First there was the explosive hip-hop beat drop, then a bold rap verse proclaiming, “The greatest of all time!” It couldn’t have described Nathan Chen any better.
On the barren sheet of ice, matching the fierceness of that energy at the Beijing Olympics, was the typically reserved U.S. figure skater, wrapping up a near-perfect, gold-winning free skate to cap his historic run at the Winter Games.
As he flaunted through the last minute of his Thursday (Feb. 10) program at Capital Indoor Stadium with such joy and personality, it was clear the 22-year-old American’s diverse musical selections — in this case, a remixed, Elton John-heavy “Rocketman” medley of classic rock, pop, hip-hop and rap — marked a new, edgier dawn for winning performances.
“I’ve historically skated to pretty slower pace, more classical pieces, and so bringing in this faster pace (was) very exciting,” said Chen, a classically trained pianist who’s been spending his free time in Beijing strumming his Stratocaster. “It was like, something that totally just made sense, and it was just so much fun to skate to and practice.” The medal-winning performance drew praise from John as well, who tweeted a congratulations to the skater.
Traditional figure skating music is often classical or instrumental — Boléro, Swan Lake, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — or expansive movie scores from films like Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean or Moulin Rouge.
But the Beijing Olympics has witnessed the rise of more current, mainstream and offbeat music that first took hold four years ago in Pyeongchang, the first Winter Games in which lyrics were allowed. The eclectic mix of genres seen so far have produced a new tone in the most stylish of performances, which are being heavily rewarded by the judges.
Adam Rippon, a member of the American bronze medal team at the 2018 Olympics, called Chen’s performance a watershed moment for the sport and predicts that his soundtrack will inspire a new and different generation of athletes.
“It’s edgy, it’s fun, it’s young,” said Rippon, who helps to coach figure skater Mariah Bell, one of Chen’s closest friends on the American team. “When that hip-hop beat drops, he’s gotten through all the technical elements and he can just show off his personality and that changes your view of what you think skating is.”
Chen’s not the only skater taking a progressive approach to musical selection.
Elsewhere on the U.S. team, ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue’s rhythm program features Janet Jackson’s socially-conscious “Rhythm Nation.” Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ free dance is set to French duo Daft Punk’s electronic beats and is meant to illustrate an avant-garde intergalactic love story.
“It was always music that I remember, and of course, my parents played it in our house and I grew up hearing it on the radio, but I think our love for Janet Jackson came because we fell in love with dancing to this music,” Hubbell said. “It took us by surprise. It wasn’t necessarily a style we thought we would really vibe with.”
Both dance duos won their events in the team competition this past week with career-best scores, helping the Americans to a silver medal that could eventually turn to gold depending on the outcome of a Russian doping case.
“Picking a genre that’s nontraditional – you know, we skated to electronic music at the Olympic Games in ice dance. I don’t think that, in my memory, it’s been done before, and we’re proud to be a team that is willing to take risks,” said Bates, who along with the rest of the dancers will begin individual competition Saturday.
French skater Adam Siao Him Fa and Czech ice dancers Natalie Taschlerova and Filip Taschler also tapped into the trend. For his short program, Fa used a Star Wars medley also infused with hip-hop, and for his free skate he sampled Daft Punk’s famous “Harder, Faster, Stronger” refrain made iconic by rapper Kanye West.
The Czech duo’s rhythm dance used Madonna songs that also featured the rappