Musicians are athletes. They have talents that can’t be coached but must be practiced to reach their potential. They are expected to perform at the highest level both in practice (in the studio) and in games (on stage in front of thousands of paying customers) despite grueling travel and publicity schedules. And they both exert energy performing with no guarantee of success.
Musicians’ success ultimately depends on their ability to play, which, like athletes, is dependent upon their health. And while musicians’ careers might not be as short as athletes’ careers on average, they’re equally dependent upon talents that inevitably diminish with age. But what are the sports musicians play on stage when it comes to comparable caloric exertion? That all depends on the genre of music they're playing and how they're playing it.
My research started with 28 musical performances in 27 days, beginning with Earth, Wind & Fire at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 26. From there I flew to Las Vegas for Mariah Carey at Caesars Palace on Sept. 5. A week after returning to Minnesota, I was headed to Chicago for Riot Fest, featuring a three-day lineup spanning almost every musical genre over the last 70 years.
The late 1950s rockabilly and ’60s rock & roll of pianist Jerry Lee Lewis gave way to metal/punk pianist and professional partier Andrew W.K. Fittingly, Elvis Costello and the Imposters played songs from the new wave he helped build and Blondie brought ashore to the states throughout the 1970s, riding the wave to the top of the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. in 1980 with a cover of The Paragons’ “The Tide is High.”
Blondie also served as a reminder that the political, electronic punk group Pussy Riot has Debbie Harry to thank for not only popularizing female punk voices but feminism as a whole. And while Bad Religion wasn’t the first band to get political with their lyrics in the 1980s, their popularity certainly made it a staple of the punk genre, paving the way for acts like Pussy Riot to draw attention to political corruption with their music. Pussy Riot did just that at Riot Fest, calling for justice after a longtime member and activist with the group was poisoned, perhaps for uncovering information regarding the deaths of three Russian journalists with whom he’d been working.
The ’90s were well represented by Lagwagon and Face to Face, and although Blink-182 had to cancel for health reasons, the lineup somehow got better with the additions of Weezer, Run the Jewels, and Taking Back Sunday. Blink’s absence didn’t mean pop punk of the ’90s would go unheard at Riot Fest Chicago 2018. Alkaline Trio announced their presence with a fantastic set just before Incubus reenacted the heydays of alternative rock that started in the late ’90s and continued into the new millennium.
If you thought Riot Fest was a punk rock festival, you’d be surprised to know that hip-hop acts have played the festival in consecutive years. The best performance of 2017 was provided by Prophets of Rage, a rap rock supergroup consisting of members from Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill. The performance unified very different genres and, as a result, very different people, but was especially emotional coming just months after Audioslave’s lead singer, Chris Cornell, committed suicide. Cypress Hill’s B-Real must have enjoyed the emotional and genre-defying performance he gave with Prophets in 2017, because he was back playing “Hits from the Bong” with Cypress Hill in 2018. Run the Jewels concluded the festival’s final day just as Prophets of Rage did the year before.
Cypress Hill might be playing the only sport for which cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug, but that doesn’t mean what they’re doing on stage (and off) isn’t athletic. Exactly how athletic is difficult to determine without primary research. Ideally, I would have slapped a Fitbit on the wrist of each musician before going on stage. Instead, we’ll have to rely on estimates of caloric exertion provided by sources I felt to be most reputable and accurate based on my own calorie counting. So what sports are some of music’s best athletes playing on stage?
Mariah Carey is the Babe Ruth of Popular Singing
Mariah Carey’s body might be enhanced in a Bondsian fashion, but her voice is Ruthian; it might be replaced with a recording on occasion, but never enhanced, only amplified. Mariah is the Babe Ruth of popular music for a lot of reasons, but mostly because she has done and continues to do something no one else in her sport has.
The greatest athletes of all time separate themselves from their peers by being the only athlete in their sport to do something. Mariah has sung a G7 (a G-note in the seventh octave), which no other singer of popular music has done. She regularly reaches F#7 in concert (F-sharp, seventh octave), lifting people to their feet and putting smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. I can personally attest to this, but I can only imagine men cried when Ruth allegedly pointed to the center field bleachers and then hit a homer there in what was a tied Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.
