By Paulo Camacho
“Are you ready for some football?”
Thus is the rhetorical question that launched a cultural phenomenon in the world of sports and entertainment. For millions of Americans, the institution of Monday Night Football — along with its primetime brethren, Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football — has occupied the television screens of homes and sports bars around the country for years. From its image as an All-American game to the unpredictable, and sometimes unbelievable, play on the gridiron, Primetime NFL Football has made its mark on many things.
One thing, however, that is seemingly overlooked, is its use of the kind of trademark music that has rang with popular culture for as long as it has been around. Since 1970, Primetime American Football has been a staple of Americana, and its themes have been as recognizable to the sporting public as the athletes that play the game.
There have been many an iteration of themes used for all three versions of Primetime American Football. But, here, I will review some of my personal favorites, as both a lover of music and of sports:
Monday Night Football:
Johnny Pearson — Heavy Action (1970)
Perhaps one of primetime football’s most well-known themes, Heavy Action wasn’t even written specifically for Monday Night Football. In fact, its composer, Johnny Pearson, likely had no knowledge of American football — he was a British composer, orchestra leader and pianist who actually wrote the theme synonymous with America’s Game as a commission for the BBC’s music library.
However, with its high-octane theme, powered by its energetic brass melodies, it made for the perfect sports anthem. It was used for a British sports competition show called Superstars in 1973, and it has been synonymous with British sports ever since — in fact, it was hailed as an Olympian theme by the British sport community, and was used as their main theme for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. It’s had some modern updates as time went on, but nothing can quite beat the original theme.
What makes this a favorite of mine is a combination of things — partly for its energetic sound; partly for the rich, old-school feel it gives off that sports fans can relate to; but most of all, it has that perfect sound of nostalgia, harkening back to a rich history as an American sports staple.
Sunday Night Football:
John Williams — Wide Receiver (2006) / Man Made Music — EndZone (2009)
I paired these two themes together because they are two variations on the same theme. The original — Wide Receiver, composed in 2006 by legendary movie composer John Williams — was made specifically for Sunday Night Football. And I believe that it was his genuine collaborative understanding of music and sport that made this theme so great. After all, after one listen, it harkens back to his seminal athletics-themed work, Olympic Fanfare and Theme. You can hear a lot of the same elements in both themes — the almost-patriotic snare drum in the background; the majestic brass melody playing in the fore; and the serious, dramatic ambiance to both themes present throughout.
EndZone is just one of a number of variations to the original Williams theme by Joel Beckerman of Man Made Music. The stark difference comes from the use of techno and rock instruments around the main brass melody. The themes were used during Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, and ended up replacing Wide Receiver beginning in the 2009 NFL regular season.
For me, the reason to enjoy both pieces is simple — they act as energetic sports battle cries for the average die-hard NFL fan. There’s something about an energetic brass melody written by John Williams that really gets the blood flowing, and Wide Receiver and EndZone are no exceptions.
Thursday Night Football:
David Robidoux — Run To The Playoffs (2009)
Thursday Night Football has seen its share of themes since its full-time inception back in November of 2006, but none has been a musical staple for the NFL like David Robidoux’s Run To The Playoffs. Named after one of Thursday Night Football’s earlier incarnations, Run To The Playoffs effectively uses instruments like the tubular bells, combined with a modern, adrenaline-fueled bassline, to give the theme a uniquely aggressive feel.
And that’s what I love about it — they used an instrument more known for Christmas-themed orchestral pieces to make the theme even more intimidating. And when you listen for music related to the NFL, you want that tough, intimidating, uncompromising feel. That’s what you get with Robidoux’s Thursday Night Football theme.
Sunday Night Football:
Carrie Underwood — Waiting All Day (For Sunday Night) (2013)
As the theme song to Sunday Night Football from 2006 to 2016, the tune has had a long history, and quite a few different iterations. It began as a rock ballad, borrowing from Joan Jett’s 1988 hard rock hit, “I Hate Myself For Loving You.” In its inaugural season as Sunday Night Football’s main theme, it was performed by Pink for the 2006 season. The very next season, Pink was replaced as the “Waiting All Day” singer for popular country artist Faith Hill. She remained the primary performer for the theme until she stepped down in 2013. There, the network found her replacement in Carrie Underwood, who would provide her own variation to the song until 2016, when the song was replaced altogether with a version of Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert’s hit song “Somethin’ Bad”, entitled “Oh, Sunday Night.”
And it was Underwood’s subtle differences to her interpretation of “Waiting All Day” that stuck out to me. While Pink sang a version that was closer to Joan Jett’s original song, Faith Hill had a version that, I felt, was vintage “production pop” — stale and robotic — that was well below the station of an artist like Hill. Underwood, on the other hand, was much more energetic, free-flowing, and a refreshing blend of modern country and pop that the other versions didn’t have.
Thursday Night Football:
Pentatonix — Sing (TNF Edition) (2016)
After failing to hit with theme songs by the likes of Cee Lo Green and Priyanka Chopra, Thursday Night Football turned to a cappella phenomenon Pentatonix. The five-member group — composed of vocalists Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kristen Maldonado, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola — obliged by reworking one of their own hit songs, 2015’s “Sing”, into an anthem for Thursday Night Football.
Their high-octane brand of a cappella power anthems — part of what thrust them into the national spotlight in the first place — contributed to what, in my opinion, made this theme, entitled “Weekend Go,” so enjoyable. Their unique sound, combined with the artists’ non-stop energy, make this the kind of musical experience you wouldn’t expect from a football theme.