Skating in Sochi: Music Gets Low Scores


Friday, February 14, 2014

As the Olympic figure skaters in Sochi push the boundaries of what’s physically possible on ice, the music they use in competition remains stuck in a deep rut: a narrow band of Romantic chestnuts, with the occasional John Williams score and orchestrated rock medley. “It’s like going to a wedding and the DJ always plays ‘Brick House.’” says Katie Baker, a reporter for Grantland covering the Olympics in Sochi. Ashley Wagner skated to a relatively daring choice, an instrumental section from Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” But it’s not what the kids are listening to: that record was 15 years old when Wagner was born. 

The reliance on the past is especially notable at the more innovative Winter Olympics, where modern sports like snowboarding appear. You might think that breaking out of tradition with contemporary music (and costume choices) might successfully brand some young athlete as the exciting one to watch. But “figure skating is still a sport in which the judges and the old-school federation folks continue to wield considerable power,” Baker tells Kurt Andersen. Some skaters, she says, are leaning on popular Russian compositions like Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty to flatter the home crowd. 

Still, Baker says change is on the way. The US ice dancing team Alex and Maia Shibutani chose a Michael Jackson medley that includes “Thriller.” “That, to me, is a way where you can really appeal to an international audience,” Baker says. And starting in the 2014-15 season, skaters will be allowed to use music with vocals. But the internet is one step ahead of the game, with brilliant mash-ups like Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s routine perfectly set to Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love.”  Could it come true in 2018? 

→ What music would you choose to skate to? Tell us in a Comment below.

Video: Meryl Davis and Charlie White vs. Beyonce's “Drunk in Love”

Video: Evgeni Plushenko vs. Ginuwine's “Pony”

    Music Playlist
  1. Shine On You Crazy Diamond
    Artist: Pink Floyd
    Album: Wish You Were Here
    Label: Capitol Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Drunk Love
    Artist: Beyonce
    Album: Beyoncé 
    Label: Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia
    Purchase: Amazon


Katie Baker

Produced by:

Julia Lowrie Henderson

Comments [34]


Pink Floyd cheesy ?? oh Kurt,renounce your citizenship,now... LOL...

Apr. 15 2014 07:13 PM
Mel Newman

New shoes by Paolo Nutini, or Speaking in Tongues by Sheila Chandra, if you want to get really funky...

P.S. Olympic Dressage Freestyle also uses music (really bad music for the most part), the horses actually keep rhythm with it. Check out Blue Hors Matine trotting in place to cheesy instrumental Patti La Belle....

Mar. 01 2014 09:58 AM
Michael from Pittsburgh

Shine on you Crazy Diamond cheesy? Seriously? At least Kurt redeemed himself with the Talking Heads suggestion.

Feb. 25 2014 08:25 AM
Collette from South Bend

There's more than personal taste involved in choosing performance music. Very likely it's the same reason restaurants don't sing the traditional "Happy Birthday." It's a public performance of copyrighted content, the cost of paying the copyright holder royalties. And it's not the cost to the skater, it's the cost to the broadcaster. I don't have any inside information but I wouldn't be surprised if the cost to the network doesn't figure in. If a network has to pay a few thousand dollars to show a low ranking skater the chances of getting air time are reduced. Using music that's in the public domain probably has a lower price tag.

Feb. 22 2014 03:22 AM
ThePreacher from Philly

I guess classic Pink Floyd would seem cheesy to someone moved to do a radio piece on the lack of coolness in figure skating music. Hint: If you watch it enough to complain about such a thing, you're instrinsically unqualified to judge coolness. Ya dig?

Feb. 19 2014 12:20 AM
MarySmith from Texas

And synchronized swimmers use contemporary music from all over the world. Even Beyoncé. ;)

Feb. 18 2014 01:58 PM
MarySmith from Texas

Early in the story, you indicated that figure skating is the only Olympic sport performed to music, but it's the only *Winter* Olympic sport performed to music. Synchronized swimming is only other Olympic sport performed to music, and that competition is held at the Summer Olympics. The grace, power, strength, and athleticism (and sparkles) are just the same as in figure skating, but spectators only see half of what goes into a routine because the other stuff happens underwater......
Mary Smith
North Texas Synchronicity Synchronized Swimming Team

Feb. 18 2014 01:55 PM
Sally_B from Lisbon, Portugal

Evgeni Plushenko used Michael Jackson songs too during 2002 and 2006 Olympics.