Barry Bonds hitting more home runs than Ruth, regardless of cleanliness, is as irrelevant to the greatest-baseball-player-of-all-time argument as Ruth’s all-time best 182.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over his career because only Ruth has been both the best hitter and pitcher in his league over the course of a single season (so far).
Had there been an American League Cy Young Award in 1916, Ruth would have won it, but not by the margin he would have won the Most Valuable Player Award had there been one in 1920 (he hit 35 more home runs than runner-up George Sisler) and eventually did win in 1923 despite sharing the home run crown with Cy Williams (he reached base in more than half of his plate appearances and got all eight first-place votes).
While a 28-year-old Walter Johnson led the AL in wins (25), complete games (36) and innings pitched (369.2) in 1916, Ruth was the league’s best pitcher by any measure—new (Ruth had a league-best ERA+ of 158) or old (Ruth led the league with nine shutouts to Johnson’s three and allowed the fewest hits per nine innings pitched in the AL). And while Johnson's Senators finished last, Ruth led Boston to the American League Pennant (and, eventually, a World Series Championship) with 23 wins in a league-leading 40 starts and four other appearances accounting for more than 23 percent of his team’s innings pitched during the regular season (323.2, third-most in the AL). Two years later Ruth led Major League Baseball with 11 home runs along with Tillie Walker, but did so with almost 100 fewer at-bats. It was the last time Ruth would have more wins (13) than homers in a single season.
Using strictly vocal range as a means to determine popular music’s best singer would be like using batting average to determine baseball’s best hitter—it doesn’t tell the whole story. Ruth only led the league in batting average once, and his .342 career average is just tenth-best all time. Axl Rose might have the largest vocal range in the sport of popular singing, but the lowest note he sang (F1) is just one note lower than Barry White's lowest (F#1, or F-sharp, first octave). Mariah’s highest note is seven notes higher than that of her closest competitor.
Longevity matters in GOAT debates too, and Rose didn’t retain his vocal range for nearly as long as Mariah has. The one thing only Rose has done in the sport is so closely contested its baseball equivalent would be Roger Maris breaking Ruth’s single-season, home run record in the last game of the 1961 season, which was 10 games longer than Ruth’s in 1927, but resulted in Maris getting just seven more plate appearances than Ruth had to hit 60. Mariah is the GOAT because, at some point in her long career (like right now), she’s been both the sport’s best hitter of notes (vocal range) and best “pitcher” (highest or lowest pitch sung), and has done so convincingly and simultaneously.
Mariah’s relative dominance of her sport isn’t the only similarity she shares with Ruth. While Mariah isn’t “The Mariah” like Ruth was “The Babe,” her fans refer to her using only her first name with the assumption that absolutely everyone knows which Mariah is the Mariah. And like the Sultan of Swat, who went by his “stage” name of Babe over his given name, George, Mariah has earned a lot of nicknames, including “The Voice” and “Songbird.” So the relative fandom of musicians is also comparable to that of athletes.
Mariah is beloved by her fans like The Babe was by kids. They defend her unconditionally because she is other-worldly in their eyes and ears. Any comparison to Whitney Houston is met with ruthless rebuffing comparable only to that of Michael Jordan fans fending off LeBron James comparisons as if they’re attacks on their religion or right to free speech. Ruth’s dominance of his sport allowed him to enjoy a long leash when it came to his off-field behavior, and the same goes for divas. There won’t be another Mariah, and there won’t be another Ruth—only imitators and imposters.
But Mariah isn’t popular enough to be the Michael Jordan of popular music, and she’s not burning comparable calories on stage as a basketball player does on the court. Few musicians are. Mariah Carey is playing baseball on stage, and she’s probably working harder than Ruth did playing the outfield, but not as hard as he did as a pitcher and hitter early in his career. Early in her career, though, her on-stage caloric exertion might have been closer to the caloric exertion of Ruth the pitcher/hitter.
If Livestrong’s estimates are accurate, Mariah singing while standing for an hour burns around 140 calories assuming a weight of 150 pounds. Healthy Celeb has her at around 148, which is reasonable given her five-foot, eight-inch height. Since she’s walking around the stage and doing so in heels, she’s probably burning another 200 calories per hour even if she’s lip-syncing. So that’s 340 calories burned per hour singing and moving around the stage (and crowd, which she did in Vegas), but we’re not considering her four plate appearances per game.
