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Ready? Ok!: Usher is huge with the cheerleaders.

Spirit Fingers

'Cheer Music' is not healthy for sweater monkeys, the long of attention and other living things

By Todd Inoue

YOU DON'T have to be a sweater monkey to love Bring It On. The 2000 movie—starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union as competing cheerleading team captains—totally ruled, not just for the snappy dialogue or the pill-popping choreographer, but also for its love and loathing of the genre. It poked fun at the whole subculture surrounding cheerleading—the whipped parents, the racial divide, the arrogant elitism, the terminal peppiness, the underlying sweetness and teamwork—without reducing everyone to one big cliché. It also introduced the concept of cheerleading music, which—like some cheerleaders—is a mutant substrain that can only be understood by chosen few.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I went to a cheerleading competition in Reno. My 10-year-old niece, Danielle, cheers for a local Pop Warner team. What better excuse to blow off the usual Thanksgiving duties of cooking, making nice and indentured slavery than to bask in Reno's kitschy pleasures?

But first I had to sit through a slim portion of cheer hell. "What song do you do your routine to?" I asked. Danielle returned with a shrug. The music is the most important element of her routine—how could she not know? Her shrug would become abundantly clear, making the trip an education in aesthetics.

The standard sounds booming at these competitions are not for widespread consumption. Cheer music is cut-and-spliced ribbons of pop songs, chopped and sped up to 140 bpm and enhanced with whooshing sound effects and vocal samples ("Yeah!" "Woooo!" "You've been rocked!" "Get Ur Freak On!" etc.). The most accurate description I could come up with is having an ADD-addled monkey jump all over a bank of samples and rhythm tracks and then machine gun it out in rapid-fire procession. Parents want to know why their kids can't concentrate? Blame video games, MTV, FOX News, and now, if your kid's into cheerleading, another culprit lurking in the headphones.

Google "cheer music" and the results reveal some scurrilous folks making bank. A CD of standard two-minute tracks runs between $19 and $35 (not good for the team worried about originality). Custom tracks—two minutes of handpicked rhythms, stabs, samples, personalized shout-outs—can top out at $276. Three minutes for $414! For one song!

The contest gave insight into what kids are into. The most popular artists in rotation were Usher ("Yeah"), Lil' Flip ("Game Over"), Fat Joe ("Lean Back") and Ciara ("Goodies"). Britney Spears ("Toxic") and Luke ("I Wanna Rock") still had juice. In fact, I heard more Luke samples in two hours than I had for years. Luke must be giggling his ass off at the irony: sweet innocent Brianna is sticking her Liberty Stand to the voice and beats of a man who once got arrested over nasty lyrics.

As a fan of Baltimore club music, ghettotech and Miami bass, my tolerance for high-energy bangers is pretty high, and I was looking to be surprised that weekend. But the fact that cheerleaders can make any sense of these two-minute needle jumpers—and hit choreographed routines—astounds me. Those who eschewed the standard cheer-music formula for old-school pause tape technology were in the extreme minority. One team that used Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and the Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" didn't place. After 20 repetitions of Usher, I damn near fell out of my seat. They should have received a runner-up trophy for originality—showing there's room, even in the stifling conformity of the cheerleading world, for outside thinking.

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From the December 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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