GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Figure skating has always been performance art — the only winter sport in which athletes compete in sequined costumes and are scored, in part, on their emotive range behind masks of pancake-thick makeup.
Now comes another performance element at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Single skaters will be allowed to compete to music with lyrics for the first time in Olympic history, a prerogative that previously belonged solely to ice dancers.
The hope is that opening figure skating’s songbook will boost TV ratings and entice a wave of youngsters to try the sport, ensuring the next generation of fans and would-be gold medalists. But the question remains: How will it play with Olympic judges?
U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon will challenge their sensibilities out of the gate at the Gangneung Ice Arena, performing a short program when the men’s competition gets underway here Feb. 16 (8 p.m. ET Feb. 15) to a pulsating, electro-dance hit that includes the lyrical declaration, “I’ll be your lover, your sexy affair.”
New York native Jimmy Ma took a bolder creative leap last month at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, competing to the hip-hop party anthem, “Turn Down for What.” Ma, 22, didn’t make the Olympic team, finishing 11th, but fans went wild at San Jose’s SAP Center. If commentators were puzzled by the lyrical loop of “Fire up that loud/Another round of shots/Turn Down for What?” and judges were unimpressed, Ma scored a major victory in posing the musical question: Can DJ Snake and Lil Jon save figure skating?
Four-time world champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton thinks so.
“Of all the rule-changes they’ve had in the last 20 years, this was one that was directly intended to please the skating audience,” said Hamilton, 59, a huge fan of the International Skating Union’s decision, which took effect with the 2014-15 season. “Whenever we do ice shows or ‘Stars on Ice’ (in which popular songs are used), they do market studies. And most people say, ‘I loved the music! It’s music I can relate to.’ It’s a performance sport, and when you’d allowed to interpret the spoken words, it’s easier than trying to paint a picture to classical music or instrumental music.”
Rohene Ward, a two-time figure-skating choreographer of the year, was initially skeptical but counts himself among the converted after collaborating with U.S. figure skater Jason Brown, an alternate on the 2018 Olympic team, on a program based on a song from the musical “Hamilton.”
“I definitely think anything helps, at this point, to get the sport’s popularity back up — to get people noticing it again,” Ward said in a telephone interview. “Who among kids today is listening to classical music? Not many, unless they’re skating or doing ballet. To get kids to want to skate, you’ve got to have music they like.”
No doubt, the aesthetics of figure skating are increasingly remote to today’s audiences. Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov are unfamiliar to most young viewers. Moreover, figure skaters’ interpretations of their classics --”Swan Lake,” “Bolero” and “Scheherazade”— border on tiresome, if not tapped out. Only the geekiest figure-skating devotees debate who rendered the Persian Princess Scheherazade more poignantly: Michelle Kwan? Japan’s Mao Asada? South Korea’s Kim Yu-na? Italy’s Carolina Kostner?
Not everyone is on board with the change, however.
Veteran coach Frank Carroll, an inductee into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, said he believes music should be in service to the skater and not the other way around. He points to Kwan, his most decorated and beloved pupil, and her power to transport audiences (and judges) through her interpretive brilliance.
“Every work, she interpreted with her face and her fingers,” Carroll said of Kwan, a five-time world champion, nine-time U.S. champion and Olympic silver and bronze medalist. “There are not many people like that. That’s why she was a legend. She could do that!”
Carroll also voiced qualms about the music that today’s young skaters favor. “The music that’s popular with kids is not Rodgers and Hammerstein; it’s not beautiful melodies,” Carroll said in a telephone interview. “It’s basically kind of a rap music; a hip-hop staccato. You can’t skate to that, obviously!”
Ma made a powerful case otherwise.
It wasn’t just fans in the stands who loved his hip-hop program at U.S. Championships. Video of Ma’s performance lit up social media. Watching on live TV from her Maryland home was 2006 world champion Kimmie Meissner, who was critiquing competitors’ skills and explaining the fine points of the rules to her baseball-playing boyfriend watching alongside her.
“The whole event, he kept saying, ‘I want to see somebody skate to music I’d hear in a club,’” Meissner recounted. “Then Jimmy Ma came out with ‘Turn Down for What,’ and he was all for it. He said, ‘I want this guy to win!’”
Another rising skater, 16-year-old Starr Andrews, minted new fans, too, en route to her sixth-place finish at U.S. Championships by performing a free skate set to her own vocal cover of Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”
Still, opinion is divided about whether this new lyrical license liberates figure skaters or limits them.
To Rippon, it’s a gift.
“It can be used as a tool to portray your story a little bit more,” said Rippon, 28, the 2016 U.S. national champion. “You have four minutes to show the world who you are and to make your case to the judges. I think any little bit helps.”
That’s why he chose music that shows another facet of his personality for his longer free skate at the Olympics — Coldplay’s “O (Fly On),” about a bird with a broken wing learning to fly. Rippon, wearing a form-fitting top with a sequined pattern of feathers, opens his performance with a dramatic pose, his right arm folded against his torso, before taking flight himself.
American Nathan Chen, 18, a gold-medal contender at the 2018 Olympics, will use music with lyrics — “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine — for his short program. His free skate is to music from the film “Mao’s Last Dancer” and Igor Stravinsky.
Ward, the choreographer, concedes that songs with lyrics give skaters a broader range of choices while giving fans performances “they can sing along to.” But for his purposes, it can cut both ways.
If a song can be interpreted myriad ways, he finds it inspiring to choreograph, citing David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” as an example. “Everybody hears it differently. It’s very worldly. Is it about the pressure of love? The push and pull of life? There are so many ways you can take it.”
He’s intrigued by hip-hop, too. “It brings music to life. The lyrics become accents, as well.”
But Ward said it can be “creatively stifling” to choreograph a huge hit with lyrics that are unambiguous. “If somebody’s skating to ‘I Will Always Love You,” the program is going to be about the song — not the program,” he said. “From the moment an audience hears the first note, it’s a song everybody knows, and they’re going to want the same story.”
Finally, there is the matter of personal taste. What is music to one ear is often noise to another. And it’s possible that lyrical content becomes the next subjective element of figure-skating judging at the Olympics, which is already puzzling enough for viewers who tune in every four years.
It’s worth the risk, in Hamilton’s view.
“I love the spectrum. I hear ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Turn Down for What,’ and they both hold their own,” Hamilton said. “It’s fun because it’s contemporary, and it broadens the audience.”
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