe its motivations are so pure. If it were a club devoted to the joy of playing instruments, it would exist independently of campus life; it wouldn’t weave among it. That is, an organization centered around the intrinsic satisfaction of making music, no matter how disagreeable, would not run through public spaces simply to elicit disapproval. Their overwhelming annoyance is not incidental to the group; it is the lifeblood. The band has an active thirst for burdening others, and it is this twisted joy in being a bother that keeps the band wandering around Princeton. They are a bug that keeps buzzing just to be swatted at. They find pleasure in polluting public air. There is minimal difference between their role on campus and that of the child on a family road trip that laughs as he keeps farting in the back of the car.
Of course, it is unlikely that disdain—even popular disdain—would ever cause the band to disintegrate. For better or for worse, they’re rooted in over ninety years of tradition, and when discussed in the lineup of Princeton traditions worth dissolving (the rumored raw oyster eaten at Ivy Club to stave off Jewish members, or more obnoxious yet—the closing of every dining hall for Cane Spree) suddenly the band seems a little less menacing than before. And besides, whether you’re a University Band member or enemy (can you really be anything else?) there’s something about bad music—be it generation or commiseration—that creates a shared understanding. The band has inspired more than a few supportive threads on Princeton FML, and in addition to a century of band alums, there’s an even stronger century of band-averse. But then again, they don’t set out to foster commiserative friendship; they aim to pester, and any bonding that takes place is entirely incidental.
As strange as it may seem, judging by sound alone, the band doesn’t even bother me that much. I can deal with a few minutes of bad music, even if they do practice something close to guerilla warfare on the ears. What I can’t deal with is a society of people who gets off on being an annoyance—a group who finds satisfaction in provoking hatred. I understand this article has in fact validated their success, and in a way, I feed their cause. I have made peace with the fact that they will celebrate this. As such, I have come to rationalize this rant as a gift.