Throughout history, students have been feared as the archenemy of social and political order: from Paris to Cairo, we’ve revolutionised cultural norms, broken laws, and outraged our parents, be it through our language, our music or our way of dressing. So why does it seem like students are getting increasingly more… well, boring? Even the most eccentric outfits around Oxford are dressed down with a puffer jacket; “Champagne and Socialism” is the highlight of political activism for many of us and the tunes we listen to are great, but really nothing we do would inspire the same indignation that Elvis Presley unleashed 60 years ago.
The other day, I realised that I’d never talked much to my Dad about his time at university; apart from the fact that he studied Zoology and was pretty left-leaning, I didn’t know much about his student days. When he began talking about to his friends in squat houses that would spray graffiti in-between classes and to whom a monogamous relationship amounted to a moral crime, I found it hard to believe him: was this really the man who lists birdwatching as his most adventurous pastime nowadays? Well, at least he assured me these stories were just the observations of an innocent bystander…
While conformity and niceness were sinful fifty years ago, I am catching myself embracing the concept of being basic. I wear clothes I feel comfortable in, write the occasional angry political tweet to fulfil my duty as an active citizen and go wild when Mr. Brightside is played on the Bridge top floor for the third time. And honestly, I don’t think I’m missing out on too much: the reason things are considered “basic” are because they’re popular: why not trust crowd intelligence? I think if there’s one reason why the character of Mark Corrigan in “Peep Show” seems so relatable it’s that he’s mind-numbingly boring: “Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown’s savoury, white’s the treat. ‘Course I’m the one who’s laughing because I actually love brown toast.”
Maybe we just don’t have much to rebel against anymore. In a way, we’ve come far as a society in that we can show up to a tutorial in ripped jeans to discuss civil rights and antifascism, and we can discuss our ideas with young, Labour-voting professors instead of ancient Oxford dons. But that makes it somewhat less appealing to stand up to the establishment. Sure, we have a long way to go: the planet is dying, and my mum still doesn’t “believe” in the concept of an open relationship. But in many ways, it feels like we aren’t all that different to real adults anymore.
The generation before us was also freer to do what they wanted. In a world where everything we do is recorded, put online and preserved for eternity, we’re much more reluctant to do something risky. In an economy where you could easily have a three-year gap in your CV and still build a successful career, taking out a few months to squat in a house, take psychedelics and listening to Bob Dylan sounded much more appealing than nowadays, when the unforgiving grinds of capitalism are in motion even before we graduate. Spring week in first year, summer internship in second year, grad scheme, Associate, Partner – you’ve made it. But there’s no time to suspend competition to discover who we really are, what we really want to do and if this whole thing is actually right for us.
Indeed, many of us cannot afford being eccentric. For centuries, being eccentric has been a sign of privilege: those who wore scandalous outfits and practised hedonism have almost exclusively been members of the upper classes. Proving that your social status won’t be diminished despite how you dress and what you smoke is the most impressive demonstration of immunity to social judgement imaginable; David Cameron, Boris Johnson and their friends at university were awful and reprehensible but certainly not boring. However, if a rich Eton boy puts his private parts in a dead pig’s mouth whilst on a cocaine binge, we consider it bizarre – if a lad from a working class background had engaged in the same behaviour at the time he would’ve probably found himself in a mental asylum or worse, in prison. Maybe we can be proud of the fact that we as students have grown diverse enough that most of us don’t enjoy these privileges anymore.
Should we dare to be more unconventional? Not for the sake of it, no. There’s a good reason to stand up for what you believe in and we shouldn’t be afraid to risk an odd look for it. However, there’s really no point in comparing who can set themselves apart from the masses most distinctly. One has to ask if those who judge others by labelling their tastes as “basic” and refuse to listen to Spotify artists with more than a million monthly listeners are really as individualistic as they claim to be. Quite easily, an ever-spiralling competition of who can show off the most niche personality can end up collapsing into everyone appearing the same. So why not scrap the whole game and dress, listen to, and buy what you like? After all, that’s what it’s all about: deciding for yourself and not letting others pressure you into choices you don’t want to make. And if that Pumpkin Spice Latte makes you less interesting to anyone, smile and take a big sip.