Mariah’s plate appearances are her wardrobe changes, each of which she knocked out of the park simply by being a knockout (thank you, gastric sleeve surgery). Mariah had four wardrobe changes during her Las Vegas show, all completed in three minutes or so, and while I’m sure she has plenty of help backstage, she’s still burning calories just as Ruth would even without swinging the bat. She might not burn a home-run-trot’s worth of calories changing clothes, but even The Great Bambino had a “courtesy runner” round the bases for him on home runs late in his career.
If we use an average of 3.5 minutes per wardrobe change given Mariah’s height, weight, and age, she likely burned another 20 calories or more changing clothes. And I think that’s a low estimate given her elevated heart rate going into the wardrobe change and the pressure of quickly completing the change. Keep in mind this estimate represents the caloric exertion associated with dressing and undressing with no stakes or complicated outfits. Still, that’s a total of 360 calories burned per hour on stage.
A non-pitching, non-catching fielder burns roughly 1,000 calories during a nine-inning baseball game. Another source estimates caloric exertion of non-pitchers and non-catchers at 305 calories per hour. An average game is over three hours long, so Mariah’s caloric exertion per hour on stage is comparable to that of a baseball player who isn’t pitching or catching. And her talent, longevity, and dominance of her sport is comparable to that of baseball’s best player.
Earth, Wind & Fire is the 1990s Chicago Bulls of Popular Music
Sinbad said prior to the Earth, Wind & Fire concert that I was in for a religious experience. He was absolutely right, but I didn’t think there would be so much movement on stage given the average age of the band members. I figured Philip Bailey’s voice would have regressed at the age of 67; I was wrong. I couldn’t imagine bassist Verdine White moving as much as he did at 67, and longtime percussionist/vocalist Ralph Johnson, also 67, didn’t miss a beat or note. It was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and I can only imagine had I ever seen the Bulls of the ’90s, I would have cried tears of joy at United Center just like I did at the Minnesota State Fair.
Earth, Wind & Fire has as many Grammys as the 1990s Bulls have championship rings (6), and like the greatest NBA dynasties, still has a big three in Bailey, White, and Johnson. Even Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman/Horace Grant. Earth, Wind & Fire not only has a big three, but nearly as many touring members as an NBA team (9). And they likely burned comparable calories as the Bulls roster on any given night.
Johnson alone likely burned more than 300 calories in an hour of drumming. White’s bass playing and dancing given his slenderness likely resulted in excess of 250 calories burned per hour, and we know singers around Bailey’s size burn around 180 calories per hour if their standing while singing. So the three remaining original members of Earth, Wind & Fire likely burned 730 calories in an hour.
Add the horn section with saxophonist, Gary Bias (217 calories per hour), trumpet player, Bobby Burns Jr. (273), and trombone player, Reggie Young (180), and total caloric exertion comes to 1,400. Two guitarists (217 calories burned per hour each) brings the total to 1,834 calories burned per hour, and background vocalists Philip Bailey Jr. and B. David Whitworth push the caloric exertion total to 2,134. Myron McKinley on keyboards (181) pushes Earth, Wind & Fire’s collective caloric exertion to 2,315 calories per hour. In the hour-and-a-half-long set at the Minnesota State Fair, the band probably burned close to 3,500 calories.
In comparison, if Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman played 40 minutes at their listed weights on Basketball Reference (1,523 calories burned), Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, and Ron Harper played 30 minutes at their listed weights (1,200 calories burned), that would leave Steve Kerr 20 minutes (220) and Randy Brown 10 minutes of playing time (118). The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls would collectively burn around 3,061 calories per 48 minutes on the floor, or a bit more than 3,800 calories per hour. The vast difference in mass between members of Earth, Wind & Fire and the Chicago Bulls (Longley was listed at 265 pounds) could account for much of the difference in calories burned per hour.
