November 20, 2013

CARGAS | The World Cup of Pop

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A national hero loses his cool in the final of the world’s most high-stakes sports tournament. It is in the last game of his career, in the dying seconds of a dramatic face-off with sporting and historical rival Italy, losing the World Cup once again for his nation. Many countries would vilify said star. The French erected a 20-foot bronze statue and wrote a chart-topping satirical song about the incident. Soccer star and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane famously earned a red card for a rather unexpected headbutt in the dying minutes of overtime during the final of the 2006 World Cup. “Coup de Boule,” France’s musical response to the event, commemorates the action and team’s subsequent penalty kick defeat. More than that, though, it commemorates the collective disappointment so deeply felt by French fans through satire and a joyous celebration of the “headbutt dance.” And that’s not to mention the video, a montage of tricolored Frenchmen cheering on their national embarrassment.

The song was written and recorded by a pair of brothers in half an hour the day following the final — just enough time for the crushing disappointment to turn into resignation and, apparently, creative energy. It’s unsurprising that sport inspires such artistic passion and soccer, due largely to its global appeal and capacity for cross-cultural connection, has spawned the greatest variety. A mix of national pride, team devotion and the marketing machine set in place by FIFA and its corporate partners has led everyone from Weezer to Youssou N’Dour to compose soccer — and more specifically, World Cup — anthems. A fairly recent phenomenon, the proliferation of these songs has led to, shall we say, a huge range of quality. Until recently, the majority of corporate-sponsored songs fell well short of the mark. Meanwhile, the music generated by fans’ sheer emotional reaction, like “Coup de Boule,” was far, well, better. In the last four years, however, this trend has changed.

It all started with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Prior to 2010, the songs shoved down fans’ proverbial vuvuzelas by incessant Adidas and Coca-Cola bordered on intolerable. As much as we may try, it’s hard to forget Ricky Martin’s “The Cup of Life,” the official song of the 1998 World Cup, which is less “music” and more “five minutes of chanted inspirational platitudes.” (Martin seems to endlessly demand whether we “really want it.” The answer has remained, for the last 15 years, a re­sounding “no.”) The 2006 equivalent featured the whiny pairing of Il Divo and Toni Braxton in “Time of Our Lives,” a track that was luckily forgotten within seconds of Italy lifting the trophy. At this time, these songs faltered beside tracks like England’s satiric “Vindaloo” (“Where on earth are you from? / Do you put the kettle on?”) and even Weezers cheesy-as-hell “Repre­sent.”

But in 2010, FIFA seemed to figure it out. The transformation began with “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa),” the infectious track that was truly unavoidable for the months leading up to, during and after the World Cup. A collaboration between Shakira and South African band Freshlyground, “Waka Waka” debuted at No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and remains the seventh most-watched video on YouTube. While the song was met with some criticism from fans claiming it should have been sung by a South African artist, FIFA clearly didn’t care. It had finally stumbled upon the magic formula. “Waka Waka” represents everything FIFA wishes it stood for: global unity and the “melting pot” of international sport. New York Magazine called the song “a perfeclty innocuous bit of inspiration pop” that “would be identified by a majority of Western-pop-reared individuals as ‘world music.’”

The French immortalize their fallen heroes in bronze, while the English wallow in their collective heartbreak, but FIFA doesn’t give two shits about artistic expression. And when it comes to World Cup music, neither do we. In anticipation of the tournament, fans don’t want a reminder of past failure or the improbability that the U.S. will ever make it past the quarterfinals. We’d rather watch Shakira gyrate in a grass skirt to beats that sound vaguely multicultural. 2014 is coming, and whether we get Joao Gilberto or Miley Cyrus, we can rest assured that we’ll download the song, memorize the lyrics and make FIFA even more money that they don’t actually need.