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Amy Donaldson: 'Utah Man' can stay or go, but altering the lyrics shouldn't be an option

Published: Wednesday, April 23 2014 10:55 p.m. MDT

Students in the MUSS section at a football game,  the University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate according to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U's rate is Students in the MUSS section at a football game, the University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate according to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U's rate is "comparatively low" Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The bookstore clerk’s face contorted when I placed the book I wanted to buy on the counter.

“This is the most depressing book ever written,” she said. “You shouldn’t buy it.”

The book was “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I told her that I was familiar with his work, and that I understood the subject was dark.

I read the book in two days, and contrary to what many people told me, I found it moving and inspiring. The woman who tried to steer me away from it wasn’t wrong. We just disagreed.

For me, that is the most beautiful, and frankly liberating, aspect of art — it is whatever you want it to be.

From the beginning of civilization, humans have tried to capture their thoughts, feelings and experiences in works of art. Whether it’s a painting, a book or a song, art isn’t just meant to record events, it’s meant to capture (and share) energy. It’s meant to connect with others emotionally.

Students in the MUSS section at a football game,  the University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate according to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U's rate is Students in the MUSS section at a football game, the University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate according to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U's rate is "comparatively low" Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Art is the reflection of our society at that moment. It gives us insight into times, places and experiences.

Most artists don’t worry about how their work will be perceived. They don’t worry about what others might think 100 years after they're gone. They simply feel compelled to create, to put something into context, to share an emotion that impacted or changed them.

I won’t pretend to know what Utah football coach Harvey Holmes was thinking when he and some of his players penned the words to “Utah Man” in the early 1900s. He used another song’s melody, but he wrote to capture the emotion of representing Utah on the field of competition.

I don’t love the song. But as a lover of art, I feel extremely protective of the work and perspective artists offer — even when they’re mediocre.

It’s not just classic literature that should be valued. It’s children’s books, comedies, musicals. We shouldn’t censor a cigar-smoking, beer-guzzling football coach’s poetry any more than we should censor Mark Twain for his use of what most now deem racially offensive language.

Art doesn’t have to appeal to everyone. It doesn’t have to include everyone.

Maybe a school’s song, even a song that originated as a football fight song, should appeal to and include all of its students. If that’s the conclusion that University of Utah administrators come to, then they should solicit or choose a new song — not change the lyrics of “Utah Man.”

Often there is a difference between an official representation and a tradition that’s popular. Sometimes making an official change will eventually change a tradition.

But make no mistake about it: Changing the lyrics of a song, the words of a poem or a scene in a play is censorship. You might agree with the changes. But some censorship is always bad. Silencing anyone diminishes all of us. That's why Westboro Baptist Church is allowed to protest funerals in a way that offends 99 percent of us.

Discussing whether the U.’s fight song is offensive is a valuable exercise. In order for that to happen, however, people need to be unafraid to express their views. Respect, civility and empathy are critical for a productive discussion.

Persuading others isn’t even the most valuable part of an open, honest discussion.

It’s the understanding we gain from listening to experiences that are different from our own. It’s empathizing with people who’ve suffered in ways we never have.

The issue about whether or not “Utah Man” is offensive was lost when the Associated Students of the University of Utah took the action they did Tuesday night.

The ASUU called an emergency meeting less than 24 hours before new leadership took office and voted to override their bylaws in order to send a resolution supporting change to the University of Utah president, according to The Daily Utah Chronicle. The reaction was understandably defensive and angry from those who support leaving the fight song alone.

If there had been dialogue in which everyone felt included and valued, I don’t think there would have been such a negative reaction to the ASUU officers who voted to support it.

Threats of violence against the students, however, were shameful and sad. That reflects more adversely on the U. student body than any song lyrics. It’s also the best way to alienate those who would have otherwise supported you.

The reality is that “Utah Man” was never meant to be a school song. It doesn’t talk about science classes or music programs. It’s a song meant to celebrate the experience of playing football for a beloved school.

Some have argued that the lyrics have been changed before, so why not modernize them again?

Because changing the lyrics is a denial of our history.

Interestingly, one of the offensive lines about how the school’s “coeds are the fairest” is one that replaced the previously offensive lines about steins of beer and big cigars.

Finding the original version is more and more difficult as we continue to revise history.

So let’s stop.

Discuss with students, professors and alumni. Consider all views, all options. And if administrators decide the song is sexist — or even just outdated and silly — choose a new one. I know they’ve tried this before, but at least officially, the U. can send a message that the school is more than a song about a gang of jolly guys willing to mix it up in the MUSS.

If not, look to be more inclusive in much more meaningful and substantial ways. For while only a few will wear the crimson uniform, the University of Utah belongs to all.

Ki-yi!

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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