If forced to choose between a close-range battering from the vuvuzela—the infamous plastic horn that pierced the global eardrum during the last World Cup held in South Africa—and the current batch of World Cup songs, I might just opt for the former. Thankfully absent, it seems, from the current installation of the cup, the vuvuzela puts out 120 decibels, viciously crossing the pain threshold at the distance of one meter. FIFA’s officially-sanctioned anthems are less like the sonic lash of that South African trumpet and more like the rack, torturing the listener with the inexorable cranking of cliché and hypocrisy in lyrics and music.
Back in 2010 Alfonso Xabi, midfielder on the triumphant Spanish side, was succinct in his condemnation of the vuvuvzela: “It is not nice to have a noise like that.” The same could be said of the pop hits that spread the global message of FIFA football: be one world and give us your money. While the vuvuzela may have scarred millions of eardrums, it also apparently inured mass hearing to the present pop assault, one that drones on about human unity, vibrant diversity, irrepressible aspiration and rampant altruism.
Official anthems have been part of the cup since 1962 when Los Ramblers started things off with “El Rock del Mundial”; even if these Chileans hailed from the host country and sang in the world’s biggest soccer language—Spanish—the sound was purely North American in its tribute to Elvis. Four years later, when the perennially hapless English miraculously won their only world championship and did so on home soil, the song “World Cup Willy” was also inspired by America—this time New Orleans brass bands. Lonnie Donegan, the most successful British recording star before the Beatles, seemed to enjoy the diluted jazz flavor, one which put a jaunty—though others might say plodding—step in his goofily upbeat tune imbued with a laddish humor evident not least in the title, Willy being British slang for penis. On the other end of the musical spectrum from these low-class chortles was opera singer Placido Domingo’s contribution to the 1982 World Cup in Spain with the generically titled “Mundial 1982”. In search of a higher cultural caché, Domingo got the full orchestral backing: limply heroic brass and saccharine strings spurred into a trot, if not a gallop, by some corny percussion.
Needless to say, these early and middle-period FIFA anthems—a grand word for very silly stuff—all sound hopelessly dated now, not so much quaint as cloying.
Nowadays there are at least four official songs per World Cup, not to mention a proliferation of unofficial ones that must nonetheless pay homage—and money—to FIFA’s ownership of the World Cup brand in all its marketable forms. Among these unofficial anthems is Kelly Rowland’s “The Game” sponsored by Pepsi and released last week by the multinational corporation on its Beats of the Beautiful Game. This collection of numbing commercials masquerading as genuine soccer enthusiasm is expertly packaged with a sheen of authentic feeling and hipness not only as an LP, but also in the form of a short film by Spike Lee, himself no stranger to flogging a global brand called Nike. With its grainy, home-movie nostalgia following a poor kid kicking a soccer ball through Rio’s tough and tender streets all the way to scoring a goal in the city’s famed Maracana stadium, Lee’s movie traffics in the pernicious myth that sports are the way out of poverty, as Rowland’s digital voice straitjacketed intones incessantly: “Go for the sky / Keep rising high … the game, the game, the game [ad nauseam]”
At least Coca Cola’s World Cup musical branding exercise is more forthright in its message of global domination: “The World is Ours” sings David Correy, stating the obvious. Recorded initially in English but than disseminated in no less than thirty-two other versions in other languages, the song’s image of upward mobility is shared with Lee’s Pepsi paean; for Coke’s its “Run like you’re born to fly”—with the toxically sweet black syrup as your jet fuel.
As for the official anthems, which not only get massive exposure through the usual channels of globalization but also free advertising at the closing and opening ceremonies, Shakira appears to have produced the biggest mega-hit with the translation of her 2010 World Cup song “Waka waka” as the equally eloquent “La la la la,” reheating the primal beat of the earlier hit and smothering it with Brazilian sauce—and yogurt. She’s teamed up with Dannon’s Activia brand and the UN’s World Food Program in presenting herself as a force for nutritional good and justice. But forgive me if I smell a probiotic rat in the bifudis regularis; recall that Dannon was forced a few years ago to pay a multi-million dollar class-action settlement for advertising the yogurt’s unproven benefits to the immune system. Her lyric is sadly true: “the world is watching” as she gyrates in her leather rig and Carnival splendor: this bland, hyperactive pap went platinum within days of its release.
FIFA’s other official songs find Jennifer Lopez teaming up with Miami rapper Pitball for yet another heap of indigestible clichés and non-ideas in “We Are One (Ole Ola)”; Carlos Santana deeds over some of his guitar genius to Wyclef Jean’s equally unoriginal and insulting
“Dar Um Jeito (We Will Find a Way).” For those masochists who want to endure the entire FIFA 2014 album go here at your own risk.
Given the richly documented corruptions of FIFA and the waste and misdirection of resources in Brazil, not to mention the ongoing outrages in the site of the next World Cup in Qatar, it is even more alarming to watch and listen as pop stars and celebrities with a supposedly socially-attuned consciousness fuel the soccer behemoth with their energy and fame.
The beautiful game does not produce beautiful music. Indeed the contrast between the aesthetic qualities of the best moves on the field and the monotony and opportunism of the anthems only serves to point up the low quality of musical gunk disgorged by the FIFA beast. While the artistry of the greatest World Cup goals will endure long after finding the net, soccer’s current anthems—official and unofficial—have the shelf-life of an ice cream cone on Ipanema Beach at noon. But even after you’ve washed your hands of the mess you feel sticky for a long, long time.