An Interview with Seth Wickersham – Part Deux
“I think piped-in music is more necessary at pro games than college games. College fans are intrinsically different from pro fans. They’re louder, more passionate, younger. Many attendees of pro games aren’t even fans.”
“When I got home and started writing, the “what-does-it-mean?” was hard to answer—it’s always hard to answer, and I have a tendency to over-think these types of things. I knew the tone couldn’t be too earnest and stiff, but it was coming out that way regardless.”
”“We Will Rock You” is the perfect stadium anthem because it’s bare, yet has something for everyone. Not every fan, for instance, wants to sing. No matter: They can clap or stomp. And they always do. That’s why it’s held up so well for so long.”
Seth Wickersham: Interviewed on February 7, 2010.
Position: senior writer, ESPN Magazine; columnist, ESPN.com
Born: 1976, Boulder, Colorado
Education: University of Missouri, 2000, journalism
Career: ESPN Magazine 2000 –
Personal: married (Alison Overholt)
Favorite restaurant (home): PJ Clarke’s, Manhattan; Peperoncino, Brooklyn “love the spicy gnocchi”; Chocolate Room, Brooklyn “best desert in New York”
Favorite restaurant (road): Moose’s Tooth Pizza, Anchorage “I grew up in Alaska but I never get sent there for work”
Favorite hotel: Marriott Towers, San Diego – “a roof deck and a gorgeous view of the harbor”
Seth Wickersham, excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, February 8, 2010:
“You came all the way over here to talk to little old me?” asks Brian May, the legendary guitarist for Queen, sitting inside a theater in downtown London.
Yes, I did. I’m kind of annoyed with little old May, frankly. Or, more specifically, I’m annoyed at what he’s unwittingly created. You see, I’ve spent much of my life at sporting events — from University of Alaska Anchorage hockey games to the Super Bowl — and at every arena they won’t stop playing piped-in pop music. It doesn’t matter if the song is lyrical genius or absolute dreck, or even if it relates to sports. It doesn’t matter if the artist is a rock god or a one-hit wonder. If it rocks, we play it, and somehow music has become as synonymous with our games as the $12 Bud Light.
I blame May. Why? Well, there’s a list of the most-played songs at American sporting events, compiled by BMI, the music licensing company. In the top spot for 2009 was the ubiquitous “We Will Rock You,” which May wrote three decades ago in a hotel room in England. After all these years, it’s startling to see that song No. 1 with a bullet. It’s so basic and bare, two minutes and one second of two stomps followed by a clap, overlapped by the late Freddie Mercury’s thundering vocals. But “We Will Rock You” is more relevant than ever, bumping last year’s No. 1, “Pump It,” by the Black Eyed Peas, from the top of the chart. And like any song that gets played over and over (and over and over), it can start to get a little tiresome — except, of course, when it’s perfectly suited for the moment, like when the home team sacks the quarterback on third and long.
So on an early January night, I fly over the Atlantic, listening to “We Will Rock You” again and again, hoping to unearth a hidden meaning but in the end simply getting it stuck in my head. It’s still there when I hop out of a cab to meet May at London’s Dominion Theatre, where the musical “We Will Rock You” is in its eighth year. I’m ushered to a private suite and given a “We Will Rock You” program, which I flip through as “We Will Rock You” is being soundchecked. (Now I know why the U.S. military has used the song, played full blast for hours, as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo Bay.) The stomping and clapping is ringing in my ears. So when May walks in, tall and lanky, with long, frizzled hair surrounding his head like a trapper hat, my first thought isn’t that I am in the presence of the 39th greatest guitarist in history, according to Rolling Stone, or that May belongs to a Hall of Fame band that’s sold more than 300 million albums. I just want to know why the hell he’s done this to us…
Q. You wrote: “The best songs are elastic. They maintain relevance because their meaning changes over time, speaking to a greater truth without being about a larger truth.” Sounds Zen-like. What does it mean?
A. I think what I meant is that songs are ultimately about connection. No matter how that bond is forged—lyrics, music, at best a combination of the two—it has to exist. The songs that stay with you the longest might do so because their meaning changes over time, so they maintain that connection, or because they remind you of something. The songs are specifically universal, if that makes any sense. It’s hard to explain but people just sort of know it when the right music shuffles into their headphones.
Q. You wrote, “We’re the ones who need the power of music to form a community because, let’s face it, our games aren’t enough anymore.” Why aren’t games enough anymore?
A. Well, in a lot of the press boxes I’m in, the games haven’t been enough for a long time. In many ways, for media, it’s about Twittering from the game about the game, carrying on a running conversation with whoever follows you, whether it’s fans at home or other writers in the press box trying to outwit each other. The game can become secondary to the game experience.
As for sports fans as a whole, I think we’re constantly distracted. It’s so easy to check email or update your Facebook page or change your fantasy lineup. Piped-in music helps pull fans back to the action, reminding them why they paid $100 for a ticket, $25 for parking, and $12 for a Bud Light.
That said, I think piped-in music is more necessary at pro games than college games. College fans are intrinsically different from pro fans. They’re louder, more passionate, younger. Many attendees of pro games aren’t even fans. Music, as Chuck Klosterman told me when I talked to him for the magazine story, can also be a conscious attempt to appeal to non-sports fans at games that happen to be a targeted demographic—playing southern rock at race races, or metal at NFL games.
Q. Give us a rundown on the reporting and research for “We Will Rock You”.
A. As reporting magazine stories goes, it was very basic, probably the first one in years I didn’t utter, “Ok, so off the record, what do you really think?”
