On May 23, Paul Simon performed “The Boxer” to a packed house. About six or seven minutes after Simon took to the mic, the crowd arose and applauded the acoustic showman. It was like any other concert one can imagine.
Except it wasn’t any old musical performance. It wasn’t even a concert. It was Brandeis University’s 2010 Commencement. I’d returned to my alma mater to see my sister graduate. Not Paul Simon. And so, as nearly everyone in the crowd took to their feet after Simon played his last notes, I stayed seated.
I’ve always wonder how great of a role music plays in my life, if perhaps somehow I hold it in almost too high a regard, risking other important things in the process. There have been times where I’ve sacrificed a healthy diet in order to scrounge enough money together to purchase a ticket. But my experience nearly two weeks ago made me reconsider whether or not music plays too large a role in my life.
Paul Simon was at Brandeis to receive an honorary degree: His performance came about after a couple students started a Facebook campaign to have him play during their graduation. After all the hoopla surrounding the commencement speaker – Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren – Simon’s music became a peace offering for the students. Something to quell the anger of those upset at the choice of a Zionist-friendly speaker at a university struggling with the Jewish part of its identity. Something for the graduating class.
Yet, Paul Simon’s presence didn’t do anything more for the students. Sure, his guitar-picking was as fine as ever, his soft-spoken singing style an open, welcoming voice.
But something made my stomach turn. Once Simon finished, most of the audience erupted in loud applause. Fine – Paul Simon certainly means a lot to a lot of people, his voice a guiding light during the young years of many generations, blah blah blah. But Simon received far more cheering than did the graduating class.
Everyone in the Brandeis gymnasium was there for one reason: They knew someone graduating. Be it a son or daughter, brother or sister, cousin, friend, whatever. There wasn’t a person in sight who did not know someone in a cap and gown, someone celebrating a hard-earned degree. This was their moment. Not Paul Simon’s.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the emotions that come with seeing one’s favorite musician perform. But I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t understand the emotions that come with seeing someone you love and care for achieve a milestone.
It came as a shock seeing the way people reacted to Paul Simon’s singular tune not long after the class of 2010 became “graduates.” The reactions just didn’t match up. Although I know everyone there clearly cared for someone graduating, the split-second response to the closing notes of “The Boxer” was overwhelming.
Those stepping out in the real world should have received some recognition that this was their moment. Instead, after a lead-up to a graduation ceremony mired in politics, and a less-than-stellar commencement address by Oren that hardly addressed the graduating class, their communal time to shine was swept under the rug. But, I guess for some people, these milestones come and go, but a Paul Simon performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event.