The Sunday Football-Related Music Post: Music as an Avocation Part 1

photo: USA Today Sports

As I noted in one of the early posts in the series, “Practice Makes Perfect,” the amount of work and dedication required to become a professional musician and to become an NFL player aren’t really compatible.

This doesn’t mean music (or any other art form) cannot be a satisfying avocation for football players, as indicated by this NPR article which came out in the week prior to the last Steelers Super Bowl appearance:

The Green Bay Packers are a slight favorite over the Pittsburgh Steelers in this Sunday’s Super Bowl. Oddsmakers and football analysts typically base their predictions on the strength of offenses, defenses, players and coaches. But Morning Edition music commentator Miles Hoffman has broken down the game differently: by weighing the musical talents of the teams and their home cities.

Annoyingly, he got it all wrong. The fact that a few guys on the Packers were taking class piano lessons has nothing to do with anything, especially when compared with Troy Polamalu, who, if his Head and Shoulders commercial is to be believed, plays the piano very well indeed:

And no, I’m quite sure that he wasn’t actually playing the piano in the commercial. But the fact that he was able to look absolutely credible indicates a fairly high level of familiarity with the instrument. Charlie Wilmoth, music theorist, composer, and editor of the Sports Blog Nation Pittsburgh Pirates site Bucs Dugouthad this to say:

Polamalu and the director deserve some credit here — the fake-playing is a lot more convincing than it really has to be.

For comparison, have a look at Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the 2003 movie based on the Patrick O’Brien book Master and Commander. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Russell Crowe starred as Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, and Paul Bettany co-starred as Dr. Stephen Maturin, Surgeon.

Aubrey and Maturin find they share a common love of music, as Maturin is keen on playing the cello and Aubrey the violin. In the movie, Bettany does a sufficiently good job that he was quite credible as a cellist, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear he actually does play the cello quite well. Crowe, on the other hand, made an effort, but it wasn’t a particularly effective one. Although he managed to get the bow and his hands at more or less the right point on the instrument at more or less the right times, it doesn’t quite sync with the soundtrack. See for yourself:

But back to the NPR article—it is naturally especially galling that the predicted outcome (a Packers win) was correct, as the methodology was so entirely flawed. Here’s what the author had to set against the world-renowned Pittsburgh Symphony, for example:

“Green Bay has its own excellent musical institutions,” Hoffman says. “It has a symphony — the Green Bay Symphony — which is 97 years old.”

I’m sorry, but the fact that an institution has persisted for 97 years doesn’t say a whole lot about its quality. After all, Sonics have been around since the early 1950s, and I don’t go there for fine dining. [Bizarre side note—the Sonic founder’s first restaurant was called Troy’s Pan Full of Chicken. There’s a mouthful…] There are a number of factors to take into account in determining the reasons for the longevity of any organization, including what I would assume would be the primary one in the case of the Green Bay Symphony—the fact that there wasn’t much of any competition.

I could go on and on (and I did, in an article titled NPR’s Shocking Attempt to Bushwhack Steeler Nation.)  It was perhaps a bit over the top, but I was pretty fired up. I admitted I found the premise intriguing, but the execution lacking:

The author begins by stating that at first glance it would appear to be no contest in favor of Pittsburgh.  Upon reading this, I found it difficult to imagine how the author could even make a case for Green Bay.  After all, Pittsburgh has an enormous range of professional ensembles, some world renowned, as well as myriad semi-professional and amateur ensembles devoted to almost everything you can imagine, from klesmer bands to civic orchestras. Naturally, there is a rich choral tradition as well, with groups specializing in everything from Bach to barbershop.  Pittsburgh boasts not one but two professional opera companies, as well as small seat-of-the-pants companies performing full-length works. If you prefer early music, Chatham Baroque is an internationally-known ensemble, and the Renaissance & Baroque Society presents the cream of the early music scene.

Pittsburgh has a rich jazz tradition and has produced some of the finest jazz artists of all times. There are at least two universities with well-regarded music schools, and a small performing arts university that has a disproportionately large number of graduates working on Broadway.  But the jewel of the Pittsburgh music scene is the Pittsburgh Symphony, which, as Hoffmann states, “is really one of the great orchestras of the world.”

The author then proceeds to enumerate the ‘excellent musical institutions’ in Green Bay, including the 97-year-old Green Bay Symphony. He does, however, rather gloss over the fact that this is somewhat like comparing, well, this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers to this year’s Carolina Panthers.  Yes, they are both football teams, staffed with professional football players, but the similarities end there.

It was a lovely piece of irony that I chose the Panthers, but they were the worst team in the league in 2010. And it is also ironic that the author of the NPR piece emphasized the longevity of the Green Bay Symphony, because they disbanded at the end of their 2014-15 season, just about a year ago.

But to return to the idea of football players having music as an avocation, it is more common than one would think. In later posts I will be featuring a few of the players around the league who take their avocations fairly seriously. But I suppose this is the correct moment to mention Le’Veon Bell’s rap “mixtape,” recently released.

