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What Was The Worst Era To Attend College?

1824: Oxford undergraduates on a latenight drinking escapade. The original caption reads 'Oxford Transports or Albanians doing Penance for Past Offences'. Original Artwork: Drawn and engraved by Robet Cruikshank for 'The English Spy', 1824 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it. Drew's off this week. Today, we're talking about fashion, old cars, the Wu-Tang Clan, and more.

Hello, I'm Israel and I'm in charge of the Funbag while the old man is away. I don't have much to promote personally; I'm working on some cool stuff but it's nowhere near ready to be talked about yet. In the meantime, read things with my name on it. Follow me on places to be followed. Listen to my annoying voice as a guest on The Distraction.

On to your letters!

Jackson:

What’s the most cursed era to have attended college? Im thinking about the combination of pop culture/music/fashion of the time, but any criteria is fair game. For some reason when I see a picture of someone in college in the mid 90s, the clothes (baggy normcore) and music (grunge) make me think that must be the worst. Or, obviously when dubstep was big would’ve been awful.

Here’s the thing about this question: From a totally macro, objective standpoint, you could argue that the late aughts/early teens was the worst time. Fashion was never worse, a lot of tight tees and women wearing those giant belt buckles purely for fashion purposes. If you went to the club it looked like a bunch of potential middle managers interviewing for a position in a bank’s new branch. Pop music was still dabbling in electronic/dance and hadn’t quite figured the alchemy yet, so there were a lot of bad techno remixes and Will.I.Am (an absolute scourge on music) was one of the hottest producers out there. Social media was in its adolescence and spreading like a plague. The vibes were chaotic and mostly not in fun ways. And yet, this is the time period that I was in college, 2007–2011 to be specific, and I had an absolute blast despite all of these very real issues. Some of the best years of my life were spent at Florida State getting drunk as a skunk at bars like Bullwinkle's and Top Flite, sometimes dressed like Fonzworth Bentley, trying to dance with girls to Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love."

This is the conundrum inherent in your question. How can something be cursed when it was still fun to those who lived it? But if we’re going to stay in that 1000-foot perspective, except for a few select prestigious schools in bustling cities, most colleges are expensive daycares built around cool places to party. So what was popular on the Billboard charts at a specific time period can give you a pretty keen insight on what people were partying to. With that in mind, the mid/late '90s would’ve been a rough stretch for sure. Grunge and indie rock had been watered down and totally excavated by the mainstream music machine, MTV was busy pandering to your younger sibs instead, giving them bubblegum pop that we can appreciate now but boy did everyone not 12 years old hate it then, and white dudes were mad as hell (and because they were white dudes there was a whole secondary ecosystem built to cater to that anger). Rap was great, but it was also selling out hard, which people cared about back then. So if the late aughts weren’t the most cursed time for college, the mid/late '90s is just as good an answer as any other.

Shane:

What's your view on stream-of-consciousness lyrics in songs? No chorus, no repeating phrases? boygenius, Lana Del Ray are examples.

 My take is that it’s fine in short doses, but listening to an album of it gets annoying. Sometimes they think the lyrics are poignant but they’re really just lame (“I went to the supermarket / and I bought some cheap butter / found out it was expired / it reminded me of our love”)

Freestyling is an art form like any other, and like any other art, very few people can effectively pull it off. So of course every person wants to prove that they are among the very few. Obviously, you’re referring to indie singer-songwriters who do this but I think it follows the same trajectory and thought process as rappers. Stream-of-consciousness is a way to subvert typical established methods of popular songwriting. Something that says an effective song is about rhythm, tone, and the song itself’s structure, rather than the actual words being said.

Freestyling can be a clever subversion of that but in the hands of most, it gets, as you say, “annoying.” It’s tiring and it loses any of its punch when you hear it all the time. These motherfuckers out here aren’t Leonard Cohen and even he wrote actual songs too. 

To bring this back to rap for a second, I have always held Jay-Z a little responsible for destroying rap writing. Like, writing Actual Rap Songs. Every story about Jay confirms that he hears a beat he likes and goes into this Rain Man–like trance in the studio and comes out with a mostly done verse or chorus. He doesn’t write anything down. Fine. Jay is truly one of the best rappers of his generation, he’s allowed to not write. Biggie also didn’t write, but what ultimately happened was that Jay made it UNCOOL to write your raps. Jay was rap’s influencer before there were influencers, he made shit sound so hot that you couldn’t keep doing anything else. So if he bragged about not writing raps, best believe a lot of rappers stopped writing to prove they could get busy like him. This is a net negative that still persists now. A lot of rappers need to write, they need to edit, they need to think about what they want to say. I’m not saying a similar dynamic exists in other genres but what I do believe is that a rebuke of form in song-making is often treated as a high artistic achievement in a way that encourages artists to do things like stream-of-consciousness songwriting. Plus, it’s a lot of work and development needed to learn how to write pop songs: learning hooks, bridges, chord progressions! It’s an extensive process, and you’d be surprised how many of your favorites don’t want to challenge themselves in that way, ostensibly for the sake of authenticity. 

