Updated Oct. 5, 5:39 p.m.
"It's kind of unfortunate when we're painted as the organization that only does Orgo Night," Alex Della Santina, a senior at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the current poet laureate for the Columbia University Marching Band. "But [Orgo Night's] just one night, and it's the work of a small group in the band," she says.
As a first-year, I thought the marching band only existed inside that sweaty Butler Library room, jam-packed with stressed students whose reactions to jokes ranged from exhaling slightly harder than normal to guffawing in approval as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina were all dragged for absolute filth. Plenty of punchy, meme-worthy lines stay with me a year later. There was one particular joke in which different political candidates were compared with rival Ivy League schools: The parallel made to John Kasich—"You just know he's fucked a sheep"—is something that I will now forever associate with Dartmouth.
But the marching band has a history and identity far more complicated than Orgo Night may lead some to believe. Perhaps the only unchanging characterization of CUMB is its ever-changing identity.
It started as a typical marching band, then it became an inflammatory scramble band, and now its categorization is unclear. Our current CUMB is activist but not activist, a music ensemble but not a music ensemble; it's a comedy troupe for some, and perhaps a social club for others.
CUMB's history indicates that the club evades easy political classification, like in the rest of its aspects. While it appears as a rebuttal of protest culture, it actually has similar goals to those of most typical activist groups: It attempts to challenge established ideas. The reasons for its paradoxical identity—as both liberal and conservative, activist and not—run deep in the band's history and continue to be fleshed out today.
The Columbia Marching Band was formed in 1904 and, for the first 50 years or so, was a regular marching band. It was meant to inspire the football team, provide aesthetically and sonically pleasing halftime shows, and display discipline in musical and marching training. It also performed in the traditional, military-inspired marching formation.
In the 1950s or '60s, however, the band made a shocking change: It added "University" to its name. Along with the newfound homonymic shock factor (CUMB: just say it out loud), the Columbia University Marching Band decided to march to the drum of its own beat—literally. In other words, they scrambled.
A scramble band has different goals than a traditional marching band. For one, it's defined in part as a humor group that requires little to no musical talent from its members. On the field, it doesn't appear in formation, but instead "scrambles" until haphazard shapes are formed. CUMB claims to be the first band to adopt the scramble band format, which was later adopted by Yale, Harvard, and eventually every other Ivy League school except Cornell.
"What we know from what we've discussed is that it transferred to the scramble format in the '60s as part of, I don't know, the joke on the [band's] website that 'anti-establishment cultural revolution is in the air,'" says Orli Matlow, who graduated from the School of General Studies and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015 and was a former CUMB scriptwriter, as well as a Spectrum deputy editor. "So we said, all right, let's stop marching and have fun with it."
It wasn't long before performances led to public outcry and conflict began in earnest. A 1964 performance dubbed "Salute to Moral Decay" goes down as one of the marching band's controversies post-structural transformation. The band formed the upper part of a topless swimsuit (two sousaphones were the nipples) while performing "My Favorite Things." Equally as contentious was the humorous mocking of Walter Jenkins, an aide to former President Lyndon Johnson who was caught in a compromising situation with another man in a restroom.
Two years later, the band drew ire for its notorious "birth control show," in which members formed the shapes of a birth control pill, a chastity belt, and a calendar (a reference to the rhythm method, a type of contraceptive practice that involves keeping track of ovulation cycles). Then, in 1970, at a game at West Point, the marching band took a formation they called "burning Cambodian village," which served to humiliate the Military Academy's association with the much-hated attacks on civilians during the Vietnam War. Protest culture wasn't only inherent to CUMB; it was apparent in other school's scrambling bands as well. In 1982, Harvard's marching band heralded former President Jimmy Carter's decision to send forces to Angola with a formation that spelled "DUMB." All Ivy League bands, including CUMB, were subsequently banned from performing at West Point.
Photo of CUMB in 1978
The band's political controversy peaked when it received a bomb threat after members formed an American flag while playing the song "Light My Fire" by The Doors. This performance occurred in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling Texas v. Johnson in 1989 upholding the right for Americans to burn flags, and the subsequent public argument about a potential Constitutional amendment to ban the act. CUMB also parodied the consummation of same-sex marriage in 1992, compared Rudy Giuliani's policies to the Holocaust in 1993, and, on an Orgo Night flier in 2012, made a joke about the Gaza Strip that angered then-Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger and several student activist groups.
While the marching band has not become any less politically motivated in the past few decades, it has gotten better at avoiding scandal. Band members admit that part of this change has to do with logistics—according to the former poet laureates to whom I talked, Columbia must now approve all football game scripts.
But it also might point to a genuine difference in the band's identity. Former CUMB Poet Laureate Mikhail Klimentov, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and was previously Spectator's editorial page editor, credits the change to Tyler Benedict, Columbia College class of 2013 and also former CUMB poet laureate.
"He decided, at least the way it was told, to shift away from snarkier—maybe not snarkier, but more, like, aggressive sexist and misogynist humor," Klimentov tells me. "Because, I would say, decades ago, even a decade ago, the band leaned pretty heavily into that kind of thing. And I think that was slightly accepted."
