I was once asked by a friend if, given the choice, I’d rather go to a major musical event (say, the final concert of my favorite band) or a major sporting event (say, a title game for my favorite team). I chose sports almost immediately, and she in turn told me that I must not love music nearly as much as I say I do. I disagree; I just look at sports and music as two very different obsessions, both of which I have. Having a foot in both worlds is by no means unique, though I often associate with people who are on one side or the other. I have friends I can watch football with every weekend who would balk at going to a Spoon show with me. Similarly, I know that some friends who share my taste in music are barely aware of the fact that the Cardinals recently won the World Series (and they probably don’t share my feeling that scrappiness should be a genuine statistical category). Each group is often mystified by the other.
In his widely read sports and culture column for ESPN, Bill Simmons (AKA, “The Sports Guy”) explains why he doesn’t write about music: there’s no rational argument that can be made, no right or wrong. Sure, there are plenty of gray areas in sports, things that you can debate forever, but at least you have statistics to back up an opinion. Music, on the other hand, is essentially a personal experience with individual traits affecting how and why certain songs strike a chord (though sites like Pandora.com and Last.fm are threatening to disprove that notion). If someone doesn’t like a song that you love, it’s pretty darn impossible to convince that person otherwise, no matter how many glowing reviews you produce as evidence.
The same friend who asked the above question also has said that I should become a sports journalist. I disagree, but not only because I know way less about sports than she thinks I do (this assumption is based solely on the many bullshit-laden conversations I would have with other friends at her parties during college, much to her annoyance). I also don’t want to make sports into something to think too hard about, even if most days I end up doing just that. Right now, sports is my escape, my bond with others, my fantasy world, both literally and figuratively. Turning that into a job would severely take away from my ability to enjoy it.
Of course, here I am attempting, at least in part, to write about music for a living. You could make a case that I’m slowly chipping away at my enjoyment of music by analyzing it to the extent that I do. Sometimes I feel like I’ve written myself into a corner to the point where I’m no longer allowed to listen to certain types of music or certain groups because I previously expressed an opinion about them. I’m not sure when my tastes changed to an almost maniacal opposition to the mainstream (probably college), but writing about music hasn’t helped to stem the tide.
So I often wonder, what would happen if I began to engage with sports in the same way that I now listen to music? Currently, the two reside in very separate worlds, two spheres with separate rules. But what if those barriers were to be broken? Would I follow college and minor league teams intently, claiming to my friends, “there’s a guy in Double A who’s got the sweetest swing I’ve ever seen, he’s about to blow up” only to write him off as an asshole when he finally makes it? Would I start staking out gyms to watch pick-up basketball games, convinced I was witnessing something great, because it was real and pure? Soon I’d be buying VHS recordings of the Akron Pee Wee Football League and bribing people to watch the way the players ironically fumbled the ball to make a statement about parental pressure.
It sounds ridiculous, of course—we watch the highest possible levels of professional sports because we truly believe that these are the best athletes to see. If you’re good enough, you’ll make it to this level and we’ll root for you and wear your jersey and read about you and watch and talk about your every move. But music doesn’t work that way—success is not necessarily equated with talent, and in many cases, it’s an inverse relationship. A no-name punk band has just as much a chance of inspiring us as a major-label hip-hop star on any given night. Getting to the top is as much about knowing how to work the business end of things as it is being an inspiring artist. With sports, hard work only gets you so far…you have to have some amount of natural talent.
Sports and music aren’t so different, though, when you really think about it (and I’m not even getting into the obvious connections like at-bat intro music, video game soundtracks, Snoop Dogg, and all the NBA players with rap aspirations). From Arthur Agee and William Gates (stars of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams) to Hoover High’s Repete Smith, plenty of athletes have realized that nurture is nearly as important as nature when it comes to getting noticed. That top player on the playground might still be on the neighborhood courts a decade down the line if he doesn’t play his cards right, just as the rapper with the best flow might never get signed because he doesn’t have the right connections or work ethic.
Hunches also rule the day in sports like they do in music. When a sports fan or commentator makes a prediction of success or a statement on a controversial athlete, he or she does so with the knowledge that there is the possibility of being completely wrong, no matter what the numbers suggest. Any given game has as much unpredictability as a jazz solo or noodling Phish jam. It’s this kind of unpredictability that shows that no matter how many so-called experts exist in the world of sports, they can all be proven clueless with one swing of the bat—see all the love heaped on the Detroit Tigers before this year’s World Series for reference. For every “can’t-miss” prospect, there are dozens of busts out there who, for one reason or another, that never lived up to expectations. While there may not be as much rush to judgment in music, how many critics have eaten their words on past darlings like the Killers just in the past few months?
Sports critics (or “journalists”, if that’s what you want to call them) have their own soft spots and biases, just like music critics, and just as music criticism has become a meta-industry, so has banter / argument about sports become almost as important as sport itself. Fans want to see what happens, but they also want to see what people will say about it. On ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, commentators Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser trade opposing opinions on everything from the latest Terrell Owens controversy (I’m not sure if there’s a musical equivalent to T.O., though Kanye might be in the running a few years down the line) to how much Roger Clemens’s aging arm is worth. Regular PTI viewers know that each commentator has his own ideas—“your boy” is a common way that one will introduce a conversation topic to the other.
Watching the show the other day, I got to thinking; what if we had a PTI for music? Arguments like these are already happening on message boards across the nation, so there’d probably be an audience for it on the small screen. I’m getting giddy imagining, say, Chuck Klosterman and Cam’ron having a two-minute bull session on the Who’s return to relevance, or, better yet, figuring out a logical way to deal with Lil’ Kim. It’s fun to imagine a whole channel like ESPN for music (and no, MTV’s not even close). Think about it, aging rockers could come in and comment about young up-and-comers, dissecting their albums like Sean Salisbury and John Clayton assess the performances of various running backs. Live concerts would be shown from stadiums and universities nationwide, all hosted by engaging personalities who’ve realized they no longer have a place on stage. This presents the exciting opportunity to choose who would fill the necessary roles: who is the Kenny Mayne of music? The Charles Barkley? (I vote David Byrne and Ghostface, by the way.) Scoop Jackson could already fill the Stephen A. Smith role with little change in his focus. As an added bonus, there’s the chance to realize the dream of a music fantasy league (which I believe another PopMatters scribe proposed in the writer forums some time ago), in which music geeks could finally make money for predicting the “next big thing”. I’ve got a few sleepers in mind.
As much as I love the ESPN concept, if I really watched sports like I currently listen to music, I probably wouldn’t watch the channel at all. It’s far too mainstream for me. I’d probably gravitate towards the high school sports channels (which are typically awesome, featuring much better commentary than anything John Madden has come up with in years). I’d own special-order throwback jerseys of underrated athletes from the ‘70s. I’d talk about athletes only in terms of how much they looked or played like other athletes, and allow their personalities to affect my views of their performance even more than I already do. I’d even have to give hockey a chance—because as we know, the best stuff nowadays comes from Canada. So I don’t think I’ll be treating sports like I do music anytime soon. Of course, my budding appreciation for Justin Timberlake (the Steve Nash of the music industry) may mean things are heading in the other direction.