To an astronomer, the longest night of the year occurs once in each hemisphere, as the earth makes its ponderous revolution around the sun. For regular people — people with everyday problems, who don’t live in a fancy observatory surrounded by brass astrolabes — the winter solstice is a weekly event happening every Sunday. Sunday evenings are black holes from which no hope escapes; a time of rumination on the failures of the past seven days, and pre-emptive haunting by fiascos to come. Yet the universe has been known to attenuate misery with fleeting comforts: the sensation of incredible warmth that overtakes a body dying of hypothermia, for instance. And to those souls mired in Sunday-night gloom, it offers a dazzling gift: Carrie Underwood doing the “Sunday Night Football” song on NBC.
This song is not one song but many songs. Since the show’s debut in 2006, its intro has been updated every year, and, within a given season, the song mutates constantly: Each week incorporates a different rhyming line tailored to the current matchup. A schedule may announce a contest between the Colts and the Cowboys; only Carrie Underwood reveals if this promises to be a “righteous showdown” or a “nasty showdown,” or that the teams are “about to throw down” or are “breaking new ground,” and so on. According to representatives from NBC Sports, Underwood annually records 85 permutations of this line back to back in a single session.
The “Sunday Night Football” song extols not the thrill of football, nor the value of sport, but the highly specific ouroboric pleasure of turning on NBC to watch “Sunday Night Football” on NBC on Sunday night. The most frequently recurring version of the song, “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night,” is set to the tune of Joan Jett’s 1988 single “I Hate Myself For Loving You.” I do not enjoy football, or any sport other than Olympic women’s gymnastics finals when the United States is in first place. My comprehension of the rules is nil and my desire to learn them would have to be represented by a negative number. Nor am I a fan — or nonfan — of Carrie Underwood. Yet, when I hear the first word of the song explode from her confident lungs — “Oh,” pronounced “Hohawhunhohhuhawnhohn” — my consciousness abruptly recedes. Mechanically, I sprint to the living room and stare, bewitched, until the segment’s conclusion.
The “Sunday Night Football” music video is beautiful to behold, each incarnation a novel response to the question: If unshackled from the bonds of terrestrial physics, what might Carrie Underwood experience? Answers include: strutting in a dress of rhinestone chain mail through a liminal space filled with floating videos of football fans; calmly standing on a platform that shoots her skyward through hoops of light at a thousand miles a minute; the stage at the Resorts World Theatre in Las Vegas, the site of her residency, “Reflection: The Las Vegas Residency,” magically opening up onto a football stadium where approximately seven million fans, packed with atomic density, are losing their everloving minds to a song about “Sunday Night Football.”
The “Sunday Night Football” song is most likely the theme song familiar to more Americans than any other, because more Americans watch “Sunday Night Football” than anything else on weekly television. In fact, of the 30 most-watched U.S. television broadcasts of all time, 29 are football games. There might be a need to gin up excitement for “Sunday Night Football” if, somehow, every week, “Sunday Night Football” were scheduled to air directly opposite the original 1983 broadcast of the series finale of “M*A*S*H” — the only nonfootball program to appear in the all-time Top 30 most watched. Under normal conditions, however, highlighting the fact that a football game is about to be televised for the American TV audience is an act equivalent to reciting the daily specials to a starving man.
It is this unnecessity — the fact that it exists merely for its own sake — that makes the segment so moving. I don’t mean to imply that the opening sequence could compare favorably to, say, a sunset, which is likewise “beautiful” and “capable of reproducing itself in infinite variations”; I mean to say that outright. The tremble-inducing allure of the “Sunday Night Football” song surpasses nature’s awesome generative capacity. It is a spectacle that could only be conjured from a colossal amount of money.
Tripp Dixon, the NBC Sports “VP of Creative” tasked with supervising this visual triumph, likens the sequence to an “airlock” designed to safely transition viewers from the grim reality of everyday existence to the high-octane fantasia of “Sunday Night Football.” In exchange for submission to the spectacular, “Sunday Night Football” promises a respite from all concerns.
The sly genius of American football is that its accouterments — Super Bowl ads with feature-film budgets, stupefyingly cutting-edge bumper graphics — replicate, even or especially for those with no interest in football, the draw of football itself: a celebration of human aptitude and a diversion of attention away from anything more important. Through judicious application of Carrie Underwood and C.G.I. technology, the “Sunday Night Football” song offers a brief yet total respite from the horror of Sunday night.
Caity Weaver is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.