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Here's To Conformity


I have a newfound appreciation for conformity. Predictability. Matching. Major chords. Sports and sporting events, where everyone is wearing exactly the same thing. A sea of red: and me all red amongst them. "You've become such a meathead," said Jim. Rightly so. I have become a meathead. A conformist. Heck yeah, I'm into that thing that everyone else is into. And I couldn't be happier about it.

I don't know how it was for you, but I grew up trained to criticize the trends, to react, to place myself in opposition. We were supposed to hate the athletes and the mainstream and the cleancut look. The bullies in the 80s films, with their feathered hair and karate chops and khakis. The girls with their pegged jeans who listened to hip-hop and dated football players. Everyone wearing white socks and white sneakers. They represented conformity, eeeevil conformity, until Doc Martens started to represent conformity, then liking Arcade Fire, and so on and so forth. Every step of the way, I knew I was supposed to react, to jump to the other side, define myself through opposition. (MTV & Daria told me to! Winona Ryder told me to! Sassy told me to! Zines told me to! Oh the irony...) I must be a non-conformist! Because conformity is death! The norm is THE END of the life of the individual as we know it! And back and forth and back and forth I leapt. All of that leaping made me tired.

Then the other day I woke up and realized that it's much, much easier to sit still and find what you love in the stillness.

At the Bunbury Music Festival this weekend, I found myself in that stillness. Literally: I was sitting in a chair almost all weekend manning the box office, selling tickets, checking people off guest lists, people watching and listening to the main stage acts as their amplification pumped their sound across Yeatman's Cove.

As I sat there, I watched young girls swan by looking all alike in their flowing skirts like retired Boca Raton fortune tellers, boys with little tank tops the colors of California, and rather than feeling the need to make fun of them for the fact that they all more or less looked like one another (apart from a noticing tweet), for whatever it was I couldn't understand in their style, I fell in love with all of them. I applauded their excitement for bands that seemed a heck of a lot like other bands, where years ago I would have rolled my eyes and said "god, why do they all have to look and sound the same?" 

Far from wanting to roll my eyes, I wanted to run around going "Yay! Yay! Yay!" and high-fiving everyone. Because what I was able to see in the stillness of sitting perfectly still, not jumping into opposition mode, was that the only thing that was exactly alike about them was their happiness. They were all so happy that it made me happy. Dude is happy in his Forever 21 muscle shirt? Good for him. You're all very super-psyched about Gaslight Anthem? Fantastic. That gaggle of girls swaying to City and Colour in their identical neon mom jean cutoffs? Super. As long as we're all aware that there are other options, and this is what we choose; as long as we aren't hurting anyone else in the process, who is anyone to judge? These kids rocked. They were happy, they were enjoying themselves, they were nice, and their matching non-matching clothes (see visual representation at top) were no different than everyone wearing red to a Reds game. And the very next night they might go to a Reds game.

Who is anyone to judge if we suddenly change our minds about who we are today?

* * *

One of the bands that played this past weekend was a British band called A Silent Film. Like most of the bands in the lineup, they were a band I'd never heard of, but a band that is apparently pretty popular in certain circles. I've always tiptoed around the edges of these circles — not my place, not my thing — and this weekend, seated in the box office on the other side of the main stage, I listened, and stepped into the circle. After the festival was over, I put together a Spotify list of the bands I'd heard at the festival that were mostly new to me, the ones who made the best impression. A Silent Film was one of the bands I ended up listening to the whole album, lapping it up, hitting repeat more than once on a song that pulled the right strings. 

The music is, in a way, the sonic equivalent of Lea Thompson in Some Kind Of Wonderful. Not the cool Mary Stuart Masterson, not a total hard-edged jerk like Hardy, but both popular and sensitive, accessible. The more I listened to the songs on the album, the more I could hear them in the background of Grey's Anatomy, in the scene where they lose a life or fall in love or some other predictably emotional moment. If you heard them from a distance, you wouldn't be faulted if you mistook them for Coldplay. Uplifting and satisfying. Inoffensive and nearly perfect. I should have hated it. What happened to you, punk rock Zan? What happened to loving the imperfect, the wounded, the quirk? But it made me so happy. Not just the music itself: but the idea of letting go of some expectation of what the music I loved should be. Or what it shouldn't be. It wasn't The Pixies or My Bloody Valentine; it wasn't rough-edged and sour. It just was. And it felt good.

I've written about all this before, the whole "like what you like and be done with it" thing, but the longer I've lived in Ohio, the more I've had a chance to think about what this means for how we define ourselves in relation to those around us — selves both past and present. This city gives me permission to conform (it's okay to like sports here, even if you have wacky facial hair!), but also offers up constant reminders of what it was like to grow up here in opposition to everything. It's weird to grow up as a teenager who dismissed the very image of the jock, only to find yourself at 36 suddenly writing poetic appreciations of said jock. It used to be that you either had to place yourself in the crowd, or speak up against the crowd. But now, and maybe this is just age, I don't think this is an either/or game.

In the struggle against conformity, we always claimed to be individuals. And individuals will change, won't they? And individuals will love what they love and be done with it, even if it's exactly what someone else loves? And individuals in the same circle can disagree with each other, can't they? Conform in ways that make us happy, and rebel in ways we believe in? Individuals, certainly, can even disagree with their former selves, yes?

I'm going to let myself sit still for a while longer, and see what else washes over me: music that might please me when I least expect it to, those dresses that are short in front and long in the back that everyone seems to be wearing, someone I can high five for loving what they love, too, even if I don't love it myself.

Because, really, what's so wrong with allowing yourself to conform to your own happiness?

(Big thanks to the Bunbury Music Festival, where in trying to get to see bands I knew, I'd pass bands I didn't know, and hear something new to me. And to the crowds and artists and vendors and and volunteers and organizers: you were SO awesome. Fellow staff: you're all nuts, but we had a great time.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Reader Comments (2)

You've very smart.

I took a trip recently out to see some family on the west side of our country, and the entire time my mantra was "leaf in the river". I didn't know what I wanted to do while I was there, I only knew I wanted to hang out with the family and just do what they do. I allowed myself to sit in the box office chair, to imagine what it would be like if I lived there, too. I didn't judge them for what shops they took us to, or what food they cooked for us to eat. I just went with it. And it was the best damned ten days I've had in a very very long time.

This post reads a lot like a buddhist realization, but also like someone trying to convince their younger self to conform by not conforming... or to not conform by conforming... or whatever. It's confusing. You probably understand.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKibitz

I got you. I talk to my younger self a lot, though I think she understood a lot more than I give her credit for.

July 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterZan McQuade

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