A Brief History of Cheerleader Pop
Madonna wouldn’t be doing her job if she weren’t getting critics’ knickers in a bunch. Fortunately, she did it again when “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the cheerleader-themed lead single from her 12th album, MDMA, drew comparisons to Nicola Roberts’s similar 2011 U.K. hit “Beat of My Drum.” But as the history of this micro-genre reveals, cheerleader pop is by definition derivative. Its nostalgia aims to recapture adolescence, a time when infatuation with contemporary musical fashion is practically a rite of passage. Just as cheerleader chants recycle playground put-downs and pep-talk positivity, the grooves that soundtrack its musical equivalent repurpose new and old sounds while retaining youth’s eternal freshness.
Here, then, is the best and worst of cheerleader pop. [Watch the video that accompanies this story]
The Ramones, “Pinhead”
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Paraphrased from Freaks, the same 1932 bizarre-o B-movie name-checked by David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs." "Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us!" chants one of the punk's most beloved and ridiculous songs, one that in 1977 and for decades to come provided a dependable highlight of Ramones shows as roadies in pointy rubber masks waved "Gabba Gabba Hey" placards and the crowd chanted along.... Johnny Ramone's fingers squeak across his guitar strings even more than usual, and every line is delivered with the All-American gusto of a gonzo cheerleader grunt.
Bow Wow Wow, “W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah, No No My Daddy Don’t)”
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It may be about unemployment and overthrowing the patriarchy, but Bow Wow Wow's pioneering 1981 post-punk/Afro-pop dance club hit could not be any giddier. Leigh Gorman's rapid-funk bass riffs and David Barbarossa's Burundi tom-tom blasts get completely bananas, and 14-year-old Burma-born Brit Annabella Lwin gleefully delivers oddly prophetic lines penned by propagandist/manager Malcolm McLaren like "T.E.K. technology is demolition of Daddy" and "Demolition of the work... ethic takes us to the age of the primitive!"
Toni Basil, “Mickey”
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Former Shindig! go-go girl, choreographer for David Bowie, and cofounder of the pioneering street dance troupe The Lockers, Toni Basil was already a dance-world superstar when this quintessential new-wave classic hit the airwaves in 1982. Adding the "Oh, Mickey, you're so fine you blow my mind" chant to "Kitty," a trashy Blondie knockoff written and produced by Blondie collaborators Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn for naff Brit... bubblegum band Racey, Basil transforms a crappy song into the inspired kitsch soundtrack for one of the most iconic music videos to have ever dominated MTV. Any subsequent song involving cheerleaders ultimately invokes "Mickey."
Faith No More, “Be Aggressive”
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Written by gay future Imperial Teen multi-instrumentalist and then-current FNM keyboardist Roddy Bottum as a way of humiliating heterosexual singer Mike Patton, this 1992 avant-metal anthem to giving head is typical of Angel Dust, a fairly blatant effort to undermine the mainstream following this San Francisco band inadvertently attracted with its surprise 1989 hit The Real Thing. Instead, this album amplified Faith No More's popularity... throughout much of the world. Sandwiched between what sound like authentic cheerleader-chanted choruses, lines like "You're the master and I take it on my knees" make explicit what is implicit in countless metal bands but particularly Judas Priest: Rock 'n' roll is a bitter pill to swallow.
Tag Team, “Whoomp! There It Is”
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Certified quadruple platinum, this Miami bass monster would've been the biggest hit of 1993 had Whitney Houston not released her "I Will Always Love You." Haters may rank this on par with "Ice Ice Baby," but can probably still quote the line about taking it back to the old school 'cause I'm an old fool who's so cool, and that synth riff sampled from Kano's Italo-disco classic... "I'm Ready" is every bit as memorable. Both this and another milestone in sport-friendly hip-hop — 1994's "Tootsee Roll" by the stylistically similar 69 Boyz — were key selling points on the hit compilation series Jock Jams, which boasted scads of between-song cheerleader steez.
Daphne & Celeste, “U.G.L.Y.”
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A spiritual predecessor to Glee and the Judd Apatow school of superficially silly yet actually quite soulful teen comedies, 2000's Bring It On revised the cheerleader's place in pop culture not as a goofy, brainless clichÃ©, but as an emblem of how 21st century America challenges worn-out divisions of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. The highlight of its soundtrack is this winsome spoof of cheerleader... taunts set to corn-pone banjo riffs. In today's anti-bullying cultural climate, lines that ridicule a human so unattractive it "hurt the trees' feelings and the birds all flew" seem on paper a little harsh, but the recorded result is relatively harmless: This unlikely rappin' duo is pitch-shifted to the point of evoking Chip 'n' Dale.
The Go! Team, “The Power Is On”
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The Brits have a knack for fetishizing and re-contextualizing American youth culture; a practice that sampling took to previously unfathomable extremes. Brighton's Go! Team applies the cut 'n' paste aesthetic of late '80s dance hits like M|A|R|R|S's "Pump Up the Volume" to genre-crossing indie rock circa 2004. Here the vocal is supplied by what sounds like samples of two competing cheerleader crews, and it's layered on... top of a claustrophobic but nevertheless majestic sandwich of Spaghetti Western and easy listening themes with Sonic Youth-style guitar blare supplying the meat.
Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl”
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Released as a single in 2005 from her 2004 solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby., the first song to sell a million U.S. digital downloads was the No Doubt singer's way of getting back at Courtney Love for calling her a "cheerleader." Claiming the dis as a badge of pride, Stefani retaliated with one of the most inescapable singles of the aughts; a collision of bombastic... Run-D.M.C.-ish beats, ballad-y electric guitar noodling, marching band horn tooting, and cop movie synth farts. Love's career went to hell in a handbasket, while Stefani — largely because of this polarizing song — became the new Madonna.
Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend”
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The dark side of cheerleader pop is that its undemanding melodies level the playing field for vocally challenged nincompoops. Avril Lavigne has released more than her share of cheese-rock anthems, but this 2007 smash remains her tastiest. With a rhythm track that suggests a sped-up "Mickey" and a chorus that so closely resembles the Rubinoos' forgotten power-pop ditty "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" that Lavigne, her producer,... her record label, and even Apple Inc. were slapped with a lawsuit, "Girlfriend" acquits itself with all the sass Dr. Luke and his production cronies can muster.
Katy Perry, “Peacock”
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The rock 'n' roll history of female objectification runs the gamut from bona fide classics that only a party pooper would pretend not to like — Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," for example — to records so tacky it takes a thick streak of perversity to defend, like maybe Warrant's "Cherry Pie." Simply put, Katy Perry's 2010 Teenage Dream album cut "Peacock" is the male... objectification answer to "Cherry Pie." With the help of another unapologetic lift of the "Mickey" beat, Perry sets a single-entendre record for the number of times "cock" appears in a preteen-baiting disc.
Madonna, “Give Me All Your Luvin’”
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Citing its similarity to Nicola Roberts's "Beat of My Drum," critics called foul when a demo for this Martin Solveig-produced, Nicki Minaj/M.I.A.-cameo single was leaked in late '11; the "L.O.V.E." chant in Roberts' hit is here nominally changed to "L.U.V. Madonna," and the '60s surf-rock beat echoes "Mickey" as well as the singer's own "Beautiful Stranger." "Give Me All Your Lovin'" doesn't hit the heights of Madonna's... best, but it's far more animated than Hard Candy, and as the centerpiece of her insanely spectacular 2012 Super Bowl halftime performance, it more than hit its mark.