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.”
“It wasn’t too bad; wasn’t too good, either,” Rippon, 28, said. Ultimately, for his short program, he decided instead on what he called “trashy” club music because “it embodies me even more than my own voice.”
Given that the Olympics are an international competition, the context and language of songs could play an important role in influencing the crowd and the judges.
Despite the games being on their home ice, no South Korean skaters are expected to perform to K-pop. “It’s not a match for an ice rink,” said Chi Hyun-jung, a South Korean coach. “Koreans are the only ones who understand the words.”
American ice dancers Madison Chock, 25, and Evan Bates, 28, who are expected to challenge for a bronze medal, make sly reference to the turbulence of national and international politics with the idealistic lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Not getting into left or right, it’s more peace and hope and prosperity,” Bates said. “I think anybody, regardless of political party, would welcome that kind of message in these times.”
When the rules changed to permit lyrics, a number of officials, coaches and choreographers — and even some skaters — were wary. The fear was that it would trivialize a sport built on a foundation of classical music.
Even now, some remain ambivalent, which may reflect a generational divide. “I think with lot of lyrics, there’s no real artistic inspiration behind it; it’s just a song that kids like and they say, ‘Let’s skate to it,” said Frank Carroll, 79, a venerable American coach who tutored Evan Lysaceck to a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics.
Yet the response among many in the sport seems to be reflected in the words of Alexander Lakernik, 72, a vice president of the International Skating Union: “It’s less a problem than we thought.”
Even Russian pairs skaters — who are heavily influenced by ballet and who have won a gold medal at every Olympics but one since 1964 — have made the switch to pop music. (Although barred as a team over their country’s systematic doping, scores of Russian athletes will be allowed to compete under a neutral flag.)
Evgenia Tarasova, 23, and Vladimir Morozov, 25, perform to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in their short program but skate to the boogie-woogie beat of Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman” in their long program, with Morozov wearing a yellow polka dot tie.
The song has raunchy lyrics, but, Morozov said, “I think we have more fun if we can skate with more freedom and be ourselves. A lot of Olympic programs are slow. We want to be different.”
Still, some skaters are sticking to instrumentals.
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the 2014 Olympic champion who is seeking to become the first repeat men’s winner since Dick Button of the United States in 1952, has found lyrics to be a distraction when taking on the technical rigor of four-revolution jumps in his injury-plagued lead-up to the games.
“He has to have a certain tempo for the jumps, and it’s hard for him to not get caught up in the lyrics,” said Brian Orser, Hanyu’s coach.
Aljona Savchenko, 34, and Bruno Massot, 29, of Germany, medal favorites in the pairs competition, will also forgo vocal backing at the Olympics. Massot said lyrics could make a performance seem frivolous — “it doesn’t feel like a serious competition” — and too constricting in interpreting the music.
“When there are lyrics, you have to make the story about the lyrics,” he said. “Without lyrics, you can make the story that you want.”
Some skaters are using spoken voices instead of lyrics. Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, of Russia, a favorite to win the women’s competition, has taken a teenager’s liberty with her short program. During a Chopin nocturne, a woman’s voice suddenly pleads, “Come back,” in a routine meant to evoke a spirit leaving the body.
The audience has sometimes found the words confusing and jarring, Medvedeva acknowledged in October at a competition in Moscow.
“Some people thought maybe something went wrong with the sound system,” she said with a laugh.
For skaters fulling embracing lyrics, songs from the 1960s and ‘70s have found a particular appeal, even though today’s competitors were not born until decades later.
Tessa Virtue, 28, and Scott Moir, 30, of Canada, the 2010 Olympic ice dance champions and 2014 silver medalists, have for these games distilled a samba beat in the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” a rumba in the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and a cha-cha in Santana’s “Oye Como Va.”
Yee, the Malaysian skater, said songs from that era could seem more meaningful and authentic than music today, when “you don’t really have to sing; you just have to say out the words.”
There are limits to nostalgia, however.
Marco Marchei, a two-time Olympic marathon runner from Italy, has pleaded with his daughter, Valentina, a pairs skater, to perform to music by a certain mop-haired foursome.
“I think my dad would pay us to skate to the Beatles,” Valentina Marchei, 31, said of herself and her partner, Ondrej Hotarek, 34. They did perform once to a cover version of the band’s “Yesterday” at an exhibition, and her father was moved to tears, she said. But once was enough.
They prefer the satirical 1956 hit “Tu vuò fà l’americano” (“You Want to Play the American”) by Italian musician Renato Carosone.
The Beatles “wouldn’t fit us,” Valentina Marchei said. “We like to have fun on the ice. We really get bored very fast.”