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DOES STEELER NATION HAVE A BAD ROMANCE? | An Essay by Greg Barnhisel

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DOES STEELER NATION HAVE A BAD ROMANCE?
Greg Barnhisel
Date of publication: 
January 3, 2014

For the past few years, particularly on those Fridays when the city’s office toilers are allowed to wear their jerseys to work in preparation for Sunday’s game, my sons and I often take the edge off of the post-dinner cleanup and dishwashing by pulling up a few YouTube favorites. Like most web videos, the production values on these are low and the sound tinny. One, though, calls us back over and over.

The song is familiar, even to my seven-year-old — who hasn’t heard the nonsensical syllables “rah rah ra ah ah roma roma ma”? — but the low, throaty voice isn’t the one that made it famous. “Whoa … Caught in the steel defense.” Shouldn’t that be something about “bad romance”?

The window flashes a series of photographs: Pittsburgh Steeler football players, a packed stadium, fans in Steeler gear. What is this? It’s certainly not professionally made — the backing track sounds like a recording made for a karaoke machine — but the singer is powerful and melodic even if there’s perhaps a bit much echo. The “artist” is “In Acchord.” The “name of the song” is “Steel Defense.”

But that’s not right: this is Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance.” Who is “In Acchord”? What right did they have to make this video out of someone else’s property? Have they actually created anything? And in remixing the raw ingredients that don’t belong to them — the song, the photographs, the NFL itself, the city of Pittsburgh, and the so-called Steeler Nation — have they created or brought to light something that wasn’t there before?

PART ONE

Here come the playoffs when we get our revenge
You and me we got the steel defense
We’re winning super bowls again and again
You and me we got the steel defense

The National Football League is the most profitable sports league in the world; its annual revenues of nearly $10 billion more than double those of its closest rival, the English Premier League. Four NFL teams (the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants, and the New England Patriots) are ranked among the ten most valuable sports franchises in the world.

It wasn’t always like this. The NFL began in 1920 as a collection of small, regional football teams, often closely associated with companies active in a dominant regional industry. Players were drawn, in many cases, from among those companies’ employees. The Chicago Bears, for example, were initially the Decatur Staleys, a company team fielded by the A.E. Staley starch company of Decatur, Illinois, and the Green Bay Packers received their seed money, and many players, from Wisconsin’s Indian Packing Company.

Ironically, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roots aren’t industrial. Founded in 1933 as the Pirates, they changed their name to Steelers in 1940 in response to a newspaper contest. The name, of course, refers to the fact that Pittsburgh was the world’s largest producer of steel for most of the 20th century, and that steel was not only the region’s economic engine, but that the effects of large-scale industrialization brought by steel — from union labor to massive pollution to a working-class self-identity among the residents — had come to utterly determine the character of Western Pennsylvania. Not everyone in Pittsburgh was a steelworker; it only seemed that way.

We are the champions, the number one team
Don’t need no cheerleaders or Steely McBeam
We’re black and gold, gold gold gold
We’re black and gold

The Steelers were hapless until the 1970s. In that decade, the team had a spate of success unique in NFL history, winning four Super Bowls in six years. A fierce defense, nicknamed the Steel Curtain, was the key to the team’s success. Suddenly, the region started to see the team as an embodiment of its own self-image: gritty, unglamorous, tough, relentless, hard-working. The other dominant team of the decade — the Dallas Cowboys — were depicted as the Steelers’ opposite: flashy, arrogant, and boastful, featuring stacked blonde cheerleaders and a color scheme that called to mind, in one skeptic’s opinion, a jewelry store. The black and yellow Steelers looked like a bruise.

World economic conditions in the 1970s ended the steel industry in Pittsburgh. Over a fifteen-year period, the city imploded as the mills laid off workers, cut back production, and eventually closed. In just one round of layoffs in 1981-2, 153,000 steelworkers in the region were thrown out of work. Without jobs, people left. The city contracted: from a population of over 675,000 in 1950, Pittsburgh shrunk, in 2010, to just over 300,000.

