Welcome to Life Review, a live review section on Aux.Out that looks to expand beyond the access provided by a concert ticket. Today, Sasha Geffen goes to see Frankie Cosmos at a fraternity at the University of Chicago, a place violence proves far too common, even in the presence of what should be peaceful music.
There’s this guy who keeps stealing the mic between sets at the Frankie Cosmos show. He did it after the first opener, a band of theatrically minded locals called Richard Album and the Singles, and he’s doing it again now after the Lemons. He’s a white guy, shaggy black curls under a backwards snapback, drunk glaze on his eyes. He’s broadcasting musical gibberish in a fake black accent, the kind white guys use to talk “gangsta” with each other over the frat house’s shitty PA.
“Who’s a Bulls fan, bitch?” he asks over and over and over. Greta Kline and her band set up their gear on the makeshift stage behind him. He stares blankly out at the crowd of people who are talking, laughing, drinking. A few pay attention to him. The air is clogged with smoke.
“Who’s a Bulls fan, bitch?”
Someone approaches to ask him to cut it out. He doesn’t move, slurs something about how the guy’s a “pussy.” He keeps on gibbering. A different dude, short and bearded and built, asks a little more forcefully. He pushes the guy away from the mic. He pushes him into a corner. They tussle and fall over, breaking up Aaron Maine’s half-assembled kit. Guy with the snapback glowers against the wall for a minute. Then he lurches forward, and you see it coming in slow motion: he sidles over to the beardy dude and slowly, without emotion, punches him right in the face.
Beardy snaps. I mean, he snaps. It takes a second—he needs a moment to sort of laugh at how he’s just been punched in the face—but then he reaches out, grabs Snapback, pulls him into the throng, hits him, hits him, throws him nose-first into the floor. Blood splashes out of him. He lies still. A gasp rustles through everyone who’s seen it. Two of his friends rush over to drag him up—he’s awake, but not with it—and pull him out of the frat. He drips blood all the way to the exit.
Frankie Cosmos get their drums back together, finish setting up, and begin to play. A group of young men behind me, who know every word to “Birthday Song” and “Buses Splash with Rain”, bounce along ecstatically. What else can you do?
The University of Chicago chapter of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity is housed in a stately neo-gothic building across the street from the main quadrangles. Like the other frats, it’s responsible for hosting nightlife for undergraduates too young to drink off campus. Alpha Delt in particular is known for its “Bar Night”, a weekly event that simulates a real bar, only the drinks aren’t great and you can smoke inside.
It’s here that one of my housemates was raped during her first year as an undergraduate. She had friends at Alpha Delt, and one of them sold her a beer spiked with a date rape drug. He led her upstairs to a bedroom with a few of his buddies once she started getting groggy and pliant. They stopped assaulting her when she started having seizures.
The official story from the brothers was that she drank too much and blacked out. The police believed the official story from the brothers. She was told that pressing charges would be futile. For a while, she couldn’t bear to walk around campus by herself.
My housemate is doing okay now. I mean, she stuck with school, and she had a group of good friends who believed her and supported her in the aftermath of the assault. She graduated. She was 19 when it happened, the same age that Greta Kline is now.
The mythology of being young in the United States includes passage through spaces where the rules of “real” life don’t apply. College works as one of the most common and reliable of these. It’s the place you’re expected to go as soon as you become an adult, a place where sex and drugs are suddenly accessible. Now that fewer and fewer college degrees supply any guarantee of a career, school has become a way for many young people to buy themselves time. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life (and if you’re the type who’s expected to go to college, what you choose to do for a living is both permanent and of the utmost importance), college is a place where you can take time to figure it out. It’s also the place where you “find” yourself, a process that often involves physical extremes of sleep deprivation and intoxication.
Music festivals, especially the big ones, work similarly to suspend the rules. They’re self-contained environments populated by young people that typically cost a hell of a lot to get into. At this year’s SXSW, when a drunk driver plowed through a crowd and killed four people, we saw the dangers that rise when those unreal spaces over-saturate. Drunk driving doesn’t just happen at fests, but massive entertainment events feed the psychology that allows for drunk driving. UChicago, whose death rate over the past decades far exceeds SXSW’s, sometimes feels like it’s constantly at the boiling point.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how space informs behavior since I went to SXSW. I saw a ton of shows there in a wide variety of venues, and from what I saw, the most reliable way to induce audiences to act a certain way was to set a concert in a certain kind of space. At bars, SXSW’s lifeblood, people stood, drank beer, and got rowdy when the loud bands played. People lazed on the grass at larger outdoor venues, coursing from stage to stage as the music moved. At the shows set in churches, people sat silently in the pews.
