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Trivial Pursuits: Who is the better athlete?

September 29, 2009

Sport is not the most common song fodder. Sure, there are the classic sporting songs: “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, “We Are The Champions” by Queen, “Super Bowl Shuffle” by the 1985 Chicago Bears et al., etc. In general, however, sporting pursuits do not often get mentioned in music.

Every so often, though, someone who seems to be the farthest thing from an athlete writes a song about playing a sporting contest. These songs often lead me to wonder whether or not those writers are, indeed, talented athletically.

With that in mind, I’d like to look at a couple of songs written by two men I respect very much as songwriters: “The Sporting Life” by The Decemberists, and “Nothing Better” by The Postal Service.

These aren’t necessarily the songs that come to mind when you think of sports, but they have all the neceassary requirements for debating who might have been the better athlete in his youth: Colin Meloy or Ben Gibbard.

First, let’s dissect the songs to get a sense of what each gentleman knows of sports.

Meloy’s entry will certainly get him off to an inauspicious start. The first line of his song describes his falling in the middle of a match, which immediately leads us to believe that he may not have been the best athlete. However, as the song goes on he discloses that he has had a decent season up to this unfortunate moment.

The season was almost done,
we’d managed it 12 to 1.
So far I had known no humiliation
in front of my friends and close relations.

When I had the opportunity to see The Decemberists play in Indianapolis, the singer disclosed that this song was loosely based on his own experiences on a Montana YMCA soccer team. Which means to me that if Meloy was even playing, he must have had some athletic prowess to speak of in his day, despite his unfortunate accident.

Gibbard, on the other hand, seems to have less going for him. “Nothing Better” is not, strictly speaking, about sports. In fact, there’s really just the one line about sports in the song.

However, that line, to me, speaks volumes about Gibbard’s personal sporting experiences:

I can’t accept that it’s over…
And I will block the door like a goalie tending the net
In the third quarter of a tied-game rivalry.

Read that quote carefully, and try to distinguish what sport he is describing. I’ve done this several times myself, and I’ve yet to come up with an answer.

There are only a few sports that even feature nets and goalies: hockey, soccer and lacrosse. Of those, only lacrosse uses quarters to break up the time; soccer uses halves and hockey uses three periods. Which means we’re left to believe that he is singing about lacrosse, which is strange in and of itself, but for a tied game in the third quarter to be significant leads me to believe that the third would need to be near the end of the contest. That inevitably makes me think that his intentions were to describe a hockey game.

The confusion that derive from these lyrics is my strongest case against Mr. Gibbard’s sporting ability. This is based on the fact that you must have a good knowledge of a sport in order to be successful at it.

However, Gibbard undermines my argument on Death Cab for Cutie’s The John Byrd EP, which is a collection of live songs. On “Photobooth” Gibbard addresses the crowd and discloses that he is not truly following his dreams by being a musician, rather, if he had followed his dreams he would be the shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.

This little glimpse into Gibbard’s childhood might lead us to believe that he was a star baseball player in a former life. It might also mean that perhaps he simply adored the Mariners, as many children from the Northwest tend to do.

Aside from the songs I’ve picked apart, we can look at their lifestyles and physique to gather more information about their potential sporting aptitude.

Both singers have similar builds, not necessarily athletic, but not unfit either. Both have the slightly shaggy look of an indie-rocker and sport thick black rimmed glasses, which tend to signify an aversion to athletics.

Gibbard is a noted pescetarian, which means the only meat he consumes is fish. There is no information available about Meloy’s diet, so we can assume that he benefits from the extra protein that is in beef, pork and fowl.

In an IGN article Gibbard does comment that he wasn’t allowed to watch television during the week or play video games which led him to play more sports. As noted, however, Meloy was active in sporting leagues as a youth.

Both men are also very intellectual and their love of literature is exposed in their music.

Meloy specifically references Billy Liar, a character in a novel by Keith Waterhouse, in The Decemberists single from Her Majesty titled after that character. Likewise, The Crane Wife and The Tain are adapted from traditional Japanese and Irish folk tales, respectively.

Not to be outdone, Gibbard recently collaborated with Jay Farrar on an album based upon the works of Jack Kerouac. Also, in the song “Bixby Canyon Bridge” he specifically writes about a visit to Kerouac’s Big Sur.

I would not say that all jocks are uneducated, because that would be ignorant. Nevertheless, academic pursuits and athletic achievement are not synonymous, which leads us to believe these two highly educated individuals might not have had the best sporting careers.

Both gentlemen have a strong case for and against their own sporting competence. Short of some sort of indie-rock olympics or maybe a personal interview with the two in question, I am forced to make a distinction based upon the information that has been given to me.

Thus, I rule in favor of The Decemberists frontman.

In the end it was the confusion in Gibbard’s lyrics that pushed me over the edge. I understand that he may have written it in that way to maintain the rhythm and rhyme of his verse, but it has always bothered me.

Until our next quest for Trivial Pursuits I implore you, my reader, to think outside the box and examine everything.

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