Music Is Vital to the Sports Fan Experience, But Which Traditions Are Worth Keeping Around?

Sports and music have long been closely intertwined, since before the Boston Red Sox sang about their love for beer, before the Shaq-Kobe rap battle, even before the Super Bowl Shuffle. Nowhere is that relationship more evident than at the games themselves, where audio entertainment is a core part of the fan experience, sometimes moreso than the action on the field or court (especially if we’re talking about a Cubs game).

Depending on what kind of game you’re attending, you’ll encounter any number of musical traditions along with those overpriced chicken finger baskets. Not all of these sounds are welcome; here are the 12 I’ve encountered most often, from my least favorite on up.

Note: I’ve omitted national anthems and “America the Beautiful” not because I’m (heaven forbid!) unpatriotic, but because they’re not really unique to sports. Plus I didn’t trust myself to avoid making a snide comment about how the Miami Heat used a 12-year-old singer as a good luck charm during last year’s playoffs.

12. Canned music while the ball is in play. You know when, during an NBA game, they sometimes play music in between possessions, as one team is dribbling the ball back up the court? Like, it will be a quick burst of hip-hop to keep you amused during the short amount of time that the ball might not be directly near the hoop. Like everything at an NBA game (and at most pro events, but especially NBA games), it’s done with the expectation that fans are all little kids who need to be amused every second, or they will fall asleep. If I sound insulted, it’s because I am.

11. Jock jams. Before there was 2 Chainz, there was 2 Unlimited – the king of the electronic dance hits that dominate stadiums everywhere: “Get Ready 4 This”, “Twilight Zone”, “Workaholic”. Some other “Jock Jam” classics, which can hit you at any point during a game: “Rock and Roll Part 2” (Gary Glitter), “Pump Up The Jam” (Technotronic), “Gonna Make You Sweat” (C&C Music Factory), “The Power” (Snap). Yes, these songs are still in heavy rotation, and Dan Cortese is the only guy who’s still happy about that. It’s time for the dream to end, Dan.

10. Halftime shows. Fine, Beyonce’s performance at last year’s Super Bowl was pretty good. And Prince’s was legendary. But most of the overly manufactured spectacles, with a bunch of self-conscious fans doing choreographed moves in the middle of the field, do nothing for me. As for lower-profile sporting events, I’d much rather see a bunch of kids playing a quick game, or even some unathletic guy in loafers launching a prayer from half court with the hope of winning a $50 gift certificate to the Cheesecake Factory. One exception: What the Ohio State band is doing this year is pretty darned cool.

9. Pre-game montages/pump-up music. It was cool when the Bulls started doing the whole “turn the lights out, play inspirational music (“Sirius” by the Allan Parsons Project) and introduce your players like they’re all All-Stars” thing. It was less cool when every NBA team, even those with exactly zero all-stars, began following suit. Now it’s gotten out of hand – the trend has extended across all sports, typically accompanied by a video montage of that team’s best moments.

Sometimes it works OK (the 2013 Boston Red Sox lucked into Drake’s “Started From the Bottom”, a near-perfect soundtrack for their worst-to-first championship run), sometimes it’s a little embarrassing (the LA Angels have Train’s “Calling All Angels”) and sometimes it’s straight-up absurd. Did you know that every college basketball team has its own music montage video that plays before every game? I don’t actually know if it’s every team, but if Holy Cross has one, I assume the trend has hit pretty much every corner of the NCAA. I can’t find the video, but rest assured that it includes the word “swag”. The Crusaders went 12-18 last year.

8. Pro team theme songs (co-opted version). College sports fans are lucky; there’s already a built-in theme song for their team that they can rally around (we’ll get to that). Pro teams have to get a little creative, sometimes with great results. The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates struck gold with The Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family”; in 1997, the Red Sox latched onto The Standells’ garage rock classic, “Dirty Water”, and it’s now become an unofficial victory song. The New York Yankees have been playing “New York, New York” after games for years, either the Frank Sinatra version (win) or Liza Minnelli (loss).

But not all applications of popular music are quite as successful. Or I should say, sometimes they’re too successful and become way overplayed. The Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” became a thing with the Red Sox around 2007, and we can’t seem to get rid of it (or “Tessie”, the Murphys’ version of an old Sox theme song). Chicago residents heard The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger” so many times during Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs in recent years, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired some cases of Robert Schumann-style insanity. The use of “Don’t Stop Believin’” for the 2005 White Sox was no less ubiquitous, though at least it made some sense, as Chicago fans regularly have to be talked off the ledge/reminded that the White Sox exist.

7. Pro team theme songs (actually about the team). Now, these are typically safer bets. I’m talking classic theme songs created just for the team they’re supporting: “Meet the Mets”, “Go Go White Sox”, “Go Cubs Go”, “Here Come the Yankees”, “OK Blue Jays” (“Hail to the Redskins” is a notable exception, which pulls off the amazing feat of actually making the team’s nickname more offensive). The more recent trend is for hip-hop artists to create songs for their home teams; many of them appear to be modeled after Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” which isn’t explicitly about the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it kind of is. These have the potential to bring down this category a bit, but we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for now.

6. Between-inning traditions. The 7th-inning stretch in baseball is prime time for music to shine. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is the classic, with the Wrigley Field tradition of inviting a visiting luminary to lead the sing-a-long leading the pack. But it’s not the only one: The Red Sox have “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the 8th inning, which has gone from being a fun thing to a cloying tradition (the change probably happened around the time that Sweet Caroline’s Restaurant & Bar opened on nearby Boylston Street). The Yankees have “Y.M.C.A.” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe”. The Brewers have “Beer Barrel Polka” for their famous sausage race, which is pretty hard to hate.

5. Organ music. This could probably be combined with several others on the list (there’s actually a whole album dedicated to Stadium Organ Jock Jams), but the organ sound deserves its own spot, because it’s really a shock that it still exists at all. Everything sounds old-timey on an organ, whether it’s the classic “Charge!” or “Shave and a Haircut”, or something more contemporary. It reminds us how long these games have been going on, and is one more invitation to compare stadiums to cathedrals and sports to religion, which is always a reliable broadcaster trick. Plus, I really like the word “vamp”.

4. Fan chants. I assume that if I were a real soccer fan, this would be higher up on the list. But the version that trickles down to other sports isn’t quite as impressive, and often could barely classify as “music”. I should know, having sat through a few sad, cowbell-led chants of “Go Blue” during a recent college football game. Still, you have to respect anything that relies on a large quantity of drunk people working together to come up with some kind of coherent sound – even if that sound is just “Ole” (but not if it’s the “Tomahawk Chop”). Maybe one day I’ll move to Portland or Seattle, and they can teach me their ways.

3. College bands performing popular music. If there’s anything better than an organ pumping out recent hits, it’s a group of awkward college kids busting through “Crazy In Love“ on trumpet, tuba, clarinet and drums (extra points if the band has a guitarist and an overzealous conductor). It always takes about ten seconds or so to figure out what song it is that they’re actually playing, and I like to think about the process it took to get there. Yeah, “Wrecking Ball” would sound great on horns!

2. Fight songs. Of course, there’s nothing better at a college game than when the band plays the fight song, because all fans think their school’s fight song is the absolute best. It doesn’t matter where you went, and how bad your teams are playing. When you hear the song, you will sing along or at least do the requisite fist pumps. It’s always the first thing I’m ready for when my team scores, and the first thing I brace for when an opposing team scores (which is often against my alma mater, Northwestern). What more can you ask for?

1. At-bat/entrance music. As good as some of the others are, I firmly believe nothing can overtake the baseball tradition of playing a snippet of different music as each batter strides to the plate (or, in some cases, when a pitcher heads out to the mount). While we’d all love to have our own theme music that accompanies us on entering any room (or at least I would), baseball players, pro wrestlers, boxers and presidents are the only people who really get to live this dream (and the last three have way tougher jobs).

At-bat music (which, by the way, my dad just learned about during this year’s playoffs) pumps up the fans and, ideally, the player, if he hasn’t gotten sick of hearing it yet. It creates anticipation and sets the stage for whatever might happen next, good or bad. It can also tell you a lot about the player himself, based on what he chooses.

This year’s most memorable came from Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino; his choice of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” took Fenway Park by storm. Fans could be heard singing the chorus “every little thing’s gonna be all right” each time he came to bat – an apt message for a team that struggled with low expectations all year. Victorino, a native Hawaiian, regularly chooses Marley songs, which gives you some insight into his frame of mind. Other recent, appropriate choices from my hometown team: Eazy-E’s “Real Muthaphuckin G’s” (Dustin Pedroia, who plays like an angry kid with something to prove); Europe’s “Final Countdown”, (Manny Ramirez, who probably didn’t choose it himself, but who is definitely the Gob Bluth of Major League Baseball); and whatever Nickelback song Josh Beckett used to enter to. It’s no wonder he was run out of town.

I’ve obviously thought long and hard about what my entrance music might be, since there’s a serious chance I could be called up at any moment. Many choices have come and gone, but I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on James Brown’s “I Got the Feeling”, At least until the next 2 Unlimited single drops.