Adam:

Is anyone else sick of the suits/tux with sneakers combo? It was fly for a little while, but now it's so overdone I want these clowns to just get some fucking dress shoes. Niles Crane is NOT my father.

Adam! I’m glad you said that. Sneakers and suits can still work if done right. We’re in the personal style era right now, where it's fair to ask what does what you have on say about you? As a result, people can get a little funky with their outfits. I might wear some Jordan 4s with a suit depending on the kind of event, I can’t promise I wouldn’t. But I also think this is an awesome time for non-sneaker shoes: mules, sandals, boots, loafers. It’s never been a better time to look like a grown-up on your feet. Ultimately it comes back to actual style, and a lot of people don’t have good style instincts. So they wear the worst, rattiest or gaudiest sneakers possible with a suit (or do the reverse). 

Where I absolutely draw a hard line is weddings. Wear some goddamn wingtips or something to your fucking wedding, your grandparents are here. Your children will see this someday. Oh, you thought it was cute if you and your groomsmen wore matching Chucks? So did every other asshole that got married this year.

Chris:

I do most of the grocery shopping in our house. With the advent of the self checkout, I find that as I'm scanning my produce, I often ring up the wrong items. My super expensive cosmic crisp apples might get rung up as red delicious apples that just happen to be on sale. Those crazy expensive sumo oranges?? Oops, looks like those rung up as bargain tangerines. Organic super jumbo avocados? Somehow the only button I'm seeing is the one for the little tiny avocados that are on sale.

It drives my wife crazy and she thinks this is legit criminal behavior. I've tried to explain that if grocery stores want to eliminate union jobs, understaff stores, and force customers to be employees, all in the name of saving money, they should do a better job of training me. What says you? Should I continue my noble, silent protest against corporations and late stage capitalism, or should I really be paying $3 for a sumo orange??

Your wife is understandably squeamish. It’s not always easy to square one belief (that stealing is bad) with the fact that corporations are faceless, monstrous entities that exist to subjugate and squeeze the most out of their employees and customers for maximum profit. I always encourage stealing from any big store brand, even if it's a pen, an extra refill, a bag that you didn’t pay the bag tax on, anything. I can’t promise any way to make your wife see the light about this, beyond giving her a Huey Newton book. Some bits of deep-seated programming never fully go away. Technically, I don’t even know if I should even be encouraging you without providing some sort of disclaimer right now about these views belonging to me and me alone.

Halftime:

Noe:

Do you think there are almost no more beaters/crap cars now? My friend gave me a ride and apologized for his "old" car but it's a 2009 Accord. It has a working radio, CD, Bluetooth, etc. The paint is a little faded but otherwise nice and clean with no dents or cracks. Sure the car is 14yrs old and has no fancy touchscreens but who needs that when you can just stick your phone on the dashboard?

Do you think a car from 2003 is a beater? It's 20yrs old but man, they are all mostly fine, no?

Technically speaking, beaters will always exist. But like everything else, the definition will change. Cars have advanced too much for today's beaters to resemble the beaters of yore. That 2003 car is 20 years old, an insane amount of time for a car that isn’t purposely vintage. There are probably cars around in worse condition than that Accord but the days of the true piece of shit, stalling and exhaling an unhealthy amount of fumes, are probably dying if not dead.

I used to have an almost-beater, my first car. A 1996 Mitsubishi Mirage. Terrible. The radio had to be updated to get a CD player into it, the brakes were almost completely worn out, and it stalled like crazy after every red light turned green. One time on the way to school, it was raining and I tried to hit the brake and it slid halfway across the road, almost 360 degrees. Terrible car, but damn if I don’t miss it sometimes. I feel like the end of Lady Bird when I talk about that car to people, just me and the mirage getting to know Tallahassee, listening to a lot of Weezer for some reason.

Emmett:

I'm really digging the Wu-Tang series on Hulu but I've long felt that Wu-Tang is the Grateful Dead of their generation: a huge loyal fanbase, ability to draw new younger fans, and a cultural significance beyond just the music. So Is my loving the series and telling everyone about seeing Method Man in 1995 the same as some boomer poring over their collection of bootlegs and going on about seeing Jerry in 1969?

