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This Is Your Brain on Jock Jams

How memory, psychology and groupthink burned the ‘90s compilation album into your psyche

The maid of honor had a tough gig. One hundred fifty people chattered throughout the venue, and she needed a captive audience fast. Fearlessly, she took the mic. “Please settle down so we can toast the happy couple. But first, enjoy this dance to Jock Jams.” Her moves were solid, but it was the mention of the popular ’90s sports compilation that captured the attention of every 25- to 40-year-old in attendance. Within seconds, Technotronic’s thumping bass and familiar chorus had the entire reception pumping up the jam.

We’d all gathered in a field in the Poconos for a shared reason, braving August humidity and aggressive insects for that most time-honored of social events. Yet the two bars of a early-‘90s dance hit unified us nearly as much as the appearance of the bride. None of us questioned it. We smiled, danced a little in our seats, and rode the oxytocin surge. Love may have brought us together, but Jock Jams momentarily made us one.

Whoomp, there it is.

That’s a lofty legacy for a compilation, until you look at the stats. Released by Tommy Boy Records, Jock Jams volumes 1 to 4 went platinum within a year, with 1 and 2 reaching double platinum. Four of the five albums cracked the Billboard Top 40. Label exec Tom Silverman said Jock Jams represented 30 percent of the label’s income at its peak. He also estimated that Jock Jams tracks still represent about 80 percent of what’s played at sporting events today. The concept — taking tracks played at sporting events and connecting them with organ music and cheers, as exemplified in the Jock Jams Megamix — combined a “very simple, very obvious idea” with the appeal of easy licensing, recalled Monica Lynch, then-president of Tommy Boy.

The ubiquity of the songs demonstrates their group appeal. In the stadium, we lean on these anthems to rally and console us like war songs or lullabies. Lynch, Silverman and crew recognized this and packaged it for the CD market. Partnering with ESPN for sporting credibility didn’t hurt either. Jock Jams was a business no-brainer, but strong sales alone don’t land you on wedding playlists two decades later. (Sorry, Waiting to Exhale soundtrack.)

In portable affordable album format, Jock Jams gave us a soundtrack for group experiences outside the playing field, like the middle school dance or a slumber party. It was an active experience that we shared, rooted deeply in psychology, which makes the silly dance to “Cotton Eye Joe” more meaningful in the rearview mirror of adulthood.

It’s simple: We’re wired to go nuts for Jock Jams. Just listening to music causes our brains to release oxytocin, a hormone linked to both trust and generosity. We didn’t just listen to these songs; we participated. We performed them. And sharing music is powerful: We think better of people when we learn they like the same music as we do.

Coordinating movements with others, like when we harmonize or perform music together in other ways, is linked to the release of endorphins. It also requires cooperation, another building block of trust and social cohesion. A common element of a Jock Jam track is the vocal call and response, where the en masse “Hee-ey! Ho!” requires a similar cooperation, with all the resulting benefits.

There’s more than song structure at play. The label cleverly added seamless transitions so the party never stopped between tracks. Short cheers chanted by nameless women were peppered in when simply overlapping the end and beginning of two songs didn’t work, evoking the stadium vibe while making the album a start-to-finish listen.

Listen to all five volumes and you won’t hear a single ballad. Madison Square Garden’s longtime music director Ray Castoldi helped Tommy Boy select songs for Jock Jams. “It’s got to have a really clear, engaging beat and a certain tempo range that will be a sweet spot — not too fast, not too slow,” he explained.

The right level of up-tempo music (not too fast, not too slow) acts as a stimulus, activating our natural response to synchronize movements to the tempo. It’s no coincidence that these attributes describe what we know as a stadium anthem, the source material for Jock Jams and its predecessor Jock Rock (which largely included classic rock). So when you join in the stomp-stomp-clap of “We Will Rock You,” being part of the group feels good on a chemical and psychological level.

For those who came of age in the era of Jock Jams, our brains were fertile ground for specific sonic memories. Cognitive research shows young adults link recorded music with specific personal memories, while seniors link it to more abstract sentiments and broader memories. On a neurocognitive level, the song is mapped to the emotion experienced at the time of listening to it, so Quad City DJs asking you to “C’mon ride the train” was neurologically tied to the elation you felt dancing with your gang at that bar mitzvah.

This manner of wordless storytelling holds longer in our memories, making that song a trigger for the corresponding feelings and details of the memory. And while this is true for positive and negative emotions (and explains why I feel sad when I hear “Blue Monday” by Prodigy), it also attests to the power of nostalgia.

The bittersweet pull of the past can have a positive impact on our group dynamics, lifting our view of the group and even increasing the likelihood that we’ll sacrifice our own money for the cause. It’s also something we can experience as a group as collective nostalgia, which can serve as an organizing function to strengthen group bonds and develop shared identities. So when a few ’90s kids wax poetic about Jock Jams, nostalgia’s positive effect on groups is superpowered by the collective nature of the shared memory. It’s powerful stuff, and it renders sharp recollections.

It’s me at 13, buying Jock Jams Volume 1 with my babysitting earnings at a Sam Goody. At a school dance, teaching a parental chaperone how to properly do “Da Dip” (as learned from Volume 2). Reluctantly rehearsing for a talent show re-enactment of the Jock Jams cheers. Allowing one and only one group dance song at my wedding: “Tootsee Roll” by 69 Boyz. At 33, putting Jock Jams tracks on the office playlist.

Jock Jams continues to bring us together. You’ll hear the songs at sporting events, but it’s their inclusion in weddings, karaoke nights and workout playlists that threads this magic through our daily lives. The connections run deep, but technological advances and changes in listening habits hint that may not be the case for today’s youth.

In the headphones-on digital now, every song is at our fingertips, but we’re listening alone more than any time ever since audio recording. It’s too soon to tell what this means for today’s adolescent minds. It’s possible their brains are mapping music and emotion without the group benefits we enjoyed a generation or two prior. Time will tell what their version of Jock Jams will be, but it’s time we recognize our own generation’s key to the past.

Where would we be now without those moments we listened together? The times we shouted along with the crowd, with our peers? The shared and still autobiographical moments that return the instant we hear a familiar baritone announce, “Let’s get ready to rumble” as the bass hits?

So grab a friend, dust off that CD player, and set that sucker on repeat. Because in the wise words of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, “It takes two to make a thing go right. It takes two to make it outta sight.”