Can ritual and tradition be handed down from on high, or do they need to develop organically? Or, rather, is one route better than the other?
As everyone interested in Nashville SC knows, last week the team released the “Official Anthem” of the Nashville Soccer Club, a song by local band Judah & the Lion. While there has been a bit of back and forth over the song itself as an anthem on social media (I happen to think it will work very well), there has been less talk—although certainly some—about the meaning of a club releasing an “official anthem”, even given that some supporters were called in to give feedback during its production. And that’s what I’m interested in discussing here, with some help from Davey Shepherd.
The answer to the question with which I began this column is obviously that both things are true. In a sense, the original of a ritual or tradition matters less than how it is put to use. Believe me, as a Chelsea fan, I know the way a goofy song created by the club itself can be put to good use by the fans as part of a ritual. For those who do not know the story, in 1972, Chelsea was going to face Stoke City in the League Cup final. As part of the celebration of what was then a rare honor for Chelsea, the club released a song, “Blue is the Color,” with the squad members themselves singing it. On the surface, it is a ridiculous song that sounds like something your great grandfather may have listened to on an old radio when he was a boy. (If you've never heard the original recording, you deserve to, as it makes NSC's anthem sound like opera in comparison). Nonetheless, it’s become a great bit of fun to sing at the games or in pubs while watching the game. Our local Chelsea chapter delights in warbling our way through it at the end of every televised match.
So, I get it. It can work. Nonetheless, I want to make a case against NSC pushing out “ritual,” “tradition,” and “official anthems.” At least for now. And Davey, who disagrees with me on this, will provide a rejoinder.
Sloop: Organic traditions are affectively more meaningful. That is, when a ritual comes forth from the crowd, it has happened for reasons that are specific and meaningful to the fan base. Affections do not need to be attached to the ritual; they emerge from it. Returning to Chelsea (who else) for a moment, one of the more ridiculous and fun songs that we sing is called “Ten Men Went to Mow a Meadow.” The song is originally a nursery rhyme. At games and in pubs now, people sing the song, and there is a tiny bit about Chelsea added to the very end. Otherwise, the song is a count-up song about ten men and a dog named Spot mowing a meadow. That’s it. The song originated in the 1980s when superfan Mick Greenway was driving to Sweden with some friends for a Chelsea game and discovered that the only cassette he had was one of child’s nursery rhymes. They played it, sang it the whole time, then brought it to the crowds. What could be more fun or spontaneous than that?
Shepherd: So first, I hear your point and would even be willing to cede that it’s probably right in a lot of circumstances. I just don’t think that it has to be the truth. You’re a reformed Timbers fan, Sloop. While Timber Jim may have started organically, it was an executive who agreed “Hey man, it would be pretty cool if you sawed a slab off every time we scored a goal”. That’s a meaningful tradition that wouldn’t be taking place without some corporate suit giving it his blessing.
Back to your Chelsea example. We both agree that “Liquidator” by the Harry J Allstars is probably the most beautiful thing Chelsea does, and the best walk up song around. It developed semi-organically much like YNWA. It was a pop hit in its day, and a PA guy said “Man, the fans liked that. Let’s play it again next week” and so on. So, let’s call that 50/50. Now, what have the fans gone and done? Absolutely ruined it by replacing the three claps with “We Hate Tottenham”, regardless of the opponent. I know you agree with me that the obsession with a team that already has a true rival is the worst part of Chelsea fandom. So my great counterpoint would be: sure, they can be more meaningful, but Organic ≠ Good and Corporate ≠ Bad. There is nuance to this.
Sloop: “Official anthems” and top down rituals make for a passive fanbase. One of the things I first loved about soccer was the fact that there are no “training wheels” for the fans. No songs during the game, no pleas for audiences to make noise, etc. The fans are supposed to do it on their own. And they do. When the work is done for fans, when songs are given to them, rituals dictated, they quit doing it on their own. Learned helplessness and all.
Shepherd: Again, I suppose this could be true. I don’t have an example of it, but I don’t see any reason that it has to be. There is absolutely nothing encumbering the fans from forming firm traditions (and there hasn’t been for two years). I agree that these things take time, and I think we have people working hard at it and making progress at developing strong SGs and building out from there. The work that The Backline has done in a very short amount of time is tremendous. Hell, the name “The Backline” came from a guy on Reddit who said “The names you are trying to pick for us suck. Let’s do this instead.” So again, while it could be true, it doesn’t have to be, and it’s up to the fans for it not to be.
Sloop: This one is a little bit hard to express, but I’ll do my best. The relationship between the supporters groups and the club itself should be one with good communication but always a slight uneasy alliance. That is, supporters groups need to be independent enough from the club that they can express displeasure at times over all manner of things (e.g., ticket prices, rules about what can be on signs). If the Supporters Group seems dictated by the club (i.e., “Here are your songs,” “Here is where you stand,” “Here is what you say”), the link between the two allows for less independence. While I wouldn’t want to put all of that on an “official anthem,” it is a step in that direction.
Shepherd: So I’ve never been an active member of an SG and really don’t have a plan to. I think they’re delightful, but it’s just not for me. So I’ll admittedly just fold here and defer to your expertise as someone who only started watching the game because you liked the SG experience so much. That being said, I’ll just use examples of other local sports to make an addendum to your point. During the 2018 season the Titans game day experience team decided that they were going to rip off the famed Panthers “Keep Pounding” drum and come out during the second quarter TV time out with the “Titan Up” drum. It was at that time the biggest flop I’ve ever seen at a sporting event. People simply wouldn’t participate. A lot of people just laughed at how bad it was, and eventually the opposing fans (who always travel well to Nissan) would just boo their brains out. They stopped doing it that same season and it hasn’t been seen since.
Likewise, earlier this season the Predators decided they were going to record a new Power Play song with a famous local recording artist (sound familiar?). The problem being they were placing arguably Preds fans favorite PA song “Party Up” by DMX to do so. The result was an absolutely dead atmosphere where no one even cheered that the team was about to go on the power play. There were audible groans from my section. The team put out a PR statement about why the song was great, and “uniquely Nashville” and why it would be staying. A few more weeks of no one cheering for their team going on the man advantage and it was gone. Back to DMX.
All of that to say, while I admit I don’t have enough expertise to disagree with your point, I think this is the perfect example of when fans can show that it’s right. If they don’t like it, they shouldn’t sing “the forced ritual” and when it sounds bad the club will undoubtedly stop using it. But, and I think you agree with me, if people just go along and do sing it, I think it will actually sound just fine and go on to be something that means quite a bit to people. From my view the power is still in the hands of the people.
We would love to hear your thoughts on this. Just how close should the relationship between The Backline (and supporters in general) and the NSC front office be? Let us know on Twitter.