Across the country we fill up the stands
‘Cause every city has its own Steeler fans
We’re black and gold, gold gold gold
We’re black and gold

With one exception — the Green Bay Packers, who are publicly owned — NFL teams are the private possessions of plutocrats. Conjure up an NFL owner in your mind: you probably pictured brash Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), corporate Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), reviled Dan Snyder (Washington Redskins), or tech-geek Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks). These men grew wealthy in other fields and then rewarded themselves with an NFL team.

Some teams, though, have made their owners rich. The Mara family has owned the New York Giants since the team’s founding (although they have only held a 50% stake since 1991). The descendants of founder Art Rooney, Sr., still own the Steelers; Rooney is so revered by Pittsburghers that Rob Zeller and Gene Collier’s 2003 stage play about his life (The Chief) is one of the most popular tickets in the city, no matter how often it is revived. Interestingly, the actress Rooney Mara is the great-granddaughter of Giants founder Tim Mara and the great-grandniece of Art Rooney, Sr. NFL owners and their families constitute a kind of royalty, and like a royal family, they look down on their subjects and possessions from their luxury boxes high in their stadiums, which have often been built with their subjects’ tribute.

Today, a Pittsburgh diaspora has distributed former Pittsburghers across the U.S. They reconvene on fall Sundays in Steeler bars — dispersed recreations of the Heinz Field tailgating matrix. Steeler fans also turn out at enemy stadiums in huge numbers. Often, particularly in away contests against weaker, small-market teams, it’s hard to tell which is the home team, with face-painted, towel-waving Steeler fans seeming to dominate the stands. The term that has come to describe this diaspora and its regular reunions is Steeler Nation. And while the players come and go, Steeler Nation sees itself as the real core of the team, the element of the Steelers that never changes. In fact, the only thing about the Steelers that changes less than Steeler Nation is the team’s ownership. But Steeler Nation feels that it, not the Rooneys, are the actual owners of the team.

Marxists coined the term “False Consciousness” to describe why oppressed people — workers, in particular — act against their own best interests and further the desires and goals of their oppressors, the owning class. In essence, Marxists hold that the capitalist economic arrangement is the base that determines everything in society. Upon that base are constructed superstructures whose purpose is to reinforce the basic economic system. One key element of the superstructure is ideology, the ideas about the world that are passed on to us by schools, the media, parents, churches, and so forth. Without ideology people would question and perhaps seek to change the nature of the economic system. Marxists argue that such concepts as “get a job and be a loyal employee,” “be respectful to your superiors,” “those who do not work should not eat,” “what’s good for corporations is good for everyone,” and “people are responsible for their own plight in the world” are key elements of capitalist ideology, and that when workers and the poor internalize those ideas they suffer from false consciousness.

The NFL, of course, is a particularly rich and influential purveyor of ideology. Ideas of masculinity, of fair play, of teamwork and self-sacrifice, and of the pleasures of violence that the NFL and its broadcasters disseminate mesh seamlessly with the ideological interests of the national-security state and the military, who partner so publicly with the NFL. In exalting its owners, the NFL embodies the belief of the hyper-wealthy and hyper-successful, laid so bare in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, that they are entitled to unquestioned deference from the rest of us. Even their players, some of the most famous people in America, universally refer to team owners as “Mister.”

Finally, the idea that the collective energy and wealth of a polis (a city, a county, a state) should go to support and underwrite the private property of an individual or a group of owners has not only solidified the NFL’s success nationwide, it has enabled its physical expansion from rattletrap stadiums to gaudy palaces like AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — or Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Part Two

I want your love, and I want your revenge
You and me could write a bad romance
I want your love, and all your love is revenge
You and me could write a bad romance

Stefani Germanotta tells of learning to play the piano at the age of four and of performing at open-mike nights in Manhattan clubs by the time she was fourteen. The Stefani Germanotta Band played singer-songwriter material and classic-rock covers in Lower East Side venues, but by 2006 Germanotta was experimenting with a different, more dance-club sound. She also turned her attention to performance, and incorporated elements of go-go dancing and burlesque into her presentation. Soon, she changed her stage name to Lady Gaga.

