Backstory: Even football is only rock 'n' roll

DJs, dancing girls, live music - is a sporting event about the soundtrack or the game itself?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

With Super Bowl XL approaching, every person on the planet knows the Rolling Stones are providing 12 minutes of halftime entertainment.

The Stones repeatedly turned down this gig in years past, so the NFL no doubt sees this as the ultimate coup - and seems to be advertising the "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" as heavily as it is the Game itself.

You'll see the world's skinniest man - Mick Jagger - take the field just occupied by a horde of 340-pound linemen. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Jagger's geezer strut will command as much focus as the flesh pounding players will. And, really, if pressed, couldn't you name more Rolling Stones (dead or alive) than Seahawks and Steelers? (Apologies to readers in Seattle and Pittsburgh.)

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It's part of the "rockification" of sport - a background soundtrack, live or recorded, that weaves through sporting events (golf and tennis, so far, excepted). Sometimes bands play live before, after, or - in the Stones's case - in the midst of the event; during games it certainly creates an unescapable racket.

Why the Stones agreed to the Super Bowl this time is evidence of rockification.

"I think in part [it is] because of the recent history of Super Bowls, with U2 and Paul McCartney" doing them, says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "And Keith Richards was on holiday with McCartney and had a discussion that led to him bringing the idea to the Stones, saying, 'This might be the right time.' "

Surely not lost on the Stones, on tour and with a new album out: McCartney's record sales rocketed after his performance on what he calls "the world's largest stage to reach a mass audience."

The message: Don't blink, don't leave your chair, you might miss something. Do not pause to think for a moment because you'll be awash in sound, be it football commentary or classic rock. And aren't they swell dance partners? Sports and music.

We are Americans and we want to be stimulated and entertained every waking moment. Walking down the street? Make sure that iPod is on your belt and the plug is in your ear. Having dinner with the family? Make sure one of your 400 TV channels is on in case the conversation lags. Need we mention video games? Sporting events?

We're indeed in an era of the rockification - or, often, rapification - of sports. Except for the mini-concerts at Super Bowl halftime, it's not so prevalent when you watch TV - there are all those commercials to watch!

But go to a live game and you'll find the sonic barrage overwhelming. Four years ago, a friend took me to a Celtics-76ers game in Boston. I can't remember if music was played during the game or just at every possible moment the game wasn't being played. We left midway through the last quarter, not because Alan Iverson was defeating the Celtics almost single-handedly but because of the sound. Our ears hurt. Our brains rattled. I know a hockey fan who refuses to go to games anymore for the same reasons.

The breeding ground for all this, says Michael Howell, a Boston marketing specialist, was World Wrestling Entertainment, the organization that has long set its soap operas for men to rock music.

Who'd have thought that rockification would evolve from pro wrestling rings to the pristine baseball parks of America? Now, many players want their chosen "theme" songs played high-decibel as they approach the plate. The old-time organist? Banished or rarely used.

Clearly, sports and noise go hand in hand, observes Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. "Sports isn't about subtlety or nuance; it's about screaming. On the field and up in the stands. You're shouting at the field.

"Then," he explains, "we developed ways to augment the ways of watching sports by trying to control the crowd. The perception was a sporting event needed a soundtrack. Certain songs became intricately identified with a given team, [it was] sound as a branding device."

But why so loud? "You're in a stadium with 50,000 people, it's got to be loud," says Mr. Thompson. "They want this music to penetrate and prevail over all the other distracting stuff."

Increasingly, he adds, there's an attempt "to make the live experience like a TV show," and live sporting events get over-produced, with music the key element in that over-production.

The big question, he says, is "Is this event about the soundtrack or the game itself?"

For some, it's making a spectacle of a spectacle. "I'm in despair" over the booming music at sporting events, laments John Dizikes, a University of California, Santa Cruz historian and author of books on opera and sports.

"I can only do one thing well at a time," he says, "When I go to a game, I honestly find it distracting from the game itself that this dreadful thing is going on. It's not just the music; it's fantastically loud sound. Music is intrusive in that situation. Especially in baseball, where I want tranquility and peace, and here is this other thing which destroys that atmosphere."

Those days have gone away, just like Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.

The architects of rockification figure it's just sharp cross-marketing - appealing to youth through music - and keeping our attention from wandering. "It's meant to keep the crowd's spirits up," says Matt Ross, a sports analyst for BetUS, an online gaming company. "That's the importance of it. It varies from culture to culture. I saw a basketball game in Miami last spring with Miami Heat against the Toronto Raptors, and they had a DJ and two girls dancing. It was the first time I'd ever seen something like that and I was sort of taken aback wondering if it belonged there. But it's the culture of the NBA: they play music with hip-hop beats during games."

These beats dominate L.A. Lakers games; same with the Spurs in San Antonio.

But one pro sports executive - whose sport is not remiss about using music - suggests he's a little conflicted over music at pro basketball and hockey games. It's a diversionary tactic, he says, with an implied message of "don't look down on the court, it's about the music."

The Super Bowl is expected to draw 130 million US viewers. And they will apparently stay tuned for halftime: McCarthy cites surveys showing that 95 percent of the TV audience remains during halftime.

Some may even tune in specifically for the halftime event itself. Indeed, the Stones's huffing, puffing, strutting, and rocking is likely to pull from a broad TV-land demographic.

As to the Super Bowl show for the people in the Detroit stadium, the NFL reversed an earlier decision that the fan extras chosen to dance up front for the cameras couldn't be older than 45. Jagger, is 62 - does it really make sense to dis your own age group and worship at the altar of youth?

After halftime is over TV viewers will be returned to the battle royale and a deluge of cute, clever, mind-bogglingly expensive ads.

The folks in the stadium, they'll get the noise.

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