Feb. 18 2014 04:19 AM

Evgeni Plushenko used Michael Jackson songs too during 2002 and 2006 Olympics.

Feb. 18 2014 04:17 AM
Julie from brooklyn

I would do my figure-skating dance to "How Are You?" from the Here Lies Love soundtrack by David Byrne and I'm pretty sure it would be awesome.

The song a story, so it's inherently compelling--it's a duet between two woman--one is Imelda Marcos, but don't get tripped up on that. So I might need a costume with two sides, you know, split down the middle. And the music and words changes from gentle and polite to rough and honest so I could do the graceful moves during the slow part and then all the spins and jumps during the fast part. (yes, this means the audience has to all be on one side)
Plus, I have been listening to that song forever and I still can't help but want to dance it out, so all that practice won't take away the joy of it.
yeah, I got it allllll worked out.

Feb. 17 2014 08:54 PM
Lisa D from NYC

I couldn't agree more with the previous comments regarding Kurt's view of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" as 'cheesy'...just baffled by that comment, REALLY BAFFLED! Had to find the way to express it! Don't want to carry that around with me for the rest of the week! and Talking Heads is not cheesy….hmnnnnnn.

Feb. 17 2014 08:23 PM
Shepsl from Queens, NY

Really -- with the endless commercial media time devoted to the quadrennial celebration of (once-upon-a-time amateur) athletics, why are our public media wasting time joining in on the same inane discussions flooding the airwaves elsewhere?

Feb. 17 2014 08:21 PM
Elizabeth from New York City

How about some music that is dear to the current crop of dance choreographers (modern and ballet): Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Philip Glass. Merce Cunningham had a Radiohead performance. Petronio loves Rufus Wainwright.

Feb. 17 2014 05:10 PM

Hmmm… I'm watching ice dancing right now and there have been two teams dancing to Michael Jackson medleys (one of which was an American team) and plenty of other contemporary songs used, many of those with lyrics (in addition to many wonderful uses of classical gems) so I have no idea what you guys are talking about. Actually, I think its the other way around, you guys have no idea what you're talking about.

Feb. 17 2014 12:51 PM

I couldn't agree more with the previous comments regarding Kurt's view of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" as 'cheesy'...just baffled by that comment.

Feb. 17 2014 12:11 PM
Frank Shroyer from Fort Worth

Plain and simple -- music with words for ice dancing is fine -- much of that music has been written for the stage and why not take it to the ice.
Figure skating -- I say if it ain't broke -- don't fix it. Classical music is much, MUCH more appealing to figure skating and flowing movement.
I say leave it alone --

Feb. 16 2014 10:32 PM
Graeme from Seattle

What absurd comments from the show host this evening. It's funny how Americans become experts on things they only watch once every 4 years, and know absolutely nothing about.

When is classical music more appropriate to experience than during this beautiful sport and art form? And yes, they are "serious athletes," who don't have anything to prove to someone like an American pro basketball player.

I think we should stop trying so hard to show how culturally shallow we are. It's embarrassing, and there are probably lots of other great things we could be doing.

Feb. 16 2014 10:30 PM
Ronald Inabinet from Albany, Georgia

I find the comment about Pink Floyd as "cheesy" as a personal preference that in itself is cheesy as well and should be taken as a grain of salt considering the radio hosts musical repertoire. AlsoThere is no comparison between the Beatles and Justin Beaver.Just mentioning his name in the same sentence makes me nauseous

Feb. 16 2014 12:50 PM
Cabiria from New York, NY

What is so bad about classical music? Yes, figure skaters do seem to stick to the same ten compositions every year, but I was sad to hear you hoping for pop songs to replace classical music at the Olympics. There is a difference between great pop (Thriller is definitely great pop) and great works of transcendent art. The intricacy of classical music allows for a huge amount of variation in individual interpretations. Pop songs, however, are almost all about something specific, especially ones with words. I know that arguments like this are what get classical music in trouble. Its defenders sound stuck-up and boring. But I just have to advocate for an art form that is gorgeously complex and requires decades of training and daily discipline of those who create it. The musicians that play on those figure skating recordings are basically Olympians in their field. The odds of every kid in the grade school orchestra growing up to play in the London Philharmonic are just as slim as the odds of every little figure skater at the local rink getting to the Olympics.