The Fame Monster (2009) made Lady Gaga one of the biggest stars in the world. The single “Telephone” enjoyed record-company muscle in its promotion, but when a homemade video starring lip-syncing and dancing soldiers deployed in Afghanistan became a viral hit, the song was inescapable. “Bad Romance,” also off The Fame Monster, went to number two in the U.S. and won the Grammy for “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance” in 2010.

Gaga’s performances and public persona are probably even better known than her music. At times she wears hypersexualized clothes and displays her body aggressively. But her costumes aren’t always centered around sex. She wore a dress made of raw meat to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. The next year, she came to the same event in convincing male drag. Gaga is outspokenly supportive of the gay community, and her costumes and performances call into question sex and gender roles. Because of this, Gaga is an icon to sexual-minority communities. Like only a few contemporary performers, Gaga has inspired a large and cohesive following of fans who admire not just her music but also her persona, her stands on issues, her self-presentation. She dubbed these fans — and they proudly call themselves — “little monsters.”

In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that the categories of sex (biological equipment) and gender (how one acts according to societally defined gender roles) have a tenuous, fluid, and contingent relationship. No matter what sex one was born, one “performs” a gender, Butler influentially states. Gender, then, isn’t fixed: it is the choices we make at any time in performing ourselves to the world, and to ourselves. Butler calls attention to those — particularly gay drag queens, men who dress and act as exaggerated women — who foreground the performative nature of gender, underscoring to all of us how “masculine” and “feminine” are collections of roles, positions, gestures.

Our offense will rush you
And our defense will crush you
We’ve got the steel, the steel defense

Football at all levels, from Pop Warner to the pros, exalts and rewards toughness. But in Pittsburgh, this celebration of toughness is especially hegemonic. The 1970s Steel Curtain defense reveled in its brutality, and a famed picture of linebacker Jack Lambert epitomizes that squad’s self-image. Even the cuddlier forum of a Coca-Cola commercial capitalized upon the Steel Curtain’s fearsomeness: defensive lineman Mean Joe Greene terrifies a young fan, but then throws him a jersey. Alloyed together for young people growing up in 1970s and 1980s Pittsburgh were steelworkers, the city, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Steel Curtain. The city and the team mutually reinforced each other’s identities. To wear a Steelers jersey, to visibly demonstrate your Steeler fandom, was to perform toughness, masculinity, and a doomed embrace of the union-worker identity that was being effaced by the forces of international capitalism.

When asked about whether he thought it was odd to use Lady Gaga to endorse the Steelers, Dan Klein, a member of the aforementioned In Acchord, responded that “I absolutely and without question admire her devotion and dedication to standing up to bullying and for gay rights and her ‘little monsters’’ self esteem. So for me, Lady Gaga is just a natural choice. She's very brave, outspoken, and such a great motivational role model.“ So what happens when In Acchord adds the queer-friendly, gender-troubling Lady Gaga to this nexus of a working-class town, conventional masculine toughness and brutality, and the Steelers? Elements of the team that had been submerged begin to take shape.

Ra Ra Rathlisbah

First: Ben Roethlisberger. Drafted in 2006 out of Miami University of Ohio — a school roughly in Pittsburgh’s region, if not its actual market — “Big Ben” very quickly established himself as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league, a fitting inheritor of the Steeler tradition. Roethlisberger’s hallmark is his scrambling: unlike a traditional passer, who steps back, identifies a receiver, and delivers the ball to him, Big Ben runs around in the backfield and displays an uncanny ability to escape from tacklers. In so doing, he takes hits: a lot of very hard hits, which have resulted in numerous serious injuries. He is also the face of the team, its most visible player, and its unquestioned leader.

