With the World Cup in Brazil looming, advertising campaigns have begun their assault on our eyes and ears. Every brand tries to capitalize on Brazil’s national identity as an attractive, Samba-dancing country full of world-class footballers. However, one tune sticks out—and not in a good way. I speak of “We Are One,” Pitbull’s instantly forgettable and unfortunately official World Cup anthem.
A long time ago, though, World Cup theme songs were delightfully bizarre. The first ever song, “Rock del Mundial” by local rockers Los Ramblers for Chile ’62, was an offbeat rock-a-billy tune. For England ’66, Lonnie Donegan wrote a goofy ode to the World Cup mascot, World Cup Willy. In the 1970s, the anthems oscillated between general choruses and pop songs. For Mexico '70, we got a Bossa Nova/Mariachi mix and a group of females repeating “Mexico setenta.” Polish pop star Maryla Rodowicz penned an upbeat, two-minute anthem titled “Futbol” for Germany '74. Film composer Ennio Morricone, the man behind the soundtrack for several Sergio Leone films, gifted us the lyric-less “March del Mundial” for Argentina '78. Placido Domingo’s lovely tenor, backed by a full orchestra, belted out the last non-pop anthem for Spain '82.
The songs attempt to check off every possible box, and as a result, we get these mismatched anthems that are sort of about the host country but also about the world and maybe soccer and possibly having a good time, sung by someone who doesn’t really make much sense because what one person could represent all of those things at once?
Four years later, Arrow, a musician from Montserrat, released an album featuring the song “Hot Hot Hot,” which turned into a dance floor hit. Rather than hire a singer or band to pen a new song, FIFA jumped on the pop music bandwagon. They licensed “Hot Hot Hot” as the official anthem, and the marriage between the World Cup and mainstream music was consummated.
This was an interesting, if not problematic choice. Before “Hot Hot Hot,” most World Cup anthems stayed true to the country of the host. The songs weren’t created in the hopes of achieving mainstream commercial success. Instead, they were strange and unique representations of the places where the games were to be played. But as they started to lean more toward pop, all of the songs started to sound the same.
In an analysis of popular Western music from 1955 to 2010 published in Scientific Reports, Joan Serrà found that most music today is actually very similar to songs from the 1950s: It all relies on the same 10 chords. The only big difference is that music is now louder as measured by decibels, and the 10 major chords are “separated by the more pedestrian chords.”
Yet, while the World Cup anthem strives to be palatable for a global audience, it then ends up getting “focus grouped to death,” says music writer Rob Mitchum. The songs attempt to check off every possible box, and as a result, we get these mismatched anthems that are sort of about the host country but also about the world and maybe soccer and possibly having a good time, sung by someone who doesn’t really make much sense because what one person could represent all of those things at once?
Aching heart lyricists like Ricky Martin and Shakira singing about a big party for professional athletes seems shallow compared to the intimacy of their best work. Rambling about “not stopping” and the “cup of life” in 1998’s “Copa de la Vida,” Martin comes off as forced. Shakira has an exceptional vocal range, but on 2010’s “Waka Waka” her voice rarely pushes itself outside her comfort zone. She just kind of mumbles “Por que eso es Africa.” Also, conceptually, hearing a Colombian woman (whose team failed to qualify) half-heartedly singing about why the World Cup is big for Africa raises more eyebrows than expectations. Her song was overshadowed by the unofficial “Wavin Flag” by K’Naan, which featured a catchy chorus, an irresistible lead guitar hook, and lyrics that encapsulated the fragile optimism surrounding the event.
If Shakira and Ricky Martin’s anthems were mismatches between the tender-hearted and a party atmosphere, in a lot of ways, Pitbull makes sense. If there’s one person who has come to represent a generic brand of “having a good time,” it’s the guy who calls himself “Mr. Worldwide.”
Sadly, “We Are One” is not the fit it could have been. Even by Pitbull’s lower lyrical standards, the words are uninspired. He starts off—similarly to K’Naan four years ago—by telling folks to wave flags, and then his own voiceover rips a page from Bob Marley by proclaiming “One Love.” Jennifer Lopez also makes an appearance, in which as she tries (and perhaps succeeds) to break the world record for times one person can rhyme “unite” with “fight” in a single breath. The production is above-average with a reasonably catchy lead guitar line, but sadly the song feels long at only four minutes. Artistically, Rebecca Black has traversed more original frontiers.
And commercially, the song isn’t faring much better. As of May 22, 2014, the Billboard Top Singles featured a few Pitbull songs, including “Wild Wild Love” at number 34 and “Timber” at 35. It did not feature the World Cup anthem, despite the tournament being just around the corner. The “We Are One” official video on YouTube had been viewed almost 23 million times, but that’s chump change compared to “Timber,” which has been viewed over 260 million times. If your song is going to be sung by Pitbull (who once said, upon losing a Grammy, “My kids can't eat awards. I care about the public.") and not be a commercial success, then it’s really hard to understand the point.
Ever since the “Hot Hot Hot” from ’86, FIFA has sought conformity with popular music, not innovation. We will probably never hear another anthem by an artist or composer like Morricone or Placido Domingo. Instead, just as the tournament itself has expanded to include a diluted competitive field, the anthem has been stretched to exclude nobody, but fails to really include anybody (or anything) in particular.