To watch Cheer, Netflix’s breathless docu-series about Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team and their bid to win a 14th National Cheerleading Championship, is to realize your own limitations. When I watch any other major sport, a small and deluded part of me thinks that, with the right conditions and a little bit of luck, I could do it. I *could* catch that pass, I *could score from there, I *might just* make it over the line and taste glory. It took about ten minutes of watching Cheer, however, to become fully aware that these athletes operate on a whole different level.
To make it “on mat” (Cheer lingo for being selected for the team competing at the National Cheerleading Association’s championship held annually in Daytona) requires a level of strength, coordination, daring, and commitment that would push the steeliest of athletes. The soundtrack to Cheer is a series of thuds, cracks, cries, and sharp intakes of breath; unsurprisingly for a sport in which “flyers” are hurled 25 feet in the air before being caught by “tumblers,” cheerleading is unforgiving and broken bones quickly pile up. Navarro’s relentlessly energetic routines are soundtracked by producer Patrick Avard, a producer based out of Atlanta. His custom mix for the cheer squad is played repeatedly throughout the series, as viewers will instantly recognize the mix’s “it’s a dog eat dog world” refrain.
Avard is a major player in the uniquely insular world of cheer music. A 2015 rule change meant that squads could no longer dance to their favorite pop songs without purchasing expensive licenses. As a result custom mixes became the de facto sound of the sport, with teams approaching producers to provide a backing track for their high-flying escapades. Much like everything else in the cheer world, this hardcore EDM-style music is intense; Navarro’s theme song makes Skrillex sound like Beach House and features boastful and brash rapping straight out of the Lonely Island songbook.
Speaking via FaceTime from his Atlanta studio, Avard estimates that he and his small team make around 90 custom mixes for various cheer squads each season. A mix costs $5000 and is a collaborative process between himself and the squad, with the goal being to get as much of the squad’s personality into the music as possible.
Navarro are big dogs competing in an underdog sport, and their mix reflects that; before the season documented on Cheer they’d won 13 of the previous 19 championships, and the lyrics to their music highlights this (“Number 14, we’re going all out”) while the pounding rhythm of the music is reflective of a sport in which the competitors must balance immense physical strength with nerves of steel. It may sound wild to the casual listener but, as Avard explains, once you’re on mat the wildest things become routine.
What’s the success of Cheer and the increased attention on the cheerleading world been like?
The production team did an incredible job of capturing the essence of competitive cheerleading. They picked the perfect team to highlight, too. [Navarro coach Monica Aldama] is so genuine and hard working, and that resonates. People want to watch something that’s real, and she is.
I was a competitive cheerleader before I got into music and was competing with Navarro back in 1999. It’s a tough sport. Injuries happen, and people go through tough times. The way they captured the sport and helped to break stereotypes — this idea that cheerleading is corny and not athletic — was fantastic. There’s been increased attention on what I do, mainly from people outside the cheer world. They see the clips, and suddenly a world they maybe didn’t quite understand before makes sense in a new way. We have known how great this sport is for 25 years, and now the rest of the world is getting to see too.
How did you become involved in the world of cheer music?
I cheered at Florida Atlantic University, started coaching on the side, and needed someone to make music for my teams. Back then, there weren’t many producers who did this for a living. A friend told me about a computer program called Acid Pro that let you make this music yourself. I taught myself how to cut things together and figured out how to add the sound effects. A few years on, I made my own college’s team and friends started to ask me for music for the teams they choreographed for. It became a side income for me.
Tell me about the culture of cheer music and how the rule change that ushered in the custom era has come to define what you do.
All cheerleading teams have always had their own unique mixes,but these teams always had someone in-house that pieced them together. As the sport has grown, it’s become more important to have a more professional-sounding mix, and I guess I’m partially responsible for that. Once some of the big teams started to use custom music to give themselves a competitive edge, the rest followed suit.
The rule change really changed a lot — from the process to the content of the mixes. It was a positive for me, though. I was already making original content for my mixes. That gave me a competitive edge and put me ahead of those who had never even tried to write a song. It turned the industry upside down, though, for sure.
Who were the artists people used to request in their mixes the most?
Whoever had the hottest song out, whether it was Ariana Grande, Whitney Houston, or Celine Dion. People danced to top 40 hits.
Explain how the sound of the mixes has arrived at where they are now.
The key components are big drums, because it has to carry the energy into an arena. The sound effects highlight the movements as they twist and flip, and the singers have to really belt it out and they tell the story about the team alongside the custom rap. Teams vary with their requests regarding the sound of each mix. Co-ed teams will ask for a mixture of male and female vocalists, while all-girl teams may want all female vocalists. Sound effects are a big thing, too. Navarro has their dogs barking throughout. I’ve used airplanes and cat growling sounds in mixes before. There’s an element of sound design to it all.
The lyrics really tell the story of the team and where they are in history. We mentioned Navarro going for their 14th championship in the mix. The process is different for each team. I do my research with a new client. I listen to their old music, I talk to coaches, I look into the history of the team. I want to know what the kids are talking about in practice, and I find out their goals. Some teams are very hands-on, others leave me to it. This is my 12th year working with Navarro, and I’ve become very familiar with what makes them happy.
Where do you find your vocalists?
A lot of them are based here in Atlanta. We’re always on the lookout for new people. We get a lot of referrals, and sometimes people get in touch with us. The first celebrity vocalist I worked with was Bone Crusher. A friend had worked with him and I just thought, “How cool would it be to put Bone Crusher in a cheer mix?” Once you have one artist on board, it’s easier to get others to agree to work with you. Since then we’ve had T-Pain, Trina, Akon, the Ying Yang Twins, and Lil Jon on various mixes.
What’s your relationship to popular music at this point? Are you completely in the cheer world, or do you look to what’s trending for influence?
You know, it’s funny. Since we started doing entirely our own music in 2015, I only listen to what we create. I don’t listen to commercial music anymore, mainly because we’re only working. When i’m not working, I don’t want to listen to music at all! We keep up with trends, but a lot of current music, in its form, doesn’t translate to our world. We have created a genre. Cheerleading music has its own components and sound, and there’s nothing else quite like it.
Could you ever see one of your mixes being a Billboard hit?
I don’t think anybody imagined a situation where cheerleading music would be licensed to a Netflix series or performed to on Ellen, but it’s happened. We’ve created a following and a fan base, so, sure, I can see a world where that may happen. At this stage, anything is possible.
Cheer is streaming on Netflix now.