In other, more troubling ways Ben represents conventional masculine recklessness and sexual aggression. In 2006, although his contract forbade him to ride his high-powered motorcycle, Roethlisberger was involved in a serious accident at the mouth of the Armstrong Tunnel while recklessly driving the bike.

Roethlisberger has also been accused of sexual assault on two separate occasions — once in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in 2008, and again in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 2010. The NFL imposed a six-game suspension on Ben for the second incident. In neither event was he charged with a criminal violation. He has since married and fathered a child.

Pa Pa Polamalah

But scratch the surface of the Steelers — get beyond Roethlisberger and other hyper-masculine teammates such as Bret “The Diesel” Kiesel or vicious linebacker James Harrison, now on the Cincinnati Bengals — and the gender roles get a bit more complicated. Take Hines Ward, the longtime receiver who retired in 2012. Consistently placing high on lists of the dirtiest NFL players because of his blindside blocks, wide receiver Ward also has cultivated an image that goes beyond traditional gender roles. In 2011 Ward won the season competition on Dancing with the Stars. (He wasn’t the first dancing Steeler, either; 1970s wide receiver and 2006 Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann made headlines when he spoke of how his training in ballet improved his grace and coordination.) Ward — the son of an African-American father and a Korean mother — has also been a pioneer in his outreach to Asian fans, and has been very visible in supporting mixed-race children in South Korea, a society known for ostracizing people of blended descent.

Troy Polamalu also troubles the NFL’s core gender assumptions. On many levels, Polamalu is as masculine and violent as anyone in the league; he is derisive about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s campaign to make the game safer: “It’s football, you know. If people want to watch soccer they can watch soccer,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2012.

But when Polamalu says these conventional things, he does so in a high, almost lilting, soft-spoken tone. He is perhaps more famous for his bountiful hair than for anything else, and a series of Head and Shoulders spots depicts Polamalu luxuriating in his flowing locks — an image ironizing conventional female depictions in shampoo commercials. Troy’s public image is also deeply linked to his family, and he has spoken extensively about his family’s study of early Christianity, their conversion to the Eastern Orthodox faith, and their pilgrimages to Orthodox holy sites. While Polamalu’s close association with his family is certainly common for NFL players (and touted by the NFL), Troy makes it clear that he refuses to “live” football, and will not, for instance, watch football games while at home. In much the way that Butler speaks about gender, Polamalu performs the hyper-masculinity of the NFL brilliantly at times, but through his other public roles (shampoo salesman, family man, religious devotee) he makes it clear that this is just a performance.

And what sort of audience might be attending to this performance? The Steelers’ fan base, notably, is substantially female. A 2007 Scarborough Sports Marketing survey concluded that the Steelers have the largest female fan base of any NFL team, which isn’t news to anyone living in western Pennsylvania. Seeking to turn those fans into consumers, in October 2012 the NFL brought a “style lounge” to Heinz Field, a boutique retail environment featuring women’s merchandise, fitting rooms, and mirrors. Are the NFL and the Steelers simply expanding their audience — or are they bringing something to light that was always there, overshadowed by the weight and power of the more conservative understanding of what boys and girls should like, and be like?

Part Three

You and me we got the steel defense

The In Acchord video, though, might be most interesting in the ways that it calls into question the very concept of ownership, particularly of intellectual property. Songs and recordings and videos — like those of Stefani Germanotta — receive copyright protection from unauthorized reproduction.

A right to fair use of copyrighted material exists; that is, under certain conditions, one can use copyrighted material without obtaining the copyright-holder’s permission. Not surprisingly, the Association of American Publishers, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America push for strict enforcement of copyright laws and the slimmest possible interpretations of fair-use doctrine. Equally obviously, the open access of the Internet, which gives us unprecedented power to copy and alter and distribute copyrighted work, has forced these groups into their grim positions.