At this point, the band's identity is varied, and all the "bandies" to whom I spoke acknowledged that it generally boils down to some combination of comedy, music, social hub, and—if not activism—at least a drive to voice opinions.
"There's an equally diverse number of reasons that people join the marching band," Ziyad Abdelfattah, former CUMB poet laureate who graduated Columbia College in 2015, tells me. "I joined for comedy. Some people don't really interact with that part; they have the most fun doing the music part and going to the football and basketball games and fulfilling that traditional marching band role."
File Photo of CUMB
Klimentov echoes that sentiment when he mentions that some members, who had been members of marching bands in high school, become very confused when they join. They eventually decide that they like the new format, which results in a split of ability levels.
All poet laureates interviewed agree on this much: The band is not primarily one thing or another. They regale me with tales of their musical inability—Matlow joined not even knowing how to play an instrument; Klimentov tells me he played the drums for CUMB despite having no idea how to actually play the drums.
More confusing than the shift away from musical excellence is the band's political attitudes. Though the band's penchant for scandal and misogyny have certainly dimmed over the years, nobody would make the claim that the band is uncontroversial. As Klimentov tells me, it's bound up in the identity of the band: Their format is meant to shock.
But are CUMB's jokes simply meant to be humorous, in which case politics provides a convenient medium for that humor to be expressed? Or is any humor on Columbia's campus bound to politics, since it's catered to a particularly politically minded student body? The marching band is as good a case study as any.
Klimentov believes that a comedy show on a campus so involved in political discourse can only play into that interest. "If we had an audience that was not interested in politics—that was not liberal, activist, generally plugged into what's going on, the jokes wouldn't really play."
But at the same time, CUMB likes to reject what some members see as a rigid political correctness that prevails among Columbia's student body. This attitude results in the band being one of the countless entities that Columbia students criticize and subject to harsh moral judgment.
"I've seen people who were uncomfortable because they felt we were becoming too politically correct," Della Santina says. "So I'd say there's no way we'd make absolutely everybody happy; that's just the nature of humor."
Matlow expands on the band's difference from protest groups: From my conversation with her, I garner that being a part of CUMB involves a refutation of protest groups more in style than content. Members extend activists' aims of wanting to challenge established ideas and voice their opinions, but they also embody a rebuttal of protest culture in their irreverent methodology.
"It's the opposite side of the coin of the social justice and protest movements, because I think it fundamentally comes from the same impulse of wanting to voice an opinion and be heard, but in a different way," Matlow says.
She qualifies this remark by introducing a complexity to the designation, remarking on the similarity between activist groups' message and CUMB's own. "It's kind of ironic that people view it as antithetical to what it [protest culture] means," Matlow notes. "If you sit and read a script, it's covering the same shit: cathartic shitting on the administration, but this time it's interspersed with Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift."
Photo of CUMB in 2008
Though Klimentov concedes that the band and the more traditional politically active groups have had a strained relationship in years past—especially the last two—he, like Matlow, believes that the line separating the two isn't so clear.
"If you had to draw a Venn diagram of activists and members of the marching band, there would not be a huge amount of overlap," he remarks. At the same time, in a concession to likeness, he notes, "If you kind of did an ideological survey, and you polled people on agreeing on activists' ideas, you would have a lot more overlap between band people and activists."
Which raises the question: Is CUMB an activist group? In the dictionary definition, perhaps, Matlow says. An activist group is, after all, just a group of individuals who aim to promote political or social ideologies in a larger social context.
Historically, the marching band has targeted specific political figures and events—such as Walter Jenkins, the flag burning debate, and the U.S. military's actions in the Vietnam War. By choosing what subject matter to parody and mock, the band could be sending a clear message to Columbia students about what to think regarding certain issues.
Band members note that they try to maintain an even-keeled political hand. Klimentov admits—and emphasizes their rarity—that there are moments, few and far between, that a more "activist-y" thought than exists in the general campus community makes its way into the band. "In that case, you might say, 'Oh, the band is bringing this nominally activist idea to an audience that is ready and willing to take in those ideas from the marching band as a spokesperson,'" Klimentov clarifies.
But he ultimately objects to the term "activist" because of the band's ability to actually effect change. "The band is not a serious spokesperson whose opinion is heavily weighted," he tells me.
Perhaps this is why band members are reluctant to take what they do too seriously, in spite of the fact that the rest of the Columbia community seems to: All the band members I talked to agreed that the band faces higher stakes than other clubs. Matlow contrasts the pressure to writing for Spectator. If an article misses the mark, people will rationalize it: "'OK, they're young artists, they're giving it their best shot.' [W]hen we write jokes that kind of miss the mark, or haven't been fleshed out enough, people are like, 'Oh, now they're a voice of an oppressive institutions,'" she says.
Matlow maintains, though, that that perception simply is not true. "No, dudes, we're just a bunch of geeky Democrats with tubas who want to be Jon Stewart."
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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that CUMB burned an American flag during a performance following the Supreme Court's decision in 1990. CUMB in fact formed an American flag following the decision in 1989. The Eye regrets the error.