The Andover rap video that made the rounds this week is tacky and annoying, yeah, but to those of us who went to the school, there's more to it than the saccharine entitlement on the surface. When my class graduated from Andover two years ago, we marveled and fretted about the place: The kids are smart, the teachers are smart, and the school does some things very well. But this little film documents a school that is changing for the worse.
Andover, these days, is devoted to its own messaging. It cheers on students to cheer the school on. The video captures a bunch of students caught up in the school's branding—reading, believing and parroting the hype, rather than being the stuff that gets hyped.
It's not an official video, but it doesn't need to be. The students, working on their own, project the school's messaging strategy into every second of the video.
This messaging at Andover uses two methods: institutional branding, and chilling student voices that might undermine the brand. In 2009, Andover not only put a donor's name on its previously unnamed dining hall, but it put the donor's name in multiple ice sculptures. The Andover Bulletin, which had been a dry alumni quarterly for a century, got a slick redesign, thicker paper stock, and a new name—Andover: The Magazine—in 2009. In 2008, the school rolled out a faux-parchment-heavy new website, with profiles of suitably distinguished students written by former professional journalists, now working as marketing writers on contract.
The clampdown: When I worked at The Phillipian, the director of communications decreed that we were not allowed to contact trustees, even though some had listed numbers and would answer questions from reporters. Trustees were later told not to speak to us. When we were working on The Exonian, a yearly parody of our rival school's newspaper, an administrator called us in and warned us that there would be consequences after publication, even though she hadn't seen anything in the paper.
Even though the numbers told us the place was getting better—Andover's acceptance rate fell, and its financial aid budget grew—the school told us less and less about what was going on there, which irked us writerly types. In 2008, the school stopped releasing college admissions statistics, only giving us matriculation data.
Andover's non-overt hype, when my class was applying, was that it was the prep-school for the irreverent free thinkers. No dress code, no chapel, an uncensored weekly student paper. (Buzz Bissinger edited the sports section, once upon a time.)
None of that turns up in the video, because student freedom isn't terribly important to the filmmakers, but also because the school's squelched student freedom. The video's not about sticking out, and it's most certainly not about free expression. Back in 2009, the student who directed this video bowed to the school's demands when it asked him to take a perfectly innocuous student film off YouTube. He then said he wasn't pleased with that decision, but "decided to comply" because he "wanted to move on to his next film." And look how he's moved on.
So here's an Andover where everyone has the same amount of non-threatening intelligence and well-roundedness. This is not quite an accurate vision of the student body. It's an Autotuned tribute to the Andover gentleman of old—a gentleman whose fortunes have been declining.
For all the blithe self-satisfaction on display, only one of the many student performers in this video will attend an Ivy League school in the fall. That's unusual, and not likely a coincidence, given Andover's boffo college matriculation stats. (If you were curious, the Ivy-bound one is the kid in the Celtics shirt.) You probably could have guessed that none of the performers edit the paper.
Then consider the song's hook: "Some say PA is only worth diploma day, but those who know will tell you that it isn't so." No, the phrase "only worth diploma day" doesn't make as much literal sense as the video thinks it does. But beyond that, who are "some" and what are they saying? The hook appears to be aimed at a straw man—the tiny, if even extant, subset of the public-high-school-going population (the "every quarter" from which Andover aims to recruit youth) that might look at the private boarding school as a stepping stone.
But the message isn't meant for some envious poor kid from Jacksonville, who thinks that if only he could get into Andover, he'd be headed for Harvard for sure. The opportunistic or instrumentalist view—the outlook that Andover is not a meaningful life experience in itself, but a way to get somewhere else—belongs to another group, one much closer to the filmmakers.
The song's rebuking a high-achieving group at Andover, a group comprising successful middle-class scholarship kids and the kids of upwardly mobile parents. They, not some mysterious outsiders, would talk about Andover as a "stepping stone," as a place where academic success could send them Yale-ward, rather than some sort of magical youth camp. Terribly grasping, that stepping stone view.
East Asian students are a large subset of that striving group. Andover's student body is 24 percent Asian, but there are no Asian students performing in the video. This is odd, given that they make up such a large chunk of the school, and an even larger chunk of the academically successful students the video purports to extol. (Yep, many of them wind up at Ivy League schools, too.)
There's a two-minute bit toward the video's end where an admissions officer talks about the athletic demands on Andover students, and then students and an administrator echo him. This is a bit coded. The school gives out seven prizes each year for varsity athletics; in the last six years, no Asian student has won one. One in four in the student body, zero of 42 on the prizes.
The lesson my class got at Andover—probably the same one the performers received—is that easy upper-class well-roundedness doesn't really pay in the college admissions process. Most often, colleges are looking for students who can do one thing really well, or, students who can do everything really well. (Or students whose parents are rich even among the people wealthy enough to pay boarding-school tuition, so rich they can purchase admission slots for their non-overachieving offspring.)
The performers don't like hearing this stepping-stone stuff from their fellow classmates with the shinier college admissions. There's a reason this video wound up on the unreadable Barstool Boston before appearing on more literary concerns (Gawker, Slate, and even Grantland): The video speaks for a dimmer section of the Andover population, convinced they lived the Andover experience, even if they didn't emerge from it as better thinkers, with Ivy matriculations in hand.
Really, it's hard to disagree with the sentiment the video expresses on its surface, or hate the performers' evident glee. Andover is a mostly lovely place, with lots of smart kids who have all kinds of weird talents. (Though I never "witnessed [beat] a linguist [beat] who's a gymnast.") Those who do go there meet friends, and those friends might even be smart and worldly and ambitious. And hell, there's a small sliver of the school that still respects independent, mordant student journalism, although that sliver is shrinking.
But if one were to judge from this video, one would assume Andover was an institution that schooled its pupils in the lowest common denominators of communications spin—aggressive branding, staying on message, and deploying straw men to attack peers—and that this video was a master's thesis. That's a sad reading, but it's not totally wrong.