I got a press release that “We Will Rock You” was the most-played song at American sporting events. I immediately wanted to write about it and other stadium songs. Very few of them are about sports and are often about entirely different things—like “Y.M.C.A.,” for instance, which might be about gay sex—and I wanted to know what the musicians who wrote the songs thought about their work being synonymous with fourth-and-1. Also, the notion that we need music at our games said something about us—but I wasn’t sure what.
So I found lists of stadium anthems and reached out to the publicists of the bands that wrote them. Most were receptive. The Black Eyed Peas wasn’t, which was too bad, because I have a hunch that they are the opposite of most bands in this way: I imagine that once their songs were played at arenas, they started writing music specifically for sports, knowing that it’ll be played at games and it’s a sure way to collect royalties. For some strange reason, I see sports fans as their demo.
Anyway, in the process of talking to musicians, I reached out to stadium DJs to learn about the art of putting together playlists. That exercise is both much more and much less involved than I thought. The Broncos, for example, have an elaborate Excel spreadsheet detailing all the songs to play in various situations. But then you have the Red Sox, which play “Sweet Caroline” not because of a local connection but just because they recognized that it worked well when other teams played it.
Brian May, the legendary Queen guitarist who wrote “We Will Rock You,” was the first musician I requested to interview and the last one that I actually did. I originally asked to attend a game with him, but he lives in London and wasn’t going to be in the states before my deadline. So in January, I flew to London to meet him. We met at an old theater downtown, where “We Will Rock You: The Musical” was playing. When I got there, I was handed a few “We Will Rock You” pamphlets, with all kinds of “We Will Rock You” history, as “We Will Rock You” was being sound-checked for that night’s show. I was about to lose my mind—they wouldn’t stop playing it!—when in walked May. He was very nice, polite and slightly perplexed that I flew so far to see him. I think we talked for about two hours, in all, then I watched the “We Will Rock You” musical.
When I got home and started writing, the “what-does-it-mean?” was hard to answer—it’s always hard to answer, and I have a tendency to over-think these types of things. I knew the tone couldn’t be too earnest and stiff, but it was coming out that way regardless. I sent a few passages to Wright Thompson, my dear friend, and he called me and said something like, “Dude, you’ve gotta lighten up.” That was enormously helpful, and I was able to relax and tell the story the right way from that point on.
Q. Why do English soccer crowds sing decent songs like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but American crowd don’t?
I asked Klosterman the same thing. He said that we’re just not a chant-oriented society; we really only have Happy Birthday and various Christmas carols, as chants go. I buy that. But as I wrote in the story, I also think we—Americans—just don’t do chants well.
The end of the chant at Ole Miss games—“The South will rise again”–was blatantly racist, and it was only banned this year. Plus, the goal of chants at college games seems to be to insert the f-word at every pass, which is fine, but it loses the elegance found in “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Q. Your take on the Saints ‘Who Dat’ song?
You mean the NFL’s Who Dat song? I think it’s good. It was originally used at high school games in New Orleans, before the Saints were around. Sadly, the way things are, I think everything cool has a chance to become old and clichéd really fast.
Q. Why isn’t “Na Na Na” ranked above “We Will Rock You” for all-time best?
“We Will Rock You” is the perfect stadium anthem because it’s bare, yet has something for everyone. Not every fan, for instance, wants to sing. No matter: They can clap or stomp. And they always do. That’s why it’s held up so well for so long. In fact, most DJs only play the first few notes of the song, then turn it down and let the crowd take over, because they start clapping and stomping immediately, as if obeying orders. What other song has that impact?
Q. Which sports songs make you cringe?
“We Will Rock You.” Especially after this story.
Q. Apart from sports songs, what do your music tastes run to?
A. Springsteen. U2. Pearl Jam. Alt-rock from the 90s. Younger bands, like Kings of Leon, Locksley, and Gaslight Anthem. Acoustic acts like Martin Sexton and the Pickin On series. When I’m working, I listen to blues like Son House or jazz. And I currently can’t stop listening to the Allman Brothers live from Filmore East.
Q. First line of your story about euthanizing racehorses: “Death is delivered pink.” Were you channeling Raymond Chandler or Robert Parker?
A. Would you believe me if I said neither? That line just kind of hit me, which is strange because usually they don’t.
Seth Wickersham, excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, May 4, 2009:
Death is delivered pink. The lethal liquid that’s injected into the jugular of broken-down racehorses is always colored. That way, a vet can find it quickly. That way, it can’t be mistaken for any other drug. There’s no time for fumbling when a 1,200-pound animal has suffered a catastrophic injury — a broken leg or a fractured ankle. There’s no time for indecision when you’re staring at a shattered jag of bone piercing the skin as if it were tinfoil. Today, a muggy New Year’s Day in New Orleans, death sits in the backseat of a white Toyota Tundra parked by the grass track at Fair Grounds Race Course. Two pink bottles glow like flashlights inside a black leather medical bag. In one bottle is succinylcholine; in another, pentobarbital. The former is a paralytic, the latter a barbiturate. Thicker than syrup, each is dispensed through a three-inch, 14-gauge needle from a syringe as fat as a corn dog. Once injected, the barbiturate puts the horse into a deep sleep; then the paralytic attacks the cardiovascular system and the brain. The bigger the needle, the faster the transport, the quicker the death. On most days, these drugs stay in the backseat, unused. On most days…