by carl wilson

Radical Cheerleaders Exposed! (musically speaking)

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The past week's interruption in service was most unplanned. I was at the Victoriaville new-music festival in Quebec and planned in fact to blog from there, but tedious Internet access issues stymied me. (If you've emailed me lately, I haven't seen that either. I'll try to catch up asap.) The festival was fantastique, but I've got to file official copy about same in the A.M. so can't blah blah on about it now. (One little critic-nerd thrill was to meet Byron Coley in person - I was outright shocked how nice he seemed, tho' not surprised he was very funny. A divisive figure, I know, but he's got game you can't shrug off.)

Anyway in the meanwhile my online readers have missed this week's Overtones, and while you might not be all broken up over that, brothers and sisters, frankly I am - it was a pretty good one, on cheerleader music, a genre that you've really really really gotta hear to believe. Our MC for the duration, much to my own surprise, is one Gwen Stefani, whose Hollaback Girl is a single whose cheer-trax-derived pom-pom power just will not be denied. This way to the cheer squad's dressing room. [...]

Gimme a G-W-E-N! Wha'd'ya got?

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, May 21, 2005

The pop star in prime trim is like the top athlete who moves into position to block the ball before it's even thrown: She has a bead on all the bundles of raw social nerves hurtling through the cultural ether.

Gwen Stefani, the bottle-blond No Doubt singer with the supernova solo career, seems to be in just such a clairvoyant phase. Witness how her firecracker cheerleading-themed single Hollaback Girl (from six-month-old album Love.Angel.Music.Baby) landed atop the charts at the very moment the Texas legislature was attracting ridicule for proposing to censure high-school cheerleading squads who put too much sugar in their shimmy, whose chakalaka has too much boom-boom.

The initiative, instantly dubbed the Cheerleader Booty Bill, was introduced by Representative Al Edwards, a black Democrat who blames lascivious cheer routines for fostering teen pregnancy and AIDS. When the bill passed the first vote, Hollaback Girl was hot, ready and waiting to kick up its high-top boots with an unladylike comeuppance: "This shit is bananas/ B-A-N-A-N-A-S!"

And so a snotty rip on schoolyard gossip was catapulted into the status of culture-war salvo. Sure, the bill never was likely to pass the Texas senate. But the California girl in the blue-state short shorts helped make the Lone Star legislators look all the more like the bouncing butts of this joke.

Pause before running any old standby liberal vs. conservative analysis. Remember, this beef is about cheerleading -- the sacrosanct domain of either apple-cheeked spirit boosters or conformist "Plastics" beeyatches, depending which stereotype you subscribe to. Yet here the moralist politician was scowling at America's sweethearts, while the rock-steady rebel was peppering performances with cheer moves by her ever-present Japanese-schoolgirl retinue, backed by a mini-marching band. Who flipped this script?

Backdrop: While varsity-yell leaders date to the 1880s, the full-bloomed pom-pom girl emerges only in the early 1960s. The hotsy aspect Rep. Edwards decries was groomed in his own state, where the Dallas Cowboys introduced showgirl-style dance-cheerleading in the 1970s - a decade that, not coincidentally, saw porn cheerleader character Debbie "doing" Dallas. So far, so retro.

But on the way to the end of the century, feminism actually infected cheering; young women began to regard themselves as more than boy jocks' helpmeets. Human pyramids climbed higher, flips became more flamboyant and tumbles more tumultuous, and the activity began to aspire to the condition of sport. This new hybrid of dance and acrobatics established its own competitions, broadcast on cable, and was bandied about as a potential Olympic event.

All of this may be familiar territory, especially if you saw 2000's Bring It On, featuring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union facing off over cheerleading choreography in what must be the most winsome treatise on race-cultural appropriation in America ever. But you might not have noticed the soundtrack, which demonstrated how cheerleading has also spawned its own genre of music -- and one that is utterly B-A-N-A-N-A-S, far more than even Hollaback Girl herself.

Music tends to get weirder when it's made for applications other than plain listening. Dance is the obvious case, but cheerleading's rapid sequences of steps, gymnastics and crowd teases demand special punctuation beyond the power of any single dance track. Cheer music crams into the space of a few minutes a series of teen-pop hits sped up to chipmunk pitch or slowed down and puréed with snatches of film dialogue, handclaps, foot stomps, bomb blasts, squeals, retro eighties samples for the coach (top groaner: Culture Club's I'll Tumble for Ya), metal riffs, supersonic whistles, inspirational platitudes and techno beats, cranked to the max.