Andrew W.K. is the Wayne Gretzky of Party Music
No one enjoyed sharing the puck more than The Great One, and no one enjoys sharing a party more than Andrew W.K. Party music is a broad genre and pretty much includes anything played with pace. And while Andrew W.K.’s success in his sport isn’t comparable to that of The Great One in his, there isn’t a single act out there that screams hockey like Andrew’s. Andrew W.K. shows are both pace-full and probably painful for Andrew, but he leaves it all on the stage (even blood sometimes) every night.
The first thing you’ll notice about Andrew W.K. when you see him live for the first time is his teeth. He has the biggest smile of anyone I’ve ever seen play music—so big, in fact, I thought he was high on cocaine. Now I know it’s the crowd that’s his addiction. I’ve never seen anyone happier doing their job than Andrew W.K., except maybe Wayne Gretzky after assisting a teammate on a goal. Gretzky loved assisting his teammates so much he has more assists than anyone else has points scored, and Andrew W.K. looks to simply assist the party-starting despite his early passion being fashion.
We know playing piano burns around 181 calories per hour depending on size, but no one plays piano like Andrew W.K. The only person who did hasn’t kicked the bench out from under himself for quite some time. In fact, it took Jerry Lee Lewis almost five minutes to change jackets onstage after his band played for 15 minutes awaiting his arrival, but he’s 82 years old!
Assuming Andrew burns just 200 calories an hour playing piano and another 180 calories singing given his size (he’s a big man and wrote about working out for Vice amongst other things), that’s 380 calories per hour burned on stage. But Andrew W.K. moves about the stage more and more violently than Mariah Carey or Philip Bailey, so this estimate is more than safe given his hour-long, Riot Fest set.
Time on ice statistics are only available going back to the 1998-99 season, during which Gretzky averaged about 21 minutes per game. But that was his final season, so using playoff numbers might be a better representation of actual calories burned per game in his prime. In the 1993 Conference Finals Game 7 he played close to 24 minutes, and in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final Game 5 he played 23. Livestrong estimates caloric exertion for a 190-pound hockey player to be 700 calories per hour.
So in 22 minutes, Gretzky would burn a little more than 250 calories, but Livestrong notes that the intensity of hockey as an activity allows for calories to be burned well after coming off the ice. Kind of like Mariah Carey’s stressful, high-heart-rate costume changes, hockey’s shift changes results in hockey players continuing to burn calories even while resting. One study found that 10 men who completed an intense, 45-minute workout on a stationary bike burned an additional 190 calories in the 14 hours following the workout. So Gretzky and his linemates burning an additional 80 calories between shifts is reasonable, making The Great One’s total exertion 330 calories per game.
So I think I’ve at least proven that musicians (and singers are musicians because our voices are instruments) burn comparable calories performing on stage as athletes do playing sports, fulfilling the energy exertion requirement of athletes. Whether a musician’s talent and amount of practice required to perfect and preserve that talent is on the same level as professional athletes require more in-depth, accurate research. But if you aren’t considering the performance of your favorite band as an athletic endeavor, you might consider considering it.
Pink Floyd is the 1956-66 Boston Celtics' Starting Five of Rock
The greatest rock band of all time last toured in 1994 with three original members and eight supporting members. That's enough people to match the caloric exertion of the best Boston Celtics teams. Although Pink Floyd was without their Bill Russell (Roger Waters), they still had a Bob Cousy (David Gilmour), a Tom Heinsohn (Nick Mason), and a Bill Sharman (Richard Wright). Waters returned for a reunion performance in 2005.
Pussy Riot is the 1952-60 Montreal Canadiens of Electronic Punk
Regardless of the lack of competition Pussy Riot has in its genre, they've dominated that genre for about as long as the Canadiens did the National Hockey League from 1952 to 1960, winning the Stanley Cup six times and finishing runners-up twice more. Pussy Riot's 11 members probably do enough dancing on stage to match the caloric exertion of the Canadiens of the '50s, too.
Run the Jewels is the LeBron James of Hip Hop
I know Run the Jewels consists of two people—El P and Killer Mike—but it takes at least two people to match what LeBron does on and off the court. Run the Jewels is not only as successful at selling records as LeBron is tickets, but all three of the group's records are critically acclaimed, like LeBron's off-court efforts.