The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
The ’90s were an exciting time to be a major media conglomerate. Relaxation of media-ownership laws meant that corporations could buy up more outlets, resulting in greater consolidation of the nation’s media. The explosion of the Internet suggested a new way to reach potential consumers—even if no one had yet figured out how to make that much money off of it. Advances in technology meant more households had space for hundreds of cable channels, but hundreds of cable channels simply didn’t exist yet. People were spending more money on entertainment, and older forms of media—like newspapers and magazines—were still hugely profitable. It was an age of branding and corporate synergy and a million other buzzwords.
It could be a baffling time for consumers, however. This was, after all, when Bruce Springsteen’s minor single “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” became a stand-in for a kind of dim malaise that settled in whenever considering the many options afforded to consumers that promised a kind of constant haze of low-level entertainment. The Clinton years were a time of peace, prosperity, and laying around your house with the TV at a constant drone. Things had not yet exploded into the kaleidoscope of niches that would define the following decade, and it was still considered a bit strange to have a whole cable channel devoted to, say, food or animals, but the arrival of niche programming was also vaguely exciting. Wait long enough, and there would be a TV channel just for you.
To consolidate whatever gains they had made during the relatively calm ’80s, then, the already existing TV networks leaned heavily on the promise of constantly drilling the network’s brand into viewers’ heads. If you’re wondering why TV networks always have their logo in the bottom corner of the screen, it stems from this period, when executives were terrified viewers might be enjoying, say, Spin City and suddenly forget it was airing on ABC. That was even more important for cable channels, which necessarily targeted smaller audiences and focused on only one or two particular topics. Plus, all that empty programming grid space suggested a gold rush to come for the companies that were willing to move in. First, HBO birthed HBO2, and then other networks followed suit. Among them was ESPN.
ESPN spent most of the ’90s transitioning from one of the places where sports fans could get their news and see the games to the most dominant voice in the sports world. SportsCenter, thanks to fine work from co-hosts Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, turned into a national obsession, critically acclaimed and highly rated for what was, ultimately, just a sports news show. Chris Berman, whose ascent was already apparent in the ’80s, became the network’s face, while numerous other ESPN personalities grew into household names. What the network began selling somewhere in the mid-’90s wasn’t just the idea of sports as something to enjoy watching or even be passionate about. It began selling the idea of sports as a lifestyle, something that should pervade every inch of someone’s life. The more viewers thought about sports, the more they would think about ESPN, and that could only prove a good thing for the network.
It might seem odd to contemplate at this point when ESPN is a global monolith and one of the most significant broadcasters on the programming grid, but this initial burst of merchandising seemed fairly strange at the time. ESPN was more or less seen for a long while as a sports-centric version of something like CNN (even though ESPN predates the news network). To transform it from a programming service to a brand at the center of one’s lifestyle—a shift that only MTV had really managed up until that point—seemed quite possibly self-defeating. ESPN won that particular war, and now sits at the head of an empire that includes a magazine, several websites, a restaurant chain, and oodles of merchandise. It’s become a massive cash cow for its parent corporation, Disney, but in the mid-’90s, the idea that it could get viewers to identify more strongly with the outlet that brought them access to athletes rather than the athletes themselves had many potential ways to fail.
The way ESPN accomplished this was by turning itself into viewers’ snarky, wiser older brother. Its commercials were amusing and self-deprecating. Its merchandise never took itself too seriously. It punctured at all times the idea of sports as a deeply serious and august institution, which paradoxically made it easier to make them the center of life. If sports wasn’t a grand tradition stretching back to Mount Olympus but, rather, a bunch of really cool, funny people commenting on the cool, funny people playing those games, that made it smaller scale, more human. And that was something easier to approach as a lifestyle choice.
ESPN also always capitalized on the euphoric highs sports can produce, a mixture of endorphins never so potent as when a favorite team is winning. This was never so apparent as it was on the collection of Jock Jams CDs put out in the late ’90s by Tommy Boy Records with the ESPN name slapped on the cover. The idea of a lull in the action was basically unheard of on a Jock Jams album. The compilations proceed from high to high to high, doing their best to get fans pumped up. They became the unofficial anthem of high-school basketball practices and lazy summer days spent tossing around a football. Originally sold via a series of TV ads that showed off the disc’s contents, Jock Jams: Vol. 1 was a surprise hit, climbing to the 30th spot on the Billboard album charts. A new volume followed every year from 1995 to 1999. (Jock Jams was actually a spin-off of the largely forgotten Jock Rock compilations, which petered out after two volumes.)
