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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