Elliot Alpern: Moving to the music in sports

By Elliot Alpern, Daily Music Columnist
Published October 23, 2012

The stage is set: Denard Robinson just dashed off for a 40-yard touchdown, and Michigan gives the ball back to the opponent with just a few minutes left. The boys in blue are down a scant couple points; a defensive stop here could swing the game and put one more “W” on the board. The air crackles with excitement.

And then, you hear it — an electric guitar strum echoes throughout the Big House. Adrenaline pumps through veins, fans hop with nervous enthusiasm, Eminem’s voice booms. “Look ... if you had ... one shot ... one opportunity ... ”

Outstretched palms bob up and down; the stadium appears as a roiling sea of hands and arms. The crowd chants along, something about mom’s spaghetti. The players, the fans, the coaches — everyone is amped, and “Lose Yourself” becomes the theme song of sports destiny.

In that moment, Eminem has done something that the exalted Brady Hoke himself couldn’t accomplish. He has convinced the entire Big House that this is Michigan’s “one shot, one opportunity,” as the Oscar-winning track has at countless games and stadiums throughout the country. And every time, it’s the same — this is our time, our chance.

Regardless of the outcome, the feat is impressive — to instill such an air of legend and myth to any game, for any team. The relationship between music and sports is both special and curious. One would be hard-pressed to find another arena in which the arts tangle with athletics: Painting rarely goes hand-in-hand with exercise, nor do filmmaking, theater or creative writing. Even the arts and editorial desks are on opposite sides of the Daily’s newsroom.

Yet it’s still undeniable: Music makes sporting events better. Michigan football was first formed in 1879, and it only took 17 years for the corresponding marching band to take the field. “The Victors” is so important a piece of music that it even has a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.

You could say it’s just a distraction, that music is a by-product of downtime between plays and quarters. But if that’s the case, why does the University give out nearly 60 scholarships to the marching band alone? And why pay licensing fees for songs by blockbuster artists like Eminem and the White Stripes when some stock rock track will do just fine?

It all really boils down to a fundamental point: People like music because it makes them feel a certain way. And those same people really like the songs they know.

So whenever “Seven Nation Army” starts thumping with its seven-note bassline, it becomes a societal moment, not just entertainment. Rows of students jump to the beat, and the crowd hums along as closely as it can.

But even then, the music transcends the audience by moving through them. The noise, the commotion, the excitement — all of it is tough to ignore, especially to an intimidated opponent in a foreign place. Arguably, the crowd becomes the twelfth man on the field, fully affecting the outcome of the play. One could even make the case that home field advantage — typically considered having one’s own fans — owes much of its efficacy to the music picked by the Athletic Department.

Make no mistake, it works the other way, too. Let me tell you a story from my own athletic years — yes, music writers can sometimes be athletic too.

As one of my high school’s lacrosse captains, I led our team down the hill behind our school to the field. We were excited and ready for a game under the lights, when the speakers all began playing our supposed pump-up music.

Normally, the pre-game music was electrifying: Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, assorted hip-hop “I’m king of the world” tracks. This time, however, someone else had supplied their own warm-up tape, with decidedly lukewarm results. In place of the badass “Killing in the Name” was Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy.” Maybe my teammate had picked by song title alone, or it had some special significance, but none of us felt like a warrior (a feeling a pump-up song is prone to inspiring). Truth be told, I began to feel embarrassed. The fact that we had picked “Know Your Enemy” as our battle hymn seemed to let our enemy know how lame we really were.

See, music and sports are more than inseparable — the latter can rarely survive without the former. Look at the majors: Baseball sluggers pick their own walk-up songs to put them in the zone. Hockey arenas select their particular goal tracks (like the Fratellis’s “Chelsea Dagger” for the Chicago Blackhawks). And no Super Bowl is ever complete without a high-profile musician. After all, when music can transport you to a completely different feeling, why not assume yourself as champion?