ESPN’s connection to Jock Jams was tentative. Sure, the network’s name was on the cover, but most of the sound clips contained on each CD were from generic voiceover artists or the “Jock Jams Cheerleaders,” rather than network personalities. The first volume contained the SportsCenter theme song, while the second opened with Patrick and Berman saying, “Welcome to the big show!” and “He could… go… all… the… way!” respectively, but ESPN’s presence was simply an enticement to buy the CD and rarely much more. Jock Jams was ESPN in audio form, a constant barrage of stadium anthems and pumped-up excitement, but it only accomplished that by mostly leaving the network that prompted it on the sidelines.
None of that is really true of the series’ biggest success, “ESPN Presents The Jock Jam” (also known as “The Jock Jams Megamix”). Released on the third Jock Jams volume, the dance mix managed to make it as high as No. 31 on the Billboard charts and actually landed at No. 72 on the year-end Billboard chart for 1997. If Jock Jams proper was an attempt to reproduce the euphoria of sports over a whole album, “The Jock Jam” was an attempt to do that in just three minutes. It takes the most exciting bits of many songs from the first Jock Jams volume—a “Pump Up The Jam” here, a “YMCA” there—and reduces them to their essence, mashing them up with other exciting bits from other songs, as if handing every high-school dance team and cheer squad in America a readymade halftime song.
What’s interesting is how overt the ESPN branding is on that song, when compared to the CDs. Where the CDs had one bit of ESPN connection per album, ESPN’s famed voices are all over the three minutes of “The Jock Jam.” (Super fans of the Jock Jams series—are there any?—will note that almost all of these sound clips had already appeared on a Jock Jams CD, but hearing them all over three minutes, rather than spaced out over three CDs, is an altogether different experience.) This may explain why the song was so successful on the radio and with the already diminished audience for purchasing singles. ESPN was at roughly the high-water mark of its cresting popularity, yet to unleash the backlash that would soon hit it because of its ubiquity. This was the era of SportsCenter landing on TV critics’ top-10 lists, after all, and ESPN was just one of those things a great many people liked—and liked unironically.
Plus, the song was a success because it was fun. Constant euphoria is common on dance mixes, but the dance mix isn’t exactly a genre that’s had a ton of success on American radio. On first listen, “The Jock Jam” is all about pulling out the samples and figuring out how each song (and ESPN quote) fits into the overall collage. But from there, the bracing forward momentum of the song seems to encapsulate the thrill of victory (never the agony of defeat) into one chunk of music. Plus, the fact that the whole thing is built from other pieces means that it carries all sorts of additional resonances for listeners. Each sample can return a listener to the first time he or she heard that particular song, while the mix as a whole creates a kind of sporting event in miniature, a constant rush of sensation.
In their terrific book Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller detail this time as one when ESPN’s numerous on-air personalities were chafing against the network’s perceived need to always have the ESPN name come before any of its stars. It was a time when Olbermann, in particular, would blow up his relationship with the network and wander off in search of another platform. While that relationship with its talent seems to be reflected on the Jock Jams CDs—with the ESPN brand more important than any one voice-clip—“The Jock Jam” flips the script. The euphoria is everything, and ESPN’s personalities are right there in the middle of it. That snarky older brother is no longer just a corporate voice; he’s a bunch of real guys you might be able to hang out with.
It’s a fool’s errand to read too much of what was going on at ESPN at the time into a megamix (produced by another company) included on a CD that the network simply put its name on and almost certainly didn’t exercise much control over. Yet there are hints here all the same, particularly in “The Jock Jam.” If the country wanted what ESPN was selling—and it increasingly did—it also wanted those products to be attached to trusted faces and personalities appealing to hang out with. Yet the greatest value of ESPN was ultimately as a name, a brand that conveyed a certain kind of quality and a particular voice. Over time, ESPN has made its peace with the fact that it can create stars, but in 1997, the network still seemed uneasy with the idea that its personalities could become so popular they would wind up on radio hits.