Elizabeth Watson

Yale is a mysterious place. From whispers of society parties to screams from the Bass Naked Run, there always seems to be some campus tradition that’s equal parts confusing and intriguing. 

Hi! My name is Eliza, and I’m a sophomore in Pierson College studying Comparative Literature. Additional fun fact: I’m trained as a butcher. During my senior summer, I was slicing skirt steak by day and curating my cottagecore Pinterest boards by night.

I’m one of many Yale students with puzzling backgrounds. I’m Jewish, and my mom’s last name is Church. I’m American, and I went to an international school for 10 years. I quote Proust just as much as I quote Season 8 of Love Island. 

So, I know all too well that there’s a lot more to people, places and things than meets the eye. And that’s why I love Yale. You can never fully understand everything going on here. But you can try! And that’s what Engima, my new column, is all about — digging deeper into these pressing questions and providing much needed answers.

I’ve decided to start this column by talking about Corinthian columns. That’s right, we’re talking about Commons. Or rather, we’re listening. 

The Schwarzman Center is located at the heart of all campus activity. And at the center of the center is its dining hall, Commons. This infamous late-lunch spot on campus has it all: elaborate chandeliers and wood beamed ceilings, circle and square tables, pork dumplings and vegan crab cakes. 

And this wealth of options all works together because you, the Yalie, are in control. Until you sit down. Then, you have to face the music. Or whatever song happens to be playing in the background. But what song would that be? 

Sean Pergola ’24 and I tried to brainstorm an answer, but it only resulted in more questions. “How am I going to best sum up the music at Commons?” he wondered. “Like, I should have examples for that, right? But the thing is, it’s difficult to even provide examples because the music is so all over the place that it just exists in my mind as a messed up mishmash.”  

All over the place. Chaotic. Musical vomit. Friends of mine had a lot to say about the music in Commons that ranged from confusion to outrage. The consensus is that none of the songs in Commons seem to have, well, anything in common. But why is this?

So I did what any seasoned investigative journalist would do. I got in the Pasta e Basta line at Commons, grabbed my chocolate chip cookie and clementine, sat down, whipped out Shazam and began compiling evidence in my Notes app. 

And the results were astounding. Within less than two hours, I heard a myriad of genres: soul, EDM, folksy indie, 2010s pop, showtunes, ’80s classic rock and more. Also, beatboxing? Who is the audience for that (aside from a cappella or something)? You name it, Commons has played it.

My thorough research proved the music played in Commons is “consistently inconsistent,” a pithy descriptor coined by Sean. And I, for one, can’t ignore it. But is it just me? Are there others who’ve noticed? Who care?

It’s safe to say that Jesse Bross ’26 does. “I always think about [the music] when I come here,” he told me. “I feel like Commons just gives, like, fantasy vibes … Last year they would do a lot of musicals or Disney songs.” His wide smile suddenly transformed into a distant expression of melancholy as he remarked, “Now it’s soft rock and pop, I feel like it doesn’t hit as hard.”

And he’s not the only one with complaints. Agnes Sjoeblad ’26 and I eat lunch in Commons together from time to time, and when we’re not reminiscing about our Virginia Woolf days in Directed Studies, we focus our analytical skills on the background music. She believes there’s often a significant mismatch between musical vibes and student mood. “[Sometimes] you’re basically eating lunch at 11 alone, and it’s a Monday, and you feel really bad and then you’re like, ‘Oh yes! Katy Perry! Friday Night!’”

Aside from Jesse’s ambivalence and Agnes’ critique, most people I spoke to agreed that the music in Commons was utterly unpredictable. Thus, my responsibility as a reporter is to investigate the question that directly follows these observations: Who the hell is on aux in Commons? 

In pursuit of an answer to this seemingly simple question, I sent out a slew of emails to all of the relevant Schwarzman employees. Shout out to Stacy Cacace, the Hospitality Guest Experience Manager for the center, who did all she could to point me in the right direction, even though music isn’t her department.

After many dead ends, I thought I’d hit the end of the road. I felt discouraged. In my dejected state, I scrolled through all the songs I’d compiled while researching this article. Then I started to wonder, what do P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) by Michael Jackson, Ironic by Alanis Morrisette, Omigod You Guys from Legally Blonde: The Musical, and The Cupid Shuffle have in common? Well, nothing. Except for the fact that they have all, at some point, played in Commons. 

I couldn’t give up. So I tried a different approach. I returned to Commons the next week and I gathered theories from credible sources.

“A six year old is on aux. I think a six year old is grabbing everyone in Commons phones, plugging them into the speakers, and that’s how we get the Commons’ music.” Thomasin Shmults ’26 provided me with my first bona fide conspiracy. And she wasn’t the only one who had ideas.

I sat down with the heavyweight crew team and Danilo Rosich ’24 jumped right into theorizing. He and his friends suspect the Spotify AI DJ, minus the voice intermissions. Danilo continued: “It could be Schwarzman. I think he found something harder than running Blackstone … that’s why he’s not responding to your emails, he’s very insecure. I think he’s just afraid of the truth.”

At this point, Danilo’s Stephen A. Schwarzman theory was a guess as good as any other. I was just about ready to accept that I’d hit the proverbial brick wall with this mystery. 

And then I got a notification about a new message in my yale.edu email account. 

Maurice L. Harris Ph.D. is the director of marketing & communications at the Yale Schwarzman Center. In response to my questions, he writes, “As we enter into our second season of in-person programming, we’ve learned that creating music playlists that strike just the right tone for more than 2,000 students and visitors who come through the Schwarzman Center daily can be both exciting and daunting.” 

Fair enough. Commons services thousands of people; all of them have their own preferences. I sympathize with Maurice — it’s not easy to please everyone. But what was clearly a deliberate attempt to cater to every demographic ends up feeling random. So random, in fact, that it feels impossible that humans could be in control.

And that’s because they’re not. “For the time being, we are taking advantage of algorithmic playlist tools,” Mr. Harris shared. There it is. The answer I was looking for. It turns out heavyweight was onto something with the Spotify AI idea.

Like with most major bombshells, this one didn’t hit me right away. Later that day, I sent a follow up email asking if I could see this algorithm up close and personal. I have yet to receive a response. 

Usually, when I’m ghosted, I assume it’s for the best. But this time, it hurt more than usual. I guess I won’t always be able to neatly close the case when it comes to Yale’s mysteries. 

But here’s what we do know: Commons is a people pleaser. 

This dining hall does everything it can to accommodate everyone in it, offering you choice after choice to customize your experience. But musical inclusivity is near impossible to achieve, so they’ve passed off the job to an algorithm. That definitely explains the consistent inconsistency. 

I’ve now reached the last stage of grief: acceptance. The music in Commons is what it is. Knowing that the song in the background wasn’t chosen by a person doesn’t make your experience any less personal. 

This enigma has led me to exciting conversations with people I’d never have expected. So, I suggest we embrace the unpredictability. Next time you’re in Commons, do what I do. Listen. Take note of the song playing. Then, guess what genre you think will come next. 

I doubt you’ll be able to.

Eliza Josephson writes personal essays for the WKND desk as a staff reporter, ranging from contemplative memoir to light hearted satire. Originally from New York City, she is a sophomore in Pierson majoring in Comparative Literature.