The Stanford Marching Band: From Contrarian to Conformist

The Stanford Marching Band: From Contrarian to Conformist

During last quarter’s football game against Brigham Young University—a Mormon school—the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) took the field to troll the opposing team. In a performance titled ‘Gay Chicken,’ the marching band staged a mock marriage between two women. It included a ‘minister’ who declared the two women “wife and wife” and, mocking the Mormon marital ceremony, announced: “may you be fruitful and multiply.”

Of course, this sort of joke isn’t new for the LSJUMB, which has a history of irreverence and subversive humor... it hasn’t been coined “the most banned marching band in the country” without good reason. What most Stanford students do not know, however, is that the LSJUMB’s humor used to be quite different. Underneath the whimsical surface was a rare ability to take mainstream narratives and undermine their gravity through humor. Their gaffs and pranks were more than devices of brute shock—they targeted the norms and standards that everyone held to be obvious.

With its ‘Gay Chicken’ skit, however, the LSJUMB has demonstrated its resolve to abandon what made it unique. Instead of ridiculing the mainstream narrative, Stanford’s marching band has taken yet another step toward propagating it.

BYU describes its mission as being “founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Consequently, its honor code reflects the moral precepts of Mormonism, including prohibitions against “alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, vaping, and substance abuse” and obligations to “participate regularly in Church services ([which is] required only of Church members).” The LSJUMB’s joke was targeted against BYU’s most controversial policy: that students must “live a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.”

The skit caused what might seem like an outrage. Presumably, the BYU administration expressed concern about the joke. The university’s student newspaper, the Daily Universe, reported that “several BYU fans in attendance […] found the skit ‘upsetting’ and ‘rude.’” In the end, Stanford apologized on behalf of the marching band.

But was there really an ‘outrage’ to begin with? The evidence suggests that BYU is not nearly as traditional as one might expect. According to a recent study, 13% of BYU’s student body identifies as having “a sexual orientation other than ‘strictly heterosexual’”—a rate that is almost double that of the United States as a whole. BYU students regularly meet in the unofficial “Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship” club, whose events have received support from hundreds of students in the past. The Daily Universe even agreed to distribute LGBT-themed bags and up to 5,000 flyers promoting a back-to-school pride night.

The BYU administration might have complained about the LSJUMB’s ‘Gay Chicken’ skit, but a significant portion of students (and the majority of Americans, 61% of whom think that the “legalization of same-sex marriage is good for society”) would have been in active support. In other words, the Stanford marching band was preaching to the choir, not offending it.

Compare this to the marching band’s performances in the past. In 1990, environmentalists in Oregon had been protesting to protect the threatened spotted owl against the logging industry.  The Stanford marching band, during the Stanford-Oregon game, “formed a chainsaw that spelled out ‘OWL,’ transforming into ‘AWOL.’” They ended the performance by cutting a fake owl in half with a chainsaw. Fans were so upset that the governor of Oregon banned them from the state of Oregon.

Take the 1970 Stanford-Arkansas game, in which the band members dropped their pants on national television. During the 1994 game against USC, band members mocked USC alumnus O.J. Simpson by driving a white Ford Bronco with bloodstained handprints around the Stanford Stadium track. In 1999, the UCLA football team had been embroiled in scandal for illegally using handicapped-parking placards in order to use the parking spaces. So, during the game against UCLA, the Stanford marching band formed a handicapped-parking symbol and rolled the Tree out in a wheelchair.

If it performed these skits now, the LSJUMB would be called insensitive, toxically masculine, racist, and ableist. For its ‘Gay Chicken’ skit, the LSJUMB is called a social justice warrior.

In other words, Stanford’s once-cherished marching band has lost its ability to ridicule the mainstream because it has become the mainstream. An era of pulling pranks and shocking the regime has given way to boring regurgitations of modern progressivism. Stanford students do not want to see more ‘Gay Chicken’ skits. We want the LSJUMB to stop chickening out and to re-adopt its comedic indiscretion toward the most serious issues of the day—and yes, this includes even the progressive talking points considered too emotionally precarious to ridicule. Let’s be honest: are most students at Stanford even woke enough to care if the LSJUMB actually did transgress these ‘sacred’ boundaries? Besides, laughter often has the medicinal quality of dispelling groupthink.

If the LSJUMB wants to reclaim the subversive humor that made it beloved, it should start with making fun of the principles and assumptions imposed by modern culture—not shilling for them. The marching band might lose support from the vocal minority of perpetually-salty progressives, but at least it would regain its sense of humor.

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