The Michigan football team was terrible in 2009. They had a fun win over Notre Dame early in the year and then lost, as I recall, their next 58 games. But it’s still a season I remember fondly as a fan, almost solely because of a four-minute YouTube clip I watched in September of that year — one which actually chronicled the even worse 2008 season and starts with 90 seconds of failure. Fans often create and share these kinds of sports-highlight music videos online, but this was not your typical hype video. Created by the site MGoBlog, it was set to the song “A Better Son/Daughter” by folksy, female-vocalist-fronted indie band Rilo Kiley — not an obvious choice to pair with college football, which is not a particularly “indie” pursuit.
I was reminded of that song and that video recently by this piece by Sean Collins about music and “the chills.” Namely, I was interested in the assertion by Lisa Margulis, a University of Arkansas professor, that the most chill-inducing musical passages tend to involve sudden changes, especially when the change confounds our subconscious expectations about musical form. This video is so great, I think, because it piles changes on top of each other, adding visual and narrative surprises to the sudden turn in the Rilo Kiley song. It’s got Triple Chills. The long buildup gets you accustomed to derfs in black and white (there were many derfs in 2008, the program’s worst season ever, its inescapable badness being the reason a 100% rah-rah video wouldn’t have worked), and then suddenly it’s triumph in super-color. It’s even better, of course, if you’re a Michigan fan and the colors and images (end zone, home fans) are ones that you have a positive Pavlovian response to.
I can’t even think of any other level of sensation that a video could work on, short of actually giving me a beer on Friday around 7 p.m., to induce good vibes. I even tested it on non-Michigan fans; my colleague Kevin, who is not only not a Michigan follower but someone who was born without some crucial “human soul” lobe in his brain and roots for Duke, admitted that it left him smiling involuntarily. My fiancee, who is not always totally on board with the all-consumingness of my interest in the athletic accomplishments of 20-year-old kids at a school I didn’t even go to, actually gasped involuntarily at the crucial point.
As Collins wrote, “frisson [a term for the ‘chills’ experience] is a matter of expecting the unexpected: building to something big, something listeners can hear coming — but then doing it so much bigger, more exciting, more unexpected, that it blows up their nervous system anyway, every time.” Sounds like a pretty good description of this video, and of great sports moments in general. Standing for three hours packed together with thousands of strangers, it turns out, is not all that different from going to the symphony.