Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

How Sports And Indie Rock Finally Fell In Love

Illustration for article titled How Sports And Indie Rock Finally Fell In Love

Kurt Cobain often spoke of being terrorized by jocks in high school, as if to certify his poetic loserdom. These days, anyone with a camera handy at Lollapalooza or Pitchfork can create his very own hipster version of Straight Cash Homey. What happened in between? Duh, the Internet. What ever happens to anyone these days?


The Black Keys are always good for a quote about LeBron. Times New Viking, too. Animal Collective's Panda Bear played hoops in high school, and would rather watch an NCAA game than talk to some interviewers. Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, digs Caron Butler; Chan Marshall is a huge Ben Wallace fan. Stephen Malkmus is interviewed about his fantasy teams. Matador's Gerard Cosloy founded Can't Stop the Bleeding. Win Butler of Arcade Fire may be a basketball thief. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart read my book.

Sports and indie rock, once considered such strange bed-partners, now knock the boots in perfect harmony, all because we got just enough incriminating pictures of them together. They were forced to marry, and they gave us a two-headed baby who was gladly accepted as the new human race. When you see a picture, it just breaks your heart in all the right ways.

The goofy part is that there's really nothing new here. Back in the '90s, Malkmus used to talk about sports on stage, as did Polvo's Dave Brylawski (who also famously taunted Shaq from the stage when he happened into one of their early live shows). Except all this was ephemeral, maybe apocryphal, and impossible to return to again and again. No way was it passed around the community as a hint that it was all right to smile. This effect wasn't confined to live shows. Zines, and magazines like Spin whose archives didn't quite make it into the digital age, are full of information that might have launched the indie/sports trend — one that seemingly defies every single social norm that punk sought to uphold, whether or not Greg Ginn always brought a basketball with him on tour.

Long-lost print told us that Malkmus and David Berman became friends when they realized no one else at the UVA radio station liked sports; that's how the Silver Jews got started. Pavement once told Spin about their trip to a Rangers game to learn something about hockey; Berman went on to become a die-hard Tennessee Titans fan without the slightest hint of irony. When the Beastie Boys came through town, they would often play pick-up ball with local musicians. Royal Trux watched Super Bowl XXXV with Timothy Leary, and while he didn't recall it when I interviewed him, Trux-ster Neil Michael Hagerty talked about watching NBA games on mute with Ornette Coleman turned up loud. Labradford was named after LaBradford Smith, for god's sake.

Undoubtedly there's more than just this list; we had to wrack our brains for a good 15 minutes to come up with these, and then started talking about something else. But it's strange that none of this took hold with audiences until they had the power to stare at it again and again on a computer. Then they were forced to resolve, or accept, the contradiction. Before, these moments of sport could be dismissed as wry or merely random; it's easy to do that with traces and memories. The Internet, though, is never dead; it's just sleeping, waiting, and giddy to register keywords. And in this case, it's made sports cool without even meaning to.

The funny thing? It's also opened up the meaning of indie rock. The soaring instrumentals of Explosions in the Sky have been used in Friday Night Lights and The Street Stops Here. While Explosions had frequently, facilely been classified as "post-rock," their Friday Nights breakout -– an even more unusual scenario than the car commercials that have taken the place of albums sales –- highlighted all that was moving and pastoral about their music. It took them from rock-without-words to postmodern Aaron Copland. The climax to Street Stops Here makes a case for booming, ethereal guitar soundscapes as our era's answer to the Wagnerian epics of NFL Films, or Tesh's studio-tastic fanfare for the NBA on NBC — that is, the standard-bearer for pitched emotion and action in sports soundtracking. That, and not disputing the gospel of Kurt Cobain, is the real reason to be excited about this trend. Reaching across the aisle works both ways — when you find out that Matt Bonner reads Gorilla Vs. Bear, you know that change is underfoot. Just please don't bring up Paul Shirley.


Bethlehem Shoals, a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse, is a founding member of, whose Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be published by Bloomsbury, USA in November. David Wingo is the heart and soul of Ola Podrida, whose latest release is Belly of the Lion.