It’s not an unfair comparison. The biggest difference is that the Wu was hugely popular in a way that elided the Dead, so following the Wu involved less of a cultish devotion. There’s also the issue of seeing all of them (sans Dirty of course) on stage at the same time, which is getting harder and harder. But yeah, the two groups seem to hold similar influences on music of the following generations in ways that people aren’t always aware of. Realistically though, bragging about seeing anyone from the '90s is the equivalent of a boomer bragging about how they almost went to Woodstock. Sorry but it’s just part of the aging process.

Not a big fan of the show though, to be honest. But I do have a Wu-Tang story. Back when I worked at Spin, I went to a press junket for the Showtime documentary Of Mics and Men and interviewed Rza, Gza, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Cappadonna. Then later that night at the doc’s premiere, they all came out to perform (with the ol' dirty baby filling in for his father), but for all intents and purposes I can say I saw them all on stage together. Then U-God helped me and my plus-one get into the afterparty. Good dude. And that’s how I partied hard with the Wu. 

Andrew:

By now it’s evident that Covid didn’t end the world, and apart for some brave work from home holdouts, lifestyles have largely returned to pre-pandemic rhythms. Are you disappointed that Covid didn’t permanently rearrange the modern world? It briefly felt like a reprieve and a chance to “do-over” many things we are consciously doing wrongly.

What is it about people and our secret desire to watch the world end? Is it just as simple as modernity making us all miserable cogs in the capitalist machinery and the desire for an easy out? Or is there something to that old Patton Oswalt bit about wanting to be the generation that witnesses the apocalypse? I don’t know that I ever believed COVID would reshape the world, but I did think we’d have to ease back into the world as it was slowly over the decade, and that maybe this would be the push that leads to universal basic income, free medical care, and masks as standard equipment (seriously I’m never not wearing masks outside again). At the very least, maybe we could get a four-day workweek. Instead we were fed misinformation and tricked into restarting society as soon as possible so corporations could keep making money and swept our dead away like they never even existed. 

In some ways, the world will never be the same. COVID has exposed the faults in our most essential infrastructure, everyone’s exhausted, and a whole lot of people are terrified still of socializing outdoors. Our country is falling apart like the glaciers, slowly and methodically, and that is the true dystopian future: not a cyberpunk bang, but a Cormac McCarthy novel whimper. Worst of all, I didn’t even take the opportunity to scam the government out of that sweet PPP money.

Scott:

I was lucky enough to take an eight-month career break last summer and fall. I indulged in my hobbies and found new ones, spent time with friends and loved ones, and enjoyed life more than I ever have. I've been back to work for almost two months and I can feel everything fading away. I think not working broke my brain. Life will never be as good as it was in those months. Any advice? How do I stop this?

The best time of my life was college. The second-best time of my life was every period spent between jobs. Sorry Scott, but there is no stopping this feeling. You lived the ideal life: unemployment, but I’m guessing from the way you phrased it, it’s a situation where money wasn’t a concern and that’s the sweetest deal of all time. The only thing that keeps people from truly enjoying unemployment is that anxiety over where that next paycheck will come from. There is nothing that puts the insanity of just how much we work in this country into perspective quite like suddenly having nothing to do: You can get your errands done, you can make your appointments, you have time for the people in your lives, you have time to develop actual skills and hobbies. It’s unreal how much the pursuit of money demands so much out of you. My advice to you, Scott, is to actually take your life back from this new job, I don’t know if you can work from home but you should. Leave your work at work and be done with it at whatever time you’re supposed to. Use your vacation days. And most importantly, half-ass as much as possible. Put your whole ass into half-assing. 

Russell:

Iz – We need to know more about you before we can lend weight to your insights and guidance.  Where do you stand on the important topics?

Mayo – For/Against?

Chili – Beans/No Beans?

BBQ – Pork/Beef?

Hot Dog – Sandwich/Not a Sandwich?

Pets – Dogs/Cats/Other?

Games – Xbox/Playstation?

Better Superpower – Flying/Invisibility?

Mayo on deli sandwiches only. Chili should always have beans, but it’s not like a dealbreaker or anything. I’ve had some great beef BBQ, but BBQ was invented for pork as far as I’m concerned—a match made in heaven. A hot dog's a sandwich. I like dogs, they’re fun and they can help you meet girls/guys, but spiritually I’m with cats; we have the same temperament and attitudes. PlayStations are the iPhones of video game consoles, but for a long time I was an Xbox supporter. I’ll always cherish playing Gears of War and Halo 2 in my Tallahassee apartment. That said, I am still looking for a way to get Defector to purchase me a PS5. I'd choose flying: I don’t always like attention but I do love to stunt.

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