Songs from Musicals: #45, “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” from Avenue Q

Honorable mentions: “Schadenfreude,” “It Sucks to Be Me”

There’s a trope in sports blogging in which the writer digs up two basically identical statlines and labels them “Player A” and “Player B.” Player A is usually some star player: Jimmy Butler, Cole Hamels, Cam Newton. Player B is some good-not-great type with roughly similar statistics. Like most sportswriting tropes, this probably began as a way to say, “Gee, isn’t this interesting?” and then turned into a way to strip all context away from the numbers in the service of some clickbaitish storytelling.

Let’s try it!

In the past fifteen years, the major award ceremony for the medium took place, and the pair of favorites could have hardly been more different. The first was the most popular, profitable example of the genre in years, a spectacular relying on an all-star team of directors, writers, actors, etc., incredible special effects, a familiar plot slightly on its head, and a brightly colored protagonist. The latter was more independent minded, appealing to a certain demographic of more “serious” audiences, more purposeful in throwing shade at sacred cows. On awards night, the less popular but more flamboyantly thoughtful piece won, much to the chagrin of the masses.

This is the story of Avatar and The Hurt Locker at the 82nd Academy Awards, but it’s also the story of Wicked and Avenue Q at the 58th Tony Awards where Wicked, loved more broadly than any other musical of the 21st Century (including Hamilton), purveyor of peak Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, lost the Best New Musical award to the goofy people with the Sesame Street-style puppets and a soundtrack including titles like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.” (One of those songs is brilliant.)

If there’s something really smart that Avenue Q did, it’s predicting a mindset that the kids who were in middle or high school when the show premiered in 2004 would have in the 2010s, during the Recession and Occupy Wall Street and Ferguson and the Trump campaign. Back then, as I remember it, people were more afraid of another 9/11, or the tack the wars in the Middle East were taking. Ten years later, the focus – at least the focus of Millennials – is on the economy, healthcare, college debt, to say nothing of carbon footprints or the robust health of institutional racism. In other words, the problems we face aren’t obvious problems that soldiers or diplomats or presidents are supposed to be dealing with; the problems are those which we’re supposed to have figured out already, preferably by the time we’ve left our expensive college education. We should have entered the workforce as fully-formed battle goddesses in a mighty phalanx, sprung from the mind of Milton Friedman on quaaludes, while simultaneously paying homage to the Oracle of Identity Politics. Instead we live at home, or in messy pseudo-squalor, and feel stuck, without the money or prospects to incentivize marriage or participation in the stock market. Doubtless people have been nervous coming out of college ever since the first priest left Oxford, but there’s a widespread identification with that insecurity which has accelerated rapidly and queasily.

“I Wish I Could Go Back to College” isn’t about college, really, even if it’s set there. (And even if the college experience that’s described by Princeton and his friends is already more or less unrecognizable – the college he wants to go back to is one without personal laptops.) A more honest and less melodic title would have been “I Wish I Could Still Be Irresponsible Sometimes.” For Nicky, who’s homeless and hungry, having a meal plan would be a gift. For Princeton, who seems to be unable to get his love life in order, being able to have consequences-free sex with a TA would be a relief. Changing a major or dropping a class, two of the supernova actions of university on the professional side (“academic”), are matters of paperwork; nuking one’s job or one’s lease are the equivalents in the post-academic world, and they are about a zillion times scarier. The stakes are simply lower in school. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a low-stakes existence, where it’s just your life that you’re working with?

Of course, like the Pevensies in Narnia, there’s a catch to college, an inherent flaw in the plan of returning to school, one that Nicky points out and Princeton and Kate agree on.

But if I were to go back to college,

Think what a loser I’d be.

I’d sit in the quad,

And think, “Oh, my God.

These kids are so much younger than me.”

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