Feb. 16 2014 11:35 AM
marilyn mcdonald

The remarks discounting the classics to say nothing of Tchaikovsky were really disturbing. My dream would be to say that this year, with the games in Russia it would be a PRIVILEGE to skate to Tchaikovsky. Does the announcer even have a remote idea of how much Tshaikovsky means to the Russians?? Another American faux pas as well as a truly uneducated comment.

Feb. 16 2014 11:34 AM

Frankie goes to Hollywood. "Relax"

Feb. 16 2014 11:17 AM
Lindsay from New York, US

I figure skated for 13 years and I always skated to Broadway overtures. But my trademark program was to Dave Brubeck's "Take 5"-it was the BEST. If I was still skating I'd use some cool Squirrel Nut Zippers pieces-something to wake the judges up!

Feb. 16 2014 11:16 AM
mjbarr from Murfreesboro, TN

Pink Floyd cheesy?
Shame on you.

Feb. 16 2014 11:13 AM

While I agree that it's fun to see skaters dance to pop or more current music, there's a reason this classical/romantic tradition has continued: there is a depth to the music of the classical composers that a lot of pop music simply cannot match.

Feb. 16 2014 10:30 AM
Girl, No from Miami

Oof, stay away from my beautiful figure skating! That's what exhibitions are for, people.

Feb. 15 2014 06:37 PM
JPL from everywhere

"a narrow band of Romantic chestnuts" - such superficial blather!
Let's take Khachaturian's Masquerade Waltz as an example. Sure, done earlier by Mao Asada, but then look at Trankov's costume, virtually identical to the 1834 portrait of Lermontov. This is hardly a sugary version of Romanticism. The irony is the waltz in the Lermontov play is intended as a harsh comment on a decadent society. Truly befitting the Capitalist Olympics. There is magic here if you look for it.

Feb. 15 2014 04:45 PM
Novatronic from Falls Church, VA

Kurt Anderson thinks Ashley Wagner's choice of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" was 'cheesy'? I know who's a limburger here and it's not Pink Floyd or Ashley Wagner.

Feb. 15 2014 02:22 PM

Wouldn't it cost a lot of money to get the song rights? I wouldn't think these skaters make much money, and could pay big bucks for their music.

It's fine for someone to set the skate to music now . . . and, it would be great advertisement and promotion if the skate program went well, but if it didn't . . . . and it bombed . . .

Feb. 15 2014 09:52 AM

LCD S....- "I'm Losing My Edge"
Rolling Stones - Moonlight Mile

Feb. 15 2014 03:38 AM

To suggest that Beyonce could EVER replace Rimsky-Korsakov is absurd. If you watch ice-dancing it requires fluid movement combined with the athletic moves:
this is what is unique and elevates the art form. Study the art form before suggesting how it should be done. Russians are winning because they have an awesome tradition of ballet in their country. Slamming Tchaikovsky is also disrespecting his art and his life. He killed himself because he tried to be hetero and was unable to conform. In his torment he killed himself. He is not just "some ballet guy." The body of his music expresses his genius and his torment. FYI I am American, not Russian.

Feb. 14 2014 07:40 PM

I think the 2 songs from ABBA would be nice

" Dancing Queen " and " Winner Takes It All ".

Feb. 14 2014 03:32 PM
Denise from NYC

I can skate a few moves, but have never been good enough to perform in front of a live audience. However, I have spent years pondering the question "if I could skate a program to any music, what would it be?" And I think the answer is pretty much anything by Stan Getz, but especially "The Girl from Ipanema." There is something about the way he plays the saxophone that conveys movement, like gliding and jumping and spinning.

Feb. 14 2014 02:48 PM
Leah Durner from NYC

I would love to see a skater skate with no music…just mike their blades and and let that be the sound! If John Cage and David Tudor could come back and mix even better!

Feb. 14 2014 11:13 AM
Sarah from Minneapolis

Rocky Erickson, "I walked with a zombie" I'd save my big moves for the guitar solo.

Feb. 14 2014 10:41 AM

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