Quick, tell me, when you think of figure skating, what music do you hear in your head? Skaters in sparkles and pastels skating to something classical — Mozart, perhaps, or Debussy? Or maybe it conjures up images of Scott Hamilton in a golfer costume skating to a corny "Double Bogey Blues." Either way, it's probably not something you'd listen to on Spotify. But when the Winter Olympics figure skating competition kicks off this time, things are going to be very different.
In the early years of figure skating, the music was filled with classical instrumentals: see the programs of Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming for examples of music that stayed in the background of programs, never distracting from the spins and jumps performed and rarely forcing a skater to perform in "character," as many modern selections do.
Most viewers today probably have the most vivid memories of the golden age of figure skating in the '80s and '90s. But a rule was in place at the time that forbade the use of lyrics in programs (except for in the discipline of ice dance). This era includes legendary programs such as Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov's "Moonlight Sonata," Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's free dance to Maurice Revel's "Boléro," and Katarina Witt's "Carmen." A few branched out to film and theater soundtracks — Tara Lipinski's Olympic performances included a program to the soundtrack of Anastasia — but the lyric-free rule tended to keep even the best skaters hemmed in to certain aesthetics.
Although lyrics weren't allowed in competitive programs, they blossomed on the professional circuit in tours such as the Ice Capades and Stars on Ice. Playful and cheesy Elvis medleys, James Brown, and "Walk This Way" all made (in)famous appearances, perhaps contributing to the then-prevalent idea that programs with lyrics would be distracting and not conducive to athletic achievement.
This continued up through the last Olympic cycle. Out of the eight programs belonging to Sochi gold medalists (four disciplines, with each requiring a short and a free program), only two broke free of the expected mold: Yuzuru Hanyu's short program to Gary Moore's "Parisienne Walkways" and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov's free skate to a lyric-less arrangement of Jesus Christ Superstar.
But in the post-Olympic season, the International Skating Union (the sport's governing body) implemented a rule change: permitting the use of music with lyrics in all four disciplines. Programs using opera and musical theater scores began using versions with vocals or expanding to more unusual selections with the hope that risks were now being rewarded, while other skaters chose to skate to Lana Del Ray, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Prince, among others. Suddenly, skaters were able to push the artistic envelope as much as they were pushing the technical boundaries of the sport.
Pyeongchang will be the first Olympics since the lyric rule change was implemented, and while plenty of skaters are sticking to classical music, there are several unique programs to keep your eye on as the competition begins.