It’s Safe to Love the ’90s

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A 1993 News story titled “Gag Me With a Spoon — Why Can’t We Let Go of Our Favorite Decade?” discussed Safety Dance’s success on campus since its debut in 1990. In October 2013, Yale won’t see another Safety Dance. What’s now vying for the role of nostalgic dance du jour is Branford College’s Crushes and Chaperones. And that event is inevitably bound to reflect on Safety as an older, wiser, better precedent.

Basic differences first. In its infancy, Safety Dance was advertised as a retrospective celebrating the teen years of students then attending Yale College. It was a chance for them to do it all again through music and dress. But the true indicator of Safety’s power was the fact that it mattered so much even once it became safe to say that no attending Yalies actually lived through the 1980s. No matter how well we knew the song “Hungry Like the Wolf” or how tightly we could tie our side ponytails, we were never able to take part in that original level of nostalgia.

Crushes and Chaperones should be more culturally significant to our generation of college students. It’s a tribute to a decade we can actually remember. Yet Safety did always outshine it in numbers of attendees and overall hysteria. The ‘80s had a distinctive style that made Safety resonate, but for Crushes and Chaperones’ sake (and our own amusement), here’s hoping that that party’s organizers can probe the older sibling’s packaging of music, dress and technology to develop the same level of cultural importance on campus. My Instagram followers are bored of my million faux-vintage photos of food — time to give them some real nostalgia. Branford College, are you up to the challenge?

* * *

Much of Safety’s appeal wasn’t about quality, alumni and students concur. It was about feelings, funk and accessibility.

Colin McRae ’95, a former president of the Silliman Activities & Administrative Committee (SAAC), noted that even members of his class looked back to ‘80s music with disdain, gleefully as they would dance to it at the event.

“Ninety percent of the songs played [at Safety] are by one-hit wonders, people who had no musical talent, but they played some over-produced and over-synthesized songs because of some catchy hook,” McRae said. “But for someone who was 19 in 1991, those were the songs that I [had] listened to in my room.”

For McRae and his peers, the merit of that music was its connection to a valuable and very recent past. Every year, they were given the chance to relive a more innocent youth through an event that was notorious for binge-drinking. While screaming along to Devo’s “Whip It” at Safety, a freshman in the early 90s might have remembered that he had done pushups for his 8th grade gym class to the very same song. He was more sober by a couple of shots of vodka then, but probably just as sweaty.

Dr. Ernest R. Rugenstein, a cultural historian at the State University of New York’s Empire State College, noted that music and visual cues are likely to endure in memories of decades past.

The cohesive style of ‘80s music with its iconic songs is a perfect example of what Dr. Rugenstein would consider an enduring music cue, resonating with McRae’s generation and those following it. Today’s complicated music scene, with pop-rock, alt-rock, indie, indie-synth, east coast hip-hop, battle rap, and many more combinations of genres, makes the ‘80s look simple and stable by comparison.

With that simplicity, these songs were — and are — fun to dance to for all, in a way niche-y contemporary music is not.

Then there’s dressing for Safety, which, over the decades, evolved into a competition for the most ridiculous and obnoxious costumes possible.

“Students look back at the strange clothing and practices of the 1980s. Not, of course, in a bad sense, but certainly one that is humorously unusual,” Dr. Rugenstein said.
He’s putting it mildly. We’ve all had that one friend who overdoes it, gets too David Bowie up in here and, eventually, just needs to go.

“The easiest things to grasp onto are style signifiers,” said Sara Marcus, a culture writer and the author of “Girls to the Front,” a history of the ‘90s Riot Grrrl movement. “These specific aesthetic markers coalesce into a feeling of a moment. They do it in a sort of mass-cultured, commodified form, but it does carry some of the truth in it.” So when Yalies wanted to express their knowledge about the ‘80s, what they ran to were easy-to-recognize markers they could wear or flaunt, no matter how little they may actually have had to do with ‘80s culture.

The final key part of the decade’s cultural cohesion—and easy packaging—was its trademark amateur level of technology.

“It was the dawn of a computer era. [The computer] was a kind of technology we all take for granted,” Marcus said. “Technology was spectacularly represented in the culture, if you think of Max Headroom [the world’s first computer-generated TV host] and the first mainstream electronics.”

Altogether, the dance itself was akin to the one-hit wonders McRae speaks of, with its immediately recognizable—and just as soon forgotten—bright clothing and catchy music. It was harmless because no one feared awkwardness or being out of place. Don’t bother with regular clothing and just keep on dancing the way you do, Safety told us, because everyone looks ridiculous anyway and this culture, frankly, isn’t hard to join.

* * *

But if Safety was a one-hit wonder, it was one that never got old. That probably had a lot to do with tradition.

“Social institutions take on a kind of permanence and they become self-perpetuating. The actual idea or emotion behind the dance has no meaning to you all,” Marcus said.
The first Safety Dance attracted a surprisingly large number of attendees. In the succeeding years, Silliman SAAC continuously put in the planning efforts required to make the event a star every October, with the fact that it had previously been a success a likely motivating factor. Repeated successful attendance and positive feedback to the event meant that Safety survived and prospered, becoming a Yale tradition that Silliman proudly strove to make possible.

Indeed, the hype built so fast that even back in the 90s, McRae thought Safety well-established—he was surprised to learn that the Safety Dance he attended in his freshman year was only the second time the event was held at Yale.

Bryan Epps ’14, former YCC representative for Silliman College and current YCC Events Director, said he considers the following when planning for an event: “Is it appealing on a large scale? Is my organization the best organization to host the event? Will people remember the event fondly? Is it worth the time and money we plan to spend?”

Safety Dance undoubtedly provided a yes to all of those questions. Originally held in the Silliman College dining hall, the dance moved to Commons in recent years. These are both large venues intended to host large events. Safety was expected to attract over 2,000 students each year, according to News reports, and Silliman College SAAC never planned small. The sustained history and hype became a feedback loop promising a good time for all. And thus Safety established an air of the permanence Marcus spoke of. It became tradition at Yale almost immediately after its birth, and Yale, along with other long-established institutions, takes its traditions very seriously. This could account for the overwhelmingly negative response to its ban. The personal nostalgia experienced by former Yalies corresponds to our own nostalgia for Safety Dances past: mourning for a tradition lost.

Yet Safety Dance is not the only yearly ritual Yalies can partake in. Inferno, Pierson College’s Halloween party, has been around since 1977. While approximately 2,300 students participated in the final Safety Dance in October 2012, however, Pierson and other residential colleges struggled to fill smaller dining halls at their own themed parties. Safety’s longstanding reputation meant that it far outperfomed comparable events.
“Safety Dance was the only school dance of the year where I knew I’d see everyone,” said Vivian Wang ’15. “Otherwise, most parties here are either a hit or a miss.”

* * *

Tonight, Branford will host Crushes and Chaperones in honor of the ‘90s, a decade that should be much more familiar to us. Think baggy jeans, cut-up jeans, cut-off jean shorts and plaid. Think hip-hop, grunge and Destiny’s Child. According to Marcus, today’s proliferation of social media and convenient search engines should make the ‘90s even more accessible and nostalgia-worthy. More media intersects with stronger emotional attachment.

“People who grew up in ‘90s are getting to the point where they’re not assistants anymore,” Marcus said. “[They] are able to make culture based on what was valuable to [them], and people in their teens and twenties are the consumers of that culture. This is how the nostalgia cycle works.”

In terms of attendance, Crushes and Chaperones has been successful since Branford hosted it first in 2007. Last year, Crushes and Chaperones was moved from Branford dining hall to Commons, as the number of expected attendees ratcheted up to 1,000. The dance thus took a step towards Safety-level dominance by moving into the space where 80s tunes had dominated for so long. Fortunately for administrators, it also sent a grand total of zero students to the hospital. (Compare this to Safety, which McRae said has been tied to binge drinking since its inception and was banned last year after eight students had to be hospitalized.)

Crushes and Chaperones fits the criteria set by Safety Dance: its music matters to us; its clothing is easily identifiable; its technologies, from Gameboys to Walkmans, are second nature to us. And its lost its main rival. It seems to have all the resources it could possibly need to be the new oldies-goldies rager of the year.
So dig out your denim, brush up on your boy band tunes and always make sure that you’re ready for this jelly. Our generation looks like it’s ready to form its own Yale tradition.

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