A win for the fanatics

We’re all familiar with sports-as-war metaphors. I see them regularly in my day job with Packersnews.com: the “battles” between linemen “in the trenches,” the quarterback as “field general,” the NFL draft “war room.” It can be a bit much, particularly for those who have served and suffered in the real deal.

But there’s a purpose to such staged combat. Sports provide a safe outlet for our primal inclination toward periodic social conflict. Uniforms and logos establish which tribes we belong to. The winner is decided in accordance with game rules enforced by mediators, all of which is agreed to by combatants who shake hands as compatriots regardless of the outcome. We’ve satisfied our tribal and territorial impulses, with no one getting (badly) hurt.

Modern organized sports thrive off of the cohesion that has otherwise gone missing in a much of Western society. Outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty and territorial defense still matter — at least in the stands. While players play for whoever pays them, fans exhibit a devotion that, as the “fanatic” root word indicates, borders on the irrational. It’s about the hometown, the colors, the mascot. “We” define ourselves by not being “them.” It’s a tribal thing.

All of this is fairly harmless (not to mention big business) as long as people let it go at the final gun. Sure, there will always be sporadic bar fights and intra-family snubs as a few of us take the big game a little too seriously. But what happens when a sports team grows beyond a mild dalliance into tribalism, beyond geographical borders and comes to define an ethnic or racial identity? That’s the subject of “Forever Pure,” an Independent Lens documentary recently screened on PBS.

“Forever Pure” explores the unique story of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, an Israeli soccer team that is historically identified with the nation’s political right. Supported by a rabid fan base that has not only embraced but steered the team’s ideological bent, Beitar demands enthusiastic and vocal allegiance from any Likud party member with political ambitions. So it was a bombshell in Israeli sports and politics when in 2012, Beitar’s enigmatic owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signed a pair of Muslim players. Never mind that the two athletes were Chechnyan; for supporters of a team that had never signed an Arab player, the act was tantamount to treachery.

The documentary follows the football club through its turbulent 2012-13 campaign, as sports and politics intermingle to sometimes uncomfortable degrees. After a smiling, highly orchestrated public welcome to Israel, the two young Chechnyans are subjected to Jackie Robinson levels of taunts, abuse and threats from fans. Their Israeli teammates, some well-meaning and others reluctant, offer half-hearted encouragement that scoring goals and winning games will turn the crowds in their favor. But as the Israeli players begin enduring collateral damage from the stands, whatever initial lukewarm support extended to the guest Muslims fades, and all quickly sour on the experience.

Gaydamak presses on, touting motives that on the surface appear altruistic, although somewhat perplexing. He admits he has little interest in the game of soccer, or sports in general, and seems intent on conducting a massive social experiment. But as losses pile up and fan boycotts leave the team playing in a nearly empty stadium, the businessman succumbs to the bottom line and ultimately sells the club. For the Beitar faithful, purity, with all its racial and ethnic connotations, is restored.

Sports movies are notoriously sappy. If “Forever Pure” had been a scripted Hollywood feature, Beitar would’ve gelled midseason, rallying together for an improbable championship run that wins over fans. A Chechnyan Muslim would score in overtime to end the title game, and Jews and Arabs would hug in the streets. Pie-in-the-sky to be sure, but there are brief flashes in “Forever Pure” that hint at such possibilities. You want it to happen. The reality that makes that scenario impossible is an overriding political narrative that relegates the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the wealthy owner in the luxury box as secondary figures to the irrational fanatics in the stands.

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Country market

One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.

Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.

In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.

Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.

Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.

It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.

 

Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.

Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.