Researcher’s interactive website asks: What is the sound of sport?

The sound of sports has always been more than just the cheers and jeers of the crowd, but defining that soundtrack is more of a challenge.

Is it the combined sound of smooth jazz and skateboards gliding across the grooves of a sidewalk, or the squeaking sound of tennis shoes on the basketball court against a jock jam? Is it sizzling salsa played at a soccer game, the national anthem on the Olympics podium, Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl?

Perhaps it is thousands of Ducks fans dancing and singing along to “Shout” at Autzen Stadium.

It is all of those things, say researchers Courtney Cox, UO assistant professor for indigenous, race and ethnic studies, and Perry Johnson, research fellow and music scholar at the University of Southern California, who pose that question at their newly launched interactive website The Sound of Victory, a culmination of five years of research into what sports sound like and how that intersection can lead to larger questions surrounding identity, representation and belonging.

“Music is so intertwined in our everyday lives that we don’t even think about it, and it is intrinsically intertwined with sports in a way that evokes emotions and memories, even cues us to certain brands,” Cox said.

It all began in Venice Beach, California, when the two were graduate students at USC. Observing athletes performing on the boardwalk to their own beats and jams, Cox, with a background as a sports journalist, and Johnson, with her background in music, began to discuss how the two were interconnected.

From the California sound — fast-paced, upbeat music associated with surfing — and the NFL’s Super Bowl to warmup playlists or the seventh-inning singalongs in Major League Baseball, it sparked their research into how the integration of music in sport has become synonymous with the experience of sport itself.

“One of us would watch a music video and see sport and music and share it with the other,” Cox said. “And as our theoretical interests aligned we also started seeing how culture is constantly moving through music and sports together, and that really fueled it, starting with the national anthem.”

Even before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the U.S., “The Star Spangled Banner” at sporting events has been controversial. Cox and Johnson started thinking about it in terms of citizenship, belonging and the backlash when liberties are taken by those performing the anthem.

For example, questions over whether Jose Feliciano was “American” enough to perform it in 1968, Whitney Houston’s rousing commodified rendition that became a hit single in 1991 and Roseanne Barr’s mangling, crotch-grabbing spectacle in 1990.

Those and other questions focusing on the national anthem became their first foray into research in the form of an immersive interactive multimedia exhibit at an academic conference.

“We were thinking about it in a very millennial way,” Cox said. “We thought, what if we put a bunch of anthem performances together in an old school, MTV popup video way, where we pop up all these interesting statistics and fascinating anecdotes about these individual performances and just let people watch it in an international setting and write about their experiences taking it in.”

Since then, their research into how music and sport intersect has expanded into more areas, particularly the way in which it informs understanding of space and place.

As a new Oregon resident, Cox recalls her first encounter with the awesome power of “Shout” at Autzen stadium. Early in the game, the slow, feel-good ballad “Coming Home” played.

“Everyone knew it and I had this really emotional response because Oregon is so beautiful,” she said. “But then ‘Shout’ comes on in the second half. Both songs are very specific, spatial moments, but ‘Shout’ is what everyone gets up for. It situates Oregon within its history of the film ‘Animal House’ along with the toga video and classic UO players.”

These “unofficial anthems” are visible throughout sports with popular songs like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” and the more recent T-Pain song “All I Do is Win.”

Hoping to engage the UO’s robust physiology department, the researchers are also exploring how music physically motivates athletes.

“We want to find out what music does to us physically,” Cox said.” If you’re a runner, what is that music that really keeps you going? What is the music playlist of a yoga instructor? What are their jams?”

And even with COVID-19 currently sidelining most sports, Cox hopes The Sound of Victory website will be an important resource tool not only for researchers and educators but anyone who is interested in expanding awareness of how music and sport merge to inform experience.

“It really is a community-facing, public-spacing thing,” she said. “It’s with us when we workout at the gym; it’s with us at the game on Friday night. Whether you’re in a small town or a major city, no matter what we look like, how we identify, there’s something about music and sport that offers a certain richness, and when it comes in times of pandemic and protest, it’s also there with us.”

—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications