No more cowbell — unless it’s on a cow

Ryerson ‘cowbell jam’ may be a new low in silly stunts


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Canadians have a peculiar love for record-breaking attempts, whether it’s erecting the (former) tallest free-standing structure, preparing a giant fruit salad, or building a whack of weird roadside attractions.

It’s all in good fun, I suppose, but at times, this odd habit comes off as a desperate plea for attention, without regard for substance. Such was the case with yesterday’s (apparently successful) attempt to break the world cowbell jam record.

That’s right, folks: On Aug. 30 at Toronto’s Ryerson University, more than a thousand young minds showed up, gathered together, and put their estimable energy to work making the most horrific din imaginable for two minutes. In the process, they became a part of a Ryerson tradition of shows of academic brilliance that include biggest maracas ensemble, and biggest plastic sword fight.

I have to hand it to Ryerson: In a world where competition for education dollars is fierce, they can at least promise students a pretty good shot at the record books.

Besides the noise factor, the cowbell jam provokes a level of irritation that outdoes previous efforts, by achieving a new standard in watered-down “culture.”

A cowbell stunt is merely the latest, if not the lamest iteration of a mostly played-out meme, Needs More Cowbell!

That phrase, which has enjoyed mystifying longevity as a catchphrase and T-shirt slogan, originated with a comedy sketch, featuring Christopher Walken, that aired in 2000 on Saturday Night Live. The sketch itself refers to the decades-old Blue Oyster Cult hard rock hit, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” which features, you guessed it, cowbell.

The sketch was funny enough, 12 years ago. It gets decidedly less so with every reference to it. And I can’t help but think that gathering 1,003 cowbell “players” in once place for another kick at the can is just plain lame.

It’s all very ironic, very hip, very meta… and very meaningless.

Of course, college stunts are as old as the hills, and meaningless ones go way back too. There was never much justification for swallowing goldfish, or stuffing telephone booths.

But this one establishes a new low because it’s not even ridiculous in its own right. It’s as derivative as the day is long: A silly stunt reminiscent of an unfunny catchphrase stemming from an overplayed skit from a dated show, referring to a distant hit for a 40-year-old band.

While it’s impressive to get 1,000 students to gather in one place and do something, anything, together, this effort had the particularly puzzling goal of trying to beat a group of 640 cowbellers from Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland: home to a pastoral people for whom the cowbell has both an actual purpose, and a genuine cultural relevance.

In other words, what was celebrated at Ryerson was the victory of something empty over something meaningful. To quote a much older catchphrase, “for this I went to college?”

Maybe next year they’ll at least go for something Canadian. Biggest moose call orchestra, maybe?

Meanwhile, in Quebec….

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No more cowbell — unless it’s on a cow

  1. First: Blue Oyster Cult – Hard Rock, really?
    Second: “… referring to a distant hit for a 40-year-old band.” Have you ever listened to local radio? It’s like a flashback to when I was a youngster. ACDC, Rush etc.All it ever does is play distant hits for 40 year old bands. The young uns today are continually amazed when I show them my 7″ vinyl single of ACDC’s “you shook me all night long.” They think it’s a happening tune man. They freak out totally when I show them a 78.
    When their only reference point is saggy old men in recovery then 12 years ago is relatively recent.

    • I could have called BOC ‘heavy metal,’ which was what we called it at the time, but by the standards of the bands that came after they sounded pretty tame, melodically and rhythmically if not lyrically.

      • Lemmy and M’head boy myself, mixed in with The Damned. Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts and tempered with The Jam. You gotta go some way to beat the Jam and SLF for social upheaval in the lyrics.
        I guess the pond that separated us then made a huge difference.

  2. This story needs more cowbell!

    • It certainly doesn’t need any more grumpy old man. Lighten up, Mr. Newland. It was fun–not everything has to have a deeper meaning.

  3. Well, it was an orientation event aimed at helping new students have fun, meet new friends and start to develop a sense of school spirit. By those objectives, it was a hugely successful event. Classes start next week, and Ryerson dedicated an ENTIRE week to help the class of 2016 get settled in. Cynicism for good spirited efforts and good fun has no place in our society today. But thanks for the coverage!

    • Jason, thanks for the comment. I appreciate the spirit of the event. But surely that good spirit could be put to meaningful use somehow. Cleaning up litter? Helping the food bank? I don’t doubt that it met your objectives. But I bet you could set them higher. Best wishes.

      • David, there was so much to Orientation at Ryerson University this week. You have isolated one incident and criticized it because it seems frivolous. It was a full week that, indeed, had elements designed to give back to our community. I objectives were high. Please stop being so cynical. Happy long weekend!