February 12, 2010

Letting their hair down, awkwardly

Yale’s already-infamous musical admissions video shows how easy it is for institutions to come across as old fashioned even when they’re using new media.

Billed as an “independent an independent collaboration between Yale undergraduates and recent alumni working in the admissions office,” the 17 minute video is a slickly-produced, peppy campus musical number in which students sing and dance answers to the question that all college recruitment videos (and viewbooks and brochures) are meant to answer: it’s titled “That’s Why I Chose Yale.”

The Gawker took its swings shortly after the video was released in mid January, and a post at IvyGate was titled “That’s Why I Chose to Ram a Soldering Iron Into My Ears.” At some point the university felt it prudent to disable the ratings and comment features on YouTube.

This week even the New Yorker couldn’t restrain itself from jumping on the pileup, running a “Talk of the Town” piece about the embarrassed giggles and cringing bewilderment of Yale alumni who have seen the video...although some of them couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the very prescription for success in the YouTube era? The video was a participatory creative act rather than a top-down fiat. It let the students speak — okay, sing — for themselves about the university, not unlike MIT’s pioneering student blogs on its admissions page (which my colleague Bill wrote about in a recent post). It uses contemporary media to meet its audiences on their own turf. It delivers its message with energy and enthusiasm, avoiding the rationalist trap into which so many educational and cultural marketing efforts fall. And it’s an innovation, a risk: just what the doctors have been ordering.

So what’s wrong with this (motion) picture?

The problem is that the operative principles of the YouTube generation are only partly about new technologies and new forms of participation. More fundamentally, they’re about new values placed on things like spontaneity, authenticity, directness, specificity, and especially irony and other forms of built-in self-critique.

The Yale video feels anachronistic and naïve not because it shows fresh-faced students turning to the camera and bursting into song, but because it expresses the opposites of those contemporary values. It’s highly staged and rehearsed, with plenty of contrived touches. Its lyrics don’t sound like things students would say; they sound like official tour-guide patter about all the swell things the place offers. Its music, and more importantly the students it depicts, are generic rather than individual.

But the biggest miscalculation is how sincere the video feels, how earnest and eager to convince as well as please. I say this despite the protestations of its young creators, Andrew Johnson (Yale '06) and Ethan Kuperberg ('11), that the whole thing was tongue-in-cheek, and despite a few moments when the corniness promises to blossom into camp. For the most part, we’re not far from the wholesome zeal of a contemporary megachurch (and come to think of it, the score does sound like catchy Christian rock).

So despite the experiment in form, the video does what any admissions video does: it preaches. The real opportunity here, and the real fit with contemporary culture, would have been to use the disarming, infectious charm of the song-and-dance genre to critique the salesmanship of college marketing and give us a richer, more nuanced and complex picture of students’ lives at Yale.

There’s some irony here, since the idea of a place like Yale is, in part, to develop and celebrate the critical thinking skills that are absent in this infomercial.

But all kinds of cultural institutions can learn from Yale’s experiment. Many museum and arts professionals, like their counterparts in higher ed, assume that if their organization is using YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter then it must be relevant. But the values and voices they send through those channels can belie that relevance. (The holiday video released by Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art in December inspires just those questions.) The medium isn’t the message, if it ever was.

Eric Stassen — February 15, 2010

OK, I just sat through the whole thing in order to be sure my written opinion would be informed by the available evidence in its entirety. (You're welcome.)

First of all, this is clearly NOT satire, and a few winks at the audience such as "Cats was better" do not make it so. Characters in a satire fail to see the absurdity of their situation and/or behavior. There is nothing inherently absurd about studying in a library or asking advice from a guidance counselor, or about singing songs about either of these activities, once the musical genre has been established. Furthermore, and most importantly, it would make absolutely no sense for Yale to produce a satirical film about Yale applicants. A "mockumentary" in the hands of a master like Christopher Guest can be a devastating weapon -- why would Yale aim such a weapon at the very students it hopes to attract?

What we have here, sadly, is an earnestly written and performed musical in very bad taste, of precisely the sort Mr. Guest skewered in "Waiting for Guffman." Earnestness is not necessarily a bad thing, of course -- the St. Matthew Passion is as earnest as can be -- but when it informs a derivative musical setting of inane lyrics, with production values straight out of "Cop Rock," the result is truly cringeworthy.

Epic Yale Fale.

Janis — February 17, 2010

Rehearsed spontaneity ... Hm.

I do think that fake freshness sells ... I just think that you have to be very (there's no other way to say this) cynical and contemptuous of your audience for it to work. You can sell garbage successfully with fake spontaneity, but you can't sell something you truly like and believe in that way and have it work.

And the people who did this video truly do believe that Yale is a great place, which it may well be. But in order to stage plastic freshness and uniqueness (and have it work), you really do need to not believe in what you're saying. McDonalds can market its stuff as health food (knowing full well it's not) and make people believe them, but Yale can't market itself as hip and trendy and make people believe them.

Self-conscious marketing is an agreed-upon lie in a lot of ways. The admissions people should have made a video that sells the school as people would believe them to have sold it: as an expensive but good place to get an education and network for your future. If anything spontaneous were going to happen, it would have come from the students themselves under no one's aegis but their own. (And would probably not have had the approval of the powers that be.)

It's a bit like the moral behind "The Lathe of Heaven." Trying to control something the power of which comes from its inherent random spontaneity is Fraught With Danger.

Eric Stassen — February 17, 2010

Having looked now at some of the comments on the other blogs, there is a clearly expressed minority view that the video is in fact fun and wonderful. And it occurs to me that of course there are a lot of people who enjoy the Christian rock that this resembles, and still others who watch NASCAR, or who cover themselves with tattoos, or who eat canned pasta products, or all of the above. I happen to view each of these things as examples of "bad taste," with the recruiting video very much included, but for Yale the question is, does this video appeal to the tastes of its prospective students? My impression is that the tendency to make fun of everything that isn't successfully ironic is increasingly present in younger generations. If I'm right and Yale is wrong, they will have a very hard time living this down.

Chris Iannuccilli — February 18, 2010

I disagree with Eric on this one. It clearly IS satire. They know this is over-the-top, of course it is, it's a musical. The value is in the fact that STUDENTS did every inch of it. It would take a top agency heroic efforts and hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull this off, yet Yale students did it themselves. It was risky, they knew it, and they thought the benefits outweighed the risks. I give them tons of credit.

Woody Carter — March 10, 2010

If you loved this video, as I did, you'll love http://www.prangstgrup.com/lecturemusica... which I think was filmed at Columbia.

To me the Yale video is aimed at parents, who are agenda-setters for the college choices of some kids. And I think it hits the parental nail on the head.

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