“Mommy,” said my four year old. “You can hear a crowd, but not see it on TV. Look. There’s nobody there.” My wife heard the crowd noise. “Weird,” she said. My ten year old was more interested in how this feat works, technologically. As for me, and here I’ll say something unpopular and provocative, I liked the canned crowd noise that’s begun accompanying Bundesliga matches on TV here in the U.S.
In certain markets (like Fox Sports in the U.S.), the Bundesliga’s TV providers are mixing crowd noise samples into the match’s audio feed, both a sound engineering and hermeneutical feat. The samples are taken from Bundesliga matches and feature the kind of deep-throated chanting, singing, and cheering unique to German supporters.
However, reactions to the “canned” crowd noise are mixed. It’s easy to see why. Reflexively, we tend to eschew anything that feels contrived, artificial, or disingenuous. Hence many have complained about the canned crowd noise feeling icky or alienating.
But not me.
So I spent some time figuring out why.
Hilariously, at first I thought the noise was being piped into the stadiums, as a way to whip up a sort of, let’s call it, Geisterheimvorteil or a ghostly (sense of) a home field advantage. Clever girl, I thought, watching Hoffenheim host 1.FC Köln in a spicy meatball of a match, as the crowd noise punctuated Hoffenheim’s attack. Anyhow, once I realized that instead the crowd noise was mixed into the TV audio feed, I still decided I liked it.
First, the canned noise created rhythm. After about fifteen minutes of getting used to the thing, and pondering life’s big football questions, I settled into watching that Hoffenheim match. Very soon, the fake crowd created rhythm, tempo, or punctuation for the match. I chuckled that all it took for me was hearing a crowd, and–boom!–there it was, football again. (Almost) as it’s meant to be.
Of course, many viewers have the opposite reaction: their awareness of the canned crowd noise’s artificiality immediately pulls them out of the match. It alienates them. However, crowd noise is always a central part of watching sports for me. The crowd is half the equation; the crowd co-creates the match, especially by framing the game with emotions, narrative, and meaning. And I’ve discovered that, for me, merely hearing a crowd–an artificial crowd!–still does the trick. Believe me, I too, was surprised.
Consequently, I’ve gotten so much more out of the last two Bundesliga matchdays. The canned crowd noise pulls my attention toward the match. It focuses me. I find it harder to walk away and distractedly do a few household chores.
Second, the canned crowd noise reminded me, in a strong “anamnesis” sort of way (at least in the Protestant version of this concept) of the crowd–the ultras, supporters, and other fans. Remembering this element, the distinctive of Bundesliga football, is qualitatively full of more presence (I’m getting philosophical here, hold onto to your asses!) than empty stadium seats + silence. The noise evoked presence. It evoked the supporters. In my mind, the canned crowd noise is a back-handed tribute to the supporters. The noise ironically showed me (again!) just how powerful supporters are. I mean, I’m so simple that a little canned Bundesliga crowd noise pulls me right back into the match. That’s power for the supporters. That’s some co-creating power. Even when it’s fake.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get used to silence when football is playing. I don’t want it to be okay; I don’t want us to simply pay lip service to what supporters bring to football, as we numb ourselves with quiet Geisterspiele.
I want the canned crowd noise to awaken desire in us for what’s missing. I want it to tickle us.
Up to this point, you could nod along with me in agreement, but counter that I’m simply describing my satisfaction as a consumer, consuming the TV product that is football. And that canned crowd noise helps it all feel better, and that I have my entertainment back, damnit.
I concede the point. Feeling comfort in having one’s normal (err, almost normal) consumer product back is the kind of thinking that wranckles many Bundesliga supporters, and is a way of thinking running counter to the very values that Bundesliga supporter culture espouses. I get it.
And consider my position: I live in the U.S. and watch the Bundesliga from a couch. I’m not German. I’m an international Bundesliga lover. Naturally, applying consumerist critiques to my vantage point makes sense.
Yet, and here’s where I push back, the Bundesliga itself is already a product.
It’s televised globally with commentators, graphics, statistics, filler programming, social media, etc. There’s nothing pure about it in this sense. The fact that I get to watch a slickly produced version of the German game is a testament to what football is.
