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March 11, 2008

Book Notes - Kate Torgovnick ("Cheer!")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I usually don't read blurbs when a review copy of a book shows up at my door. If possible, I prefer to open the book without even considering the cover or publicity sheets, read the first 50 pages, and decide without any outside intervention whether or not to invite the author to participate in the Book Notes series. I changed the rules when CHEER! arrived, mostly because I was skeptical about the topic (cheerleading). Then I saw a blurb by Joyce Carol Oates on the cover lauding the book, and Courtney E. Martin comparing the book to Word Freaks and The Orchid Thief, two of my favorite works of recent narrative non-fiction, on the back.

In CHEER!, Kate Torgovnick follows three elite college cheerleading teams for a season. I have two sisters who were high school cheerleaders and thought I had seen how the sport has changed over the years, but CHEER! offers an eye-opening view into the grueling sport of competitive cheerleading, grippingly and passionately told by Kate Torgovnick.

In her own words, here is Kate Torgovnick's Book Notes essay for her book, Cheer!:

In high school, I had blue hair, wore vintage clothes, and was deeply infatuated with the mid-90s indie rock scene flourishing around me in Durham, North Carolina. The only time I went to a football game in high school, or college for that matter, was when a friend decided to streak across the field during half time. In other words, I was pretty much the opposite of a cheerleader. So it’s ironic that 14 years later, I wrote CHEER!, a narrative nonfiction romp through the world of competitive college cheerleading.

To explain how this came to be, I need to rewind back to 2004. I was an editorial assistant at Jane Magazine, and loved writing reviews and doing the prank column. But I was hungry to break into features. So when it came up in a story meeting that the editors wanted to find a juicy cheerleading feature, I started calling every cheerleader I could find. What they described to me was far more intense than just waving pom-poms. They described National Championships that are decided by hundredths of a point. They described tryouts where 150 women compete for three spots. They described a world where body insecurities are in a pressure cooker—where women constantly discuss diet pills and where guys often go the steroid route. They described a culture where head, neck, and back injuries abound—and yet, where the risk is a huge part of the appeal. I decided to head to the Chick-fil-A Collegiate Cheer Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida, where I was instantly drawn in by the Herculean men and daredevil women whose passion for their sport was, well, mind-blowing.

The article was the longest I’d written at that point—2000 words. But I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. So I decided to write a book. I picked three teams and spent the next year on the road through the South following them. The result is CHEER!. More than anything, I hope it will be a book to break the stereotypes about cheerleaders.

Without further ado, a soundtrack of the songs that appear in, or inspired, CHEER!.

Bloc Party “The Prayer”

I know the song isn’t about cheerleading. But it sure sounds like it is. “Tonight make me unstoppable / And I will charm, I will slice, I will dazzle / I will outshine them all.” These could be words right of the cheerleaders’ mouths. This album came out while I was following the three teams, and this is the song that instantly pops into my mind when I think about the CHEER! experience as a whole.

DJ Unk, “Walk It Out”

The first team I followed was the Jaguars from Southern University in Baton Rouge, one of the biggest historically back colleges in the country. Last year, “Walk It Out” was everywhere on Southern’s campus—it could be heard at step shows, pep rallies, wafting from car windows on the school’s main drag. The Southern cheerleaders played this song at least one time per practice. A few months into following the team, I was driving with team captain, James Turner. “Walk It Out” started playing on the radio, and I joked to him that it was always on. He reached down and changed the channel—and “Walk It Out” was playing on that station, too. We laughed for five minutes straight.

Journey “Don’t Stop Believing”

Cheerleading routines last 2 minutes and 15 seconds, and usually combine 7-9 songs ranging from pop to hip hop to rock ‘n’ roll. And almost every cheerleading routine contains at least one ‘80s favorite. The second team I followed, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks from Nacogdoches, Texas, had created one of the biggest and most intricate pyramids ever attempted at Nationals. For this climax of the routine, they chose Steve Perry belting out “Don’t Stop Believing.” It made the hair on my arms stand on end each and every time. But since I don’t want to give too much away, you’ll have to read the book to find out if SFA hit their pyramid and won a fifth national championship in a row.

Kelly Clarkson “Since You Been Gone”

This song used to drive me insane. But now, I love it because it reminds me of the third team I followed, the University of Memphis Tigers—an All-Girl team hoping to win their second national championship and to get as much respect on campus as the Memphis Coed team. Specifically, this song makes me remember piling into a PT Cruiser with seven of the Memphis cheerleaders on our way to the big Memphis versus the University of Tennessee game. It was the first football game of my life, and outside the stadium, there was a whole city of RVs manned by fans who’d camped out the night before. More than 60,000 people were at the game, orange and blue dots as far as the eye could see, like an expressionist painting. There was even a carnival afterwards. With fried Oreos.

At the Drive In, “Napoleon Solo”

I listened to a lot of At the Drive In, my favorite Texas band, while following the SFA Lumberjacks. Nacogdoches is located about three hours from Houston. Often, my flight back to New York would be at 8am, which meant I’d have to leave my hotel at 4am to make it. I’d drink a Red Bull, crank up ATDI, and sing (scream?) along. It kept me awake. Usually.

Lady Royale, “Do You Like”

This song is a little obscure. But five of the Southern cheerleaders star in the video. Check it out (link: The guy playing the drums and fanning Lady Royale with palm leaves—that’s Tremayne. The waitress holding the tray—that’s Tarianne. The guy dancing in the driveway—that’s Jarel. The making of this music video was at one point a scene in CHEER!—but since my manuscript was well over 200,000 words originally, I had to cut it.

Survivor, “Eye of the Tiger”

When your school mascot is the tiger, I guess it’s only natural that “Eye of the Tiger” is a campus favorite. The University of Memphis band plays it at games, and the cheerleaders always make sure to mix it into their Nationals soundtrack. And here’s some trivia for you—the tiger is the most popular mascot in the United States.

Alan Jackson, “Five O’Clock Somewhere”

Early in the year, I was with the SFA Lumberjacks at a football game when it started to pour. While the fans ran for cover and the football team went into the fieldhouse, the cheerleaders and I stayed on the sidelines. We ran around like little kids, jumping in puddles and using pom-poms to splash each other. Even though the stadium was empty, music was playing over the loudspeakers. When “Five O’Clock Somewhere” came on, everyone started singing along, “It's only half-past twelve but I don't care / It's five o'clock somewhere.” That was one of the most fun nights I had writing this book.

Al Green, “Love and Happiness”

Can you believe I had never heard of Al Green before working on this book? Over Thanksgiving, I headed with the Southern cheerleaders to New Orleans for the Bayou Classic, their annual game against arch-rivals Grambling State. The night before the game is the legendary Southern/Grambling State Battle of the Bands. The bands played everything from Young Jeezy to Beyonce to Gnarls Barkley, but the crowd went crazy when Southern’s band broke into “Love and Happiness.” I went out and bought Al Green’s Greatest Hits the very next day.

Kate Torgovnick and Cheer! links:

the book's website
the author's page at the publisher
the book's video trailer
the book's MySpace page

Tucson Citizen review
Wilmington Star News review

the author's posts at Crucial Minutae
the author's posts at the Huffington Post

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)