The commercial properties of the NFL, including its logo, fall under a slightly different but closely related rubric, that of “trademark.” More than any other league, the NFL has been a pioneer in defending and expanding its trademarked property so that revenue from products associated with the NFL — from jerseys to the Pittsburgh Steeler sheets and wastebasket I had as a child — stays with the NFL.

The National Football League owns the trademark to the NFL logo, but the teams themselves own their symbols and logos. All of the teams, though, are members of NFL Properties, the group that actually licenses use of the logos on promotional merchandise, television commercials, and the like. Using the recognized logo of an NFL team — without NFL Properties’ permission — for promotional purposes is a trademark violation. As has been often observed, the NFL is a paragon of socialism in its redistribution of wealth among its plutocratic members, even though one (Jerry Jones of the Cowboys) has fought to keep a greater slice of the revenue generated by Cowboys merch.

Terrible Towels are the perfect weapon
Terrible Towels put your head in a spin

In 1975, the Steelers were preparing for the playoffs and the team’s broadcaster, WTAE, asked announcer Myron Cope to come up with a fan-oriented gimmick to promote the game and Cope’s own talk show. Cope suggested that they use something that every fan would already own, and settled on a yellow towel on which fans could write “The Terrible Towel.” By 1978, Gimbel’s department store began selling pre-printed Terrible Towels, with Cope retaining the trademark. In 1996, Cope transferred the rights to the Towel to the Allegheny Valley School, which his son had attended.

Has In Acchord infringed upon the trademark of the Pittsburgh Steelers, by using the Steeler logo without permission to promote the group? Have they infringed upon the trademarks of the National Football League? Have they also infringed upon the Allegheny Valley School’s trademark on the Terrible Towel? Or has the team’s and the league’s and the Towel’s ubiquity in the region given Steeler Nation a kind of squatter’s rights here — a fair-use claim on properties that so dominate the cultural life of the region that they have almost become, in spite of the owners’ adamant insistence to the contrary, public property?

And where is In Acchord in relationship to Lady Gaga’s property? Have they violated her copyright? As they recorded their song accompanied by a karaoke backing track, they have not violated the copyright on the recording of “Bad Romance.” The group asserts that they have obtained a legal “mechanical license” to perform the song, so they are not violating the songwriters’ copyright. Finally, In Acchord also (after posting the video on YouTube) obtained the rights to the photographs that comprise the video from the copyright holder, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, and the video concludes with a copyright statement to that effect.

So where does In Acchord fit here: a group that is not a group, but instead just a singer and a lyricist and a Pro Tools jockey with a YouTube account? And what is this song? Is it the sum of its raw materials — the logo and images of a team, a newspaper’s photographs, the communal emotions of a region, a popular song, a backing track from a karaoke machine, the passionate fandom for a pop star? If so, how can it be anything but theft?

Fair-use doctrine specifies that when one relies so heavily on copyrighted material, the resulting product must be a significant transformation of those elements. “Steel Defense” certainly doesn’t qualify. It is neither a parody nor a tribute, but a mash-up of the copyrighted and trademarked property of many owners, with little original but the lyrics and a vocal track. What has In Acchord brought to this? How have they transformed it? What is their original creation? Is it a collage? A pastiche? A spirit song? A sly commentary on gender roles? A rich text that highlights issues of private property and false consciousness?

It is all of these, and more. For all of its sincerity and provinciality, "Steel Defense" shows that the blunt, imperious insistences of intellectual-property owners melt into air when challenged by the remixing indigenous to the digital age. The song and video also suggest, provocatively, that fandom itself may entitle fans to use protected properties in ways that analog fair-use doctrine doesn't yet account for, because the resulting creations may — even in spite of themselves — richly and provocatively transform their source material into something new, and almost communal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A lifelong member of Steeler Nation who didn't set foot in the city until he was 24, Greg Barnhisel has taught writing and American literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA since 2003. He is the author of James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (Massachusetts, 2005) and the forthcoming Cold War Modernists (Columbia, 2014), and has written for Mental Floss, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.