Monday, June 22, 2015

National Conference

Last month, I wrote a blog about two great sports-themed LPs that I'd been listening to a lot: The Mountain Goats' Beat the Champ (an album about professional wrestling), and The Baseball Project's 3rd (an album about - surprise, surprise - baseball).

Shortly after that post was published, I received the following recommendation from one Matt Jones on Twitter:

I was intrigued; not only did I have another fun-looking sports album to listen to, it was an album by the bassist from The Mountain Goats (i.e. the man who made even the dullest parts of Tallahassee kind of interesting). Better still, it was FREE!

The Football Albums: National Conference has indeed become a fixture of my rotation since I downloaded it from DiskothiQ's Bandcamp page, but while its tunes - one for each team in the National Football Conference circa 1999 - are largely just as good as those found on 3rd and Beat the Champ, it is a rather different beast in terms of lyrical content. See, where those two albums were mostly written in celebration of their corresponding sports (even the grittiest moments on Beat the Champ clearly came from someone with an unconditional love of pro wrestling), Peter Hughes frequently uses National Conference as a platform to criticise the institution that is American football.

The most obvious example is Redskins, a pointed attack on Washington, D.C.'s controversially-named football team:

"Is there anything more offensive than the name of the Washington Redskins?
Why not just call yourselves the Darkies/the Yellow Men/the Filthy, Thieving Jews?"

Appropriation of Native American culture is clearly a big issue for Hughes, and in Redskins, he revealingly points out that these are just "dumb sports teams" that cannot possibly justify the kind of racial insensitivity that Dan Snyder* and Co. still refuse to correct.

(*Dan Snyder is the majority owner of the Washington Redskins. For the record, I know next to nothing about American football, but National Conference has done more than anything or anyone else to encourage me to take an interest. If you're a novice like me and you'd like to get into the game, I strongly recommend starting with this album.)

Aside from Redskins, National Conference is also home to the scathing Packers (which pokes fun at players who give God credit for healing their injuries and helping their teams win games), the incessant 49ers ("Lame teams deserve lame songs" - Peter Hughes), and the rather mean-spirited Rams (not that I'm familiar with the context - perhaps nobody does care about the St. Louis Rams). Oh, and then there's closing track/bonus song Los Angeles, the only song on this album that isn't named for a team:

You see, LA doesn't have its own team (not in 1999, at least - the situation may or may not have changed since then), and Peter Hughes closed National Conference by plainly stating that he likes it that way.

All of which draws a pretty bold line between National Conference and the two albums I mentioned in that previous blog. There's no doubt that Hughes is a big football fan, but unlike his bandmate John Darnielle and the indie all-stars who make up The Baseball Project, he seems acutely aware that a) American football is just a game, and b) there are more important things in life. 3rd presents baseball players as mythical gods; Beat the Champ engrosses itself in the 'reality' of fake fights. National Conference, on the other hand, is detached enough to step back and say:

"Look, football is great fun and all, but it's no excuse for racism, greed, and wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere. I'm not afraid to call this bullshit when I see it."

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