The space wielded more power than the music at those shows. Perfume Genius in a church was no surprise, but seeing EMA play an altar was a revelation. Here’s a rock musician playing loud, unhinged music, and no one’s really telling the audience that they can’t stand up, sway, or chat with each other. There’s no official policy dictating that you can’t BYOB to this show or show up already drunk. But people sat reverentially. This was a church, and everyone knows what you’re supposed to do there.
Frankie Cosmos’s frat show drew a weirdly mixed audience. There were folks unaffiliated with the university, friends of the opening bands who looked like your usual crowd at any rock n’ roll house show. There were frat brothers stalking the grounds and partying like always; one lugged out an enormous hookah early in the evening. A number of people associated with WHPK, the university’s radio station that hosted the event, talked excitedly with the bands. As the night yawned on, a bunch of students wandered in just to drink at a frat on a Saturday.
It was a DIY show and a frat party in one, and the behaviors of both rituals bled into each other. Bands sold tapes and shirts over a folding table to the left of the stage. Dudes drew huge lungfuls of smoke from expensive vaporizers. Everyone kept lighting up cigarettes. During Richard Album’s set, a pocket of young, queer people—his friends—hugged each other and bounced to the music. Album wore streaks of brightly colored eyeshadow. He had been giving out Lisa Frank stickers at the merch table before he played.
The guy who ended his night with his face smashed against the floor was a friend of the second band, the Lemons, a big gaggle of musicians who played ’60s-style surf-pop with a wickedly playful streak. As a gag, they played a very short song called “Ice Cream Shop” about four times in a row, each time pretending that they were about to introduce a new tune. One of their singers kept hitting a shaker into a cymbal more for dramatic than percussive effect. Early in the set, he tossed the shaker into the air and lost it in the chandelier directly above his head. His bandmate had to stand on an amp to shake it down.
Is that what gave their friend the OK to show off his racism and sexism onstage? Or was it just the setting, a space where white men generally get to say and do whatever they want? If you’re a band and you only play spaces that are owned by white men, booked by white men, controlled by white men, are you lending to the problem that white men get the most voice even in niche cultures like DIY pop music?
UChicago keeps its fraternities highly visible. A few of them line University Avenue, a street that runs up the east side of the quad, and when the weather gets nice, the bros come out on their stoops, drinking beer and grilling meat and shouting at passersby. It’s impossible to attend classes there and not be aware of the frats, even if you never party. Most alumni I know can still rattle off a list of the most notorious houses. Three years after graduating, I can’t recall the names of any sororities.
Since its foundation, UChicago has been coeducational, but it readily breeds the culture of an institution designed by and for white men—the sort of institution that aims to lend prestige and power to those who make their way through it. Its private police force, the largest in the world after the Pope’s, prowl campus for “intruders” from the neighboring black communities; a black student was arrested in the main library while I was an undergraduate. Many of its spaces explicitly mimic Cambridge University, while its president, who lives just south of Alpha Delt on University Avenue, sprinkled a marital scandal onto local headlines a few years back. Only one woman has ever served as president in the school’s 123-year history, and every president has been white.
I don’t know what it might look like if the dominant youth culture were a non-violent one. I imagine that the mythology of the “good” college, which works more and more as a scheme to extract funds from rich parents in exchange for letting their kids party for a few years, might serve as a negative example. But I don’t see house shows as they currently operate as the ideal model either. The focus on drugs aside, DIY venues tend to feel isolating to those who aren’t friendly with the hosts and their social circle. I’ve never been to a house show where anyone has actively tried to greet outsiders or welcome them into their space. Even the most progressive punk houses I’ve been to in Chicago, which were alcohol-free and hosted bands who sang directly about how to fix rape culture, generally fostered insular socialization. Even they were owned and operated by young, white men.
There’s no easy answer, but I think the hard one involves looking past the fun of being young. What would happen if the country’s most infamous universities—the ones that variously inform America’s popular culture—encouraged a dominant culture based on something other than drinking a lot and having questionably consensual sex? What would happen if, instead of frats, queer meeting spaces and progressive community groups thrived along University Avenue or Harvard Yard? What would happen if we symbolized higher education with something other than a house where people punch each other in the face?
Someone said, “The show must go on” after Snapback was thrown down and dragged away, because of course someone did. People who hadn’t seen the altercation gawked at the blood puddle; one guy dipped his finger in it just to make sure it wasn’t some bright red spilled drink. And then Frankie Cosmos played.
Kline keeps a still, calm presence at the head of her band. She drew her hood tight around her head and kept her eyes fixed at a single point on the floor as she strummed her Danelectro. I could hardly hear her thin, idiosyncratic voice from my spot at the front by the stage. She played her shy music to a mass of people who were becoming unshyer by the minute. But the violence had passed, and people were relaxed, and everyone, I think, looked happy.