The room was packed with fraternity brothers as well as men and women from all sectors of the campus. As the Rockapellas ran into the fraternity parlor, my first feeling was disgust at the catcalls which accompanied their entrance. I then thought, why would any self-respecting group of talented women subject themselves to such objectification?
I, of course, had witnessed this Wednesday night a capella concert scene before, both in fraternities and sororities, with both male and female singers. But on this night (in the past having only barely noted the behavior of the listeners) I scrutinized the audience’s actions.
After a few songs, one of the Rocks, Natalie Wood ’98, stepped forward. She explained to the audience, “One of the original purposes of the Rockapellas is to perform what we call ‘freedom songs.’ These songs come from many different artists and styles, but all portray some sort of social message.” And then she began to sing. The song was Gratitude, by Ani Difranco. As I listened to her and watched the audience, I think I began to understand why these performances must take place.
The women in the audience became, for the most part, more serious than they had been a few minutes before. They sat, on a couch or Indian-style on the floor, with their hands twisted in their laps, their mouths set, their eyes on Wood as it became apparent that the song was about sexual assault.
The men in the room had a less unified reaction. Many of them joined the women in assuming a somber countenance. Some of the others, leaning against window sills or sitting in chairs, began to shift uncomfortably. They looked down at their hands, at the ceiling, at the people around them. Anywhere but at Wood.
The remaining few smiled and carried on quiet side conversations, trying to pretend that the woman at the front of the room was merely a performer, and not the harbinger of an unhappy truth. But every so often, in the middle of their chatter, their eyes drifted towards her momentarily and their paste smiles temporarily faded.
There are those people who fault the Rockapellas for creating this reaction in their audience. The audience comes to be entertained, they say, and the Rockapellas have betrayed that purpose by foisting a social message on them and holding them captive for a lecture not everyone cares to hear. However, it is those selfsame people who do not want to know about these issues — AIDS, hunger, sexual assault, women’s lib — who should hear. It is through small messages in everyday life that people begin to learn. An a capella concert is part of Dartmouth’s everyday life and an ideal setting to promote awareness. It is music, with melody and message.
Dartmouth can occasionally be faulted for some social ills — both the ones spawned and allowed to fester within its ivy-covered walls, and the ones it ignores in the outside world. For the few minutes during each concert that they hold the audience and administer a “freedom song,” the Rockapellas are healers. They deserve a standing ovation for knowing that music without message is a wasted opportunity. In the 1960’s, for example, a time of social upheaval, music augured a generation’s discontent.
In a school that has often been accused of apathy, the Rockapellas are not the only organization whose praises we should be singing. There are many more that play an important role on this campus. I would list the others here, but no column is long enough to salute them all so you will forgive me for doing them the disservice of saluting them in passing.
The next time a fellow student mentions how disengaged Dartmouth is –how quiet the Playboy protest was, how small the Proposition 187 rally — remind yourself that although we may be a school of young Republicans and young Democrats rather than political activists, there are people on this campus who are socially aware. Figure out where to find them, listen to them, and you will learn.