Translation: Cheer music is spontaneously generated vernacular "mash-up" gone wild, without all the music-nerd pretensions.

It often samples from Miami booty bass, the early 1990s electro-hip-hop style that was doggedly fixated on rump-shaking and died out after the prosecution on obscenity charges of its one breakthrough act, Two Live Crew. In fact, cheer may be the only American music to rival the similarly booty-bass-based Brazilian favela funk in its chaotic absurdist hyperdrive, though the squads succumb to clichéd sources too much to hit Rio funk's unpredictable heights.

The mixes can be by the sweater girls themselves, by DJ-wannabe classmates and admirers, or purchased from all-cheer studios such as London, Ont.'s Music4U, or Pennsylvania's Cheerleading Music, which did the cuckoo-for-coconuts Bring It On themes (sample at http://www.cheerleadingmusic.com).

Their effects are almost as disorienting as New York avant-garde jazz composer John Zorn's "games pieces," elaborate structures to force musicians to jump from style to style as if in a Bugs Bunny cartoon score. Cheer music reaches the same point by sheer competitive will-to-giddiness: It's that rare underground-music form free of countercultural self-consciousness.

In the southern U.S., it evolved in parallel with the hip-hop style now known as crunk, which is mostly bass, synth and exhortation. (Or maybe crunk draws on cheer?) It has also cross-pollinated with the lesser-known southern tradition of African-American high-school marching-band music, which now trades rhythms with rap (see the not-so-scintillating Drumline) and is supplying flute, horn and drum sounds to hip-hop by acclaimed producer David Banner and the "chopped and screwed" remix scene that's based -- to come full circle -- in Texas.

Drill in to any morality morass in the U.S. today, it seems, and it won't take long to hit hip-hop culture: It's what's for supper, the racial, sexual and generational fact America finds hardest to swallow. For one thing, the girl next door is shaking her tail feather to a willful new beat, and past stereotypes - virgin, bitch or whore - need not apply. The kids catch the bug from TV and propagate it in the gym. But exactly what it is bringing on, no red- or blue-stater yet can know.

That goes for Gwen Stefani, too. (When I first heard the song, I thought she was singing, "I ain't no Harlem black girl!") But she remains a winning figure for running with the instinct that this cultural backflip is something to cheer about. In fact, it makes her wanna holla.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 24 at 11:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

COMMENTS

Having recovered my notebook I see I only jotted down that he said their music was "radiant." When he saw them in Sweden and thought they were Swedish, he thought, "Uh-oh, America is falling behind!" He also said that he thought about wearing his Wolf Eyes t-shirt for his sextet performance, "but that would turn it into a spectacle."

Posted by Zoilus on June 2, 2005 3:33 PM

 

 

I did indeed, Sean - see this weekend's column for details.

As for the quote from Mr. Braxton - frankly, it's almost impossible to imagine him saying a sentence like that, in those words ("best" "band" "decade"). I lost my notebook at the Boredoms show (damn 2-for-1 drink specials!) but I think what he said is something like that their vibrational energies are expansive and that he had much to learn from them, and that his friends now call him "Anthony 'Wolf Eyes' Braxton," so that's close enough.

Posted by Zoilus on May 26, 2005 12:56 PM

 

 

So did you get to witness Antony Braxton play with Wolf Eyes then? Is it true that Braxton called them the most important band on the past decade?

I made my first Victoriaville visit this year, although only for the final night's Bordeoms performance. Didn't see Mr. Coley there, but he's always been very nice to deal with whenever I have.

Posted by Sean on May 26, 2005 12:54 AM

 

 

Luv-ed the cheerleader piece this past weekend BTW...lots of fun. I've maintained a cynical aversion to such cultural side lines, but that was a very hearty read indeed.

Posted by Phil on May 25, 2005 12:13 PM

 

 

The fogey that I am, I too was thrilled when meeting Sir Coley in the early nineties. Terribly nice fellow. I trust the same can be said of most of his ilk. Seems brash criticism is a cover for a sensitivity betrayed in a face to face encounter. Sir Greg Tate is also much like teddy bear with dreads, I believe he even blushed when I gushed in his general direction back in the summer of '88.

Wish the same could be said for me. I pretty much wear on my sleeve. Pompous ass in print and in person...Sigh...

What was Coley attending when you saw him?

Posted by Phil on May 25, 2005 11:22 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson