If you’ve been on campus at least one weekend, you’ve heard the beat of bass-lines on a Friday night. Of course, there’s plenty of shouting and laughing and singing along, too. But have you ever wondered, as you weaved through dorm buildings, what all the noise is for? All the upbeat, celebratory songs—what’s the occasion?
“Well,” you say. “I’m not sure about that, but I do know when I’m talking to a killjoy.”
Granted—but on thinking further, you’d probably answer, “We’re celebrating Friday night.”
Or we could be celebrating simple pleasure, freedom from the school week, plenty of things. There are many valid responses to that question.
But why do we (and our culture) value those things so highly—why do we build our hopes on plans for a Friday night? I’ve heard many people rave about Friday nights they barely remember. And what about the feeling of freedom—and pleasure? Is it really so much that Friday specially deserves these things, or is it more that we enjoy them because we can—because there isn’t class the next day, because we can afford the time? And if that’s the case, what are we to make of it?
We don’t really commemorate anything on a given Friday. We’re rarely celebrating a calendar holiday. Instead, we seem to be celebrating the ability to celebrate, and we produce a lot of music that attests to this. That’s an interesting thing, because if we dig a little bit into other, older kinds of music from Western culture, we quickly run up against a very different worldview. Though people have undoubtedly partied without occasion since the beginning of time, for many religious observers the noblest celebrations were those that paid tribute to a mystery.
For example, take “O Magnum Mysterium” (your new favorite Christmas song). It’s short, simple, sparse on words—like many of the songs we listen to at parties—but the language is focused on a mystical and incomprehensible experience. It begins, “O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger!” And it ends, of course, with the most famous celebratory word of all—“Alleluia!”
Now, to be fair, I’ve heard that word in a pop song before, though it sounds different in “Uptown Funk.” Refrains like this are mostly missing from our music. And rather than celebrating a mystery by expressing our awe of that mystery, we celebrate the completely non-mysterious (fifty people drinking the same beer in the same room). There isn’t much to discover there—maybe that explains why so many good party songs repeat the same phrases over and over.
“Party Rock Anthem” has a line that hits the nail on the head—“Everybody just have a good time.” This seems to be the most comprehensive philosophy about our party culture.
And it’s not bad to have a good time (though there are exceptions). The monks singing “O Magnum Mysterium” on Christmas were also having a good time—but their ideal celebration was one that looked to eternal joy, something outside of “time” at all. Friday nights on campus aren’t suddenly going to turn into transcendent chant-parties in the Mods (for one thing, I’m sure we’re not allowed to burn incense). But when we do have fun with our friends, is that off-campus party our ideal celebration? Imagining what the best might look like puts our everyday imagination in perspective.