When it comes to football, one of my favorite things in the whole world, I’m firmly in the David Goldblatt camp. In The Age of Football, Goldblatt argues persuasively that football is the biggest cultural phenomenon in the world currently. As such, football is shot through, cross-pressured, with all sorts of contradictory elements. It’s gorgeous and hideous, local and global, amateur and professional, innocent and full of sin. It contains just about everything. As he puts it in his history of the English Premier League (The Game of Our Lives), football is part soap opera and theater; part church; part “thick web of values, rituals, histories, and identities”; part global commodity and part economic behemoth. There’s nothing pure about it, but, boy, is it just about the thickest, richest thing on earth.
This is the lens through which I approach football and canned crowd noise. Through this lens, the real/fake or authentic/artificial distinction is basically meaningless, which is why I find canned crowd noise neither to be icky nor alienating. Football is always already real and fake, authentic and artificial. Again, it contains everything, basically.
Nor do I believe there was some prelapsarian version of football that we should aspire returning the game to. That is, canned crowd noise represents everything that is wrong with “modern football.” Increasingly, I find it difficult to draw a line between “pre-” and modern football. Historically, contemporary football’s blueprint lies back in the early professionalization of the game in newly globalizing world in the 1880s, if my reading of and teaching the sport’s history has shown me anything.
What I’m saying is that there’s really no “pure” past version of the game we can cling to when making sense of what is happening in 2020.
You think Germany is any different? Its football was just delayed in coming to the party, but the impulse has been there a long time, look no further than the accounts offered in Udo Merkel’s scholarship on German football, Uli Hesse’s Tor! or Ronald Reng’s Matchdays. The Bundesliga, too, is stuck in the same construal as the rest of world football.
However, and here it gets tricky, German football and the Bundesliga, is utterly unique in the supporter-centric ownership model and culture it fosters. This is the Bundesliga’s distinctive trait and what animates its world-best match atmospherics. More than other league, the Bundesliga grapples against the tide of global consumerism. However, it’s a professionalized, televised, and sponsored sporting league. This is the tension. Perhaps more than any other sports league in the world, the Bundesliga has the most difficult road to travel, which makes it that much more precious to support.
I know I’ve been expressing an unpopular opinion. But if there’s final point I can make, it’s this: a recent development that’s helped me makes sense of football today is metamodernism. The term was first popularized by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker in their 2010 paper, “Notes on Metamodernism,” which established a newly emerging framework for understanding our world.
The basic idea is that postmodern ideas have become inadequate. In their place, Vermeulen and van der Akker describe an emerging “structure of feeling,” characterized by an oscillation: “[i]t oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivete and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.” The prefix meta- describes an experience of “betweenness,” as us acting “as if” something is true or knowable, and in which we cling to many seemingly contradictory impulses and phenomena. Put differently, metamodernism is an attempt to be “between and beyond diametrically opposed poles,” as Luke Turner writes.
Vermeulen and van der Akker trace the emerging metamodernism in literature, film, visual arts, and architecture. Although they say nothing about sports or football in their paper, I can’t think of a more fitting example of metamodernism. Indeed, metamodernism is a sort of warrant underlying football, giving a name to the conflicting and contradictory forces that pull themselves through the sport. Moreover, our perceptions and experiences of football, of the Bundesliga, of Geisterspiele, and of canned crowd noise all occur within this milieu of “betweenness.”
Football, especially the Bundesliga, contains many contradictory and seemingly diametrically opposed poles, which is why I stated above that the distinction between real/false or authentic/fake when it comes to canned crowd noise is basically meaningless. In a metamodern sense, there is no prior pure “grand narrative” version of football we can return to. If you really want pure, well, then take away the salaries, ownership structures, TV broadcasts, match commentary, etc. What you’re left with is what you might and some friends might do at the park once your state hits “green” here in the U.S. during these covid-19 days.
I don’t think anyone who’s complaining about canned crowd noise, while watching the Bundesliga on TV, is arguing that the league should just disappear–for purity’s sake. No, what I think is really at stake for these viewers is a viewing experience that feels commensurate with, and is tempered by, their own surrounding covid-19 environs. These viewers want what feels like an appropriate broadcast matched with living through a global pandemic.
I don’t begrudge this camp. But let’s call it what it is: TV aesthetics. As for me, I happen to find the canned crowd noise aesthetic more appealing.