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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Major leagues

Music and sports don’t have to be mutually exclusive

By Todd Kroviak

Jack White

For some, the music world and the world of sports exist in separate, even opposite, realms. In America, at least, this idea probably stems from one’s adolescence, where the all-important distinction is made between two categories: the tormentors (or jocks, as they’re commonly referred to) and the tormented (seemingly everybody else).

But the strangest thing starts to happen as we grow out of the microcosm in which we’re incubated—we realize that there’s an entire spectrum of human interests extending beyond what was established in seventh-grade gym class.

Nevertheless, music people continue to feed off their disdain for the conformity espoused by sports far longer than they have any reason to, while sports followers often continue on in their misguided quest to turn everything into a competition.

Of course, these are large generalizations. There’s plenty of middle ground between the two, even if it isn’t discussed nearly as often as it should be. But aside from the guys in Pavement professing their love for hockey (not to mention Steven Malkmus’ interest in golfing) and Steve Albini’s suggestion that all Shellac songs were either about Canada or baseball, sports aren’t given the attention they deserve in rock music.

And vice versa. A perfect example of how foreign and awkward the music / sports crossover landscape can be is the mid-’90s success of the Jock Jams series, the original version of which was filled with such “crowd-pumping” classics as Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” and EMF’s “Unbelievable.”

In this case, calling the compilation “Jock Jams” is code for “songs so pervasive that they’re played in stadiums to appease large crowds of diehard sports fans who presumably have little to no interest in music outside of what they hear between innings.”

Quibbles with the content or quality of music at the average professional sporting event notwithstanding, attendees probably hear about as much music over the course of a game as they might during an average three-band bill at a live music venue.

Essentially, attending a concert or a game is taking part in a similar communal experience. The only difference is that one involves a more passive form of competition than the other. At a live concert, the band is simply competing for your attention against other bands, whether they’re conscious of it or  willing to admit to it or not.

Now that baseball is back in season, I’m also reminded of how the farm system is similar to the lower rungs of the live-music circuit. As a band rises in popularity, it hones its skills in increasingly larger venues, just as fresh young players develop skills in single-A, double-A and so on. At some point, a band might make the jump from a small label to a major, just as a player would get called up to the big leagues, both lured by similar opportunities—money, potential fame and maybe even a personal quest to compete with the best in the world.

These days, athletes and musicians are all free agents, as well. Just as Jack White can play with The White Stripes, The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, Alex Rodriguez can bounce from Seattle to Texas to New York (although not simultaneously, like White). At certain points, they may be locked into binding contracts, but with enough protesting, they can be let go—whether it’s Prince or Manny Ramirez.

But I suspect it’s not the big-name artists that people immersed in the music world are so concerned with. Rather, it’s the illusion that the artist is somehow elite because they’re doing it for reasons completely unmotivated by money or recognition, much in the way sports fans commonly speak of the NCAA basketball tournament or high-school sports as pure and untainted.

I fall victim to this romantic perspective on occasion, as well, but the reality is that creating an artistic space devoid of competition (or torment) is impossible, and scene kids are no more individual than the jocks that they loathe so deeply.

So go ahead and attend every show, or listen to the coolest, most obscure records you can find. But don’t forget that your fanaticism isn’t all that different from that guy who paints his face and screams obscenities at the referee.           

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