Before I discuss it, I have two confessions to make. First of all, rap is a genre about which I know essentially nothing. Frankly, I want to keep it this way, because with few exceptions the lyrics are not what I would consider to be edifying. Second, I was planning to talk about Le’Veon’s mixtape without listening to it, as the review I read seemed sufficient to assure me that a) the lyrics are no more edifying than the general run of rap lyrics, and b) as a rap artist, Bell is an excellent running back. But I couldn’t live with myself, and so I have listened to at least some of each track. I’ll give my thoughts, for what they are worth, as I’m certainly not qualified to speak knowledgeably about the genre.

But first, here are selected bits of the review, written for pennlive.com by former music critic Erik van Rheenan, someone who, unlike me, presumably knows what he’s talking about:

…you can definitely tell it’s a debut album. … The best thing I can say is he rhymes on the beat. It’s very evident that this is his first time really rapping and releasing it to the public. It’s also really clear he listens to a lot of Future. But he’s definitely influenced by the dirty south, a lot of trap beats. He does a lot of autotune on his voice, which is probably a good thing.

…[in his lyrics] it’s personal in that he’s the greatest and he wants everyone to know it. A lot of the songs are about his team and how much money he makes or women he gets.

[In response to Bell’s claim that the lyrics are freestyled] A lot of it does sound freestyled … a lot of the lyrics feel like they might be spur of the moment.

[Asked about Bell’s choice of rap name—”Juice”] Someone should let the poor guy know that Juice is taken by a running back who went to court for murder and probably isn’t the best rap name because when I see Juice I think OJ Simpson.

There’s lots more in the article if you’re interested, but although the critic doesn’t think it’s the worst album ever put out by an athlete by any means, I wouldn’t say he was overwhelmingly positive, either. But maybe that’s the way rap is critiqued…

Now for my thoughts. First, I admire the amount of time and effort and love he clearly put into this project. I just wish he had chosen a greater variety of subject matter.

Track 1: The One. Focused, as you can guess from the title, on the greatness of the artist as a football player. He’s planning, apparently, on getting paid. Musically it was pretty uninteresting to my untrained ear. Although there was more melody than I expected, the melody had a smaller range and less interest than Gregorian chant. Which also makes it less suitable as music for, say, bath time.

Track 2: The Ghost. The introduction gave me the fleeting impression that this was going to be a bit more interesting, but I came back to the same criticism as the first song—it’s monotonous, really—same subject matter, three-note melody. The other odd thing to me is that, so far, I can’t figure out what his voice really sounds like. Maybe that’s the effect of the Autotune mentioned by the reviewer above, in conjunction with a heavy layering of sound effects.

Track 3: Barz. I have no idea what “Barz” are, although apparently they need to be hot. It was a more interesting song than the first two. The tempo was upped on this song, and as a result there were a few places that didn’t entirely sync, unlike the first two, which felt very true to the beat. Perhaps it was artistic license, but you can’t play with the rhythm until you’ve got it in the first place.

Track 5: Come Back 2 Me: Perhaps the most interesting track on the album that didn’t feature other artists prominently. I liked the octave higher echo, and it felt authentic, somehow.

Track 9: First Flight. I found to my surprise I quite liked this one. The guitar lick it was based around was appealing, the first rapper (DJ Madd Rich, apparently) was clearly proficient. It was also fun in that it was based on Bell’s feelings as he went to the Combine (lyrics thanks to pit.24/7.sports)

The combine, I had to go there and kill it, and so I did. Just to show some people I was still the realist. And all my dreams, was right there, I could feel it. Like a director in a movie cast I was just reeling. It felt fishy, as I was in my stance, looking up at all the coaches thinking, ‘Is this my chance?’ As I look back, and I look back at the crowd, all those doubters that was looking, they can look at me now …Shout out to the Steelers…”

Time to move on. I can’t pretend to be a rap critic any longer. I hope the review was not too negative, as Bell tweeted last week:

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I believe it was in response to those who felt he was wasting his time with music, a sentiment I certainly wouldn’t agree with. Whether I think he should be putting the product out there just yet or not, I don’t ever see music as a waste of time.

But were he to ask me for a private meeting, I would definitely be interested in talking with him about music, and maybe i could suggest some other ideas and themes. I would also commend him for the follow-through. One of the reasons given for the superiority of the Green Bay Packers in the NPR article linked above was this:

There’s [quarterback] Aaron Rodgers, who also plays the guitar and is very interested in music theory. He has his own record label, so he’s really into music.

Sorry, Mr. Hoffman, Aaron Rodgers may have his own record label, but I defy you to find a recording Aaron Rodgers has any involvement in as a musician. His label is called Suspended Sunrise Recordings, and the label has signed one (or perhaps two) bands (back in 2011 they signed a band called “The Make”). The label has released a single recording. If you go to their official website, the “Artists” page features lists a single artist, a band called Kiev.

I think Le’Veon wins the “walk the walk” award on this one…

Check back next week for a true professional…

 

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