Julian Yee is the first figure skater from Malaysia to qualify for the Olympics, but for his big debut he does not plan to perform to a familiar classicist like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. No Mahler or Bizet for him, either. He chose the work of an American composer, but it’s not the airy music of Gershwin.
Instead, for his long program Yee will jump into the sequined soul of James Brown, whose voice will fill the arena with a medley of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
“If I show the amount of energy James Brown showed on stage, it will be something good for the audience and the judges to see,” Yee, 20, said upon qualifying for the games in September at a competition in Germany.
The Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will be the first in which singles and pairs skaters can compete to music with lyrics. True, the chestnuts of the sport — “Carmen,” “Swan Lake” — are still being performed, or over-performed. But these days one is as likely to hear Moby as Mozart, The Beatles as Beethoven or Bieber as Bach.
In an attempt to attract a younger audience to a sport with flagging appeal — and to satisfy young skaters — the International Skating Union adopted rules allowing sung music after the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. (Ice dancers have used vocals since the late 1990s.) To proponents, lyrics help skaters tell a story and may attract casual fans with songs that are played on the radio, not just in symphony halls.
“Sometimes music with vocals, it brings out more passion,” said Han Cong of China, 25, who with his partner, Sui Wenjing, 22, is favored to win the Olympic pairs competition. They skate to K.D. Lang’s cover of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” in their short program.
“When the lyrics have some meaning, it may touch your heart more easily,” Han said.
With an infinite songbook now available, skaters have explored a diversity of musicians, including Queen, Coldplay, Elvis, Gene Kelly, and folk songs like “Hava Nagila,” as well as selections from “Hamilton” and the movie “La La Land.”
Perhaps the most startling departure from classical music came in January 2017 at the U.S. championships, when Jimmy Ma, 22, of Great Neck, New York, performed his short program to Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.”
“How far figure skating has come,” Michael Weiss, a two-time Olympian and a commentator for icenetwork.com, said on a broadcast of the event. “I never thought I would have seen somebody skating to Eminem, but it actually worked.”
In a recent interview, Weiss noted that while skating has an alluring artistic side, it is fundamentally a sport and can benefit from music that builds an audience’s energy.
At the Washington Capitals hockey games he attends, Weiss said, “they don’t play Beethoven and Mozart when they’re about to drop the puck.”
The ultimate example of self-expression — or self-indulgence, some might say — during this Olympic season may have come when Adam Rippon of Los Angeles recorded and performed to his own vocals of the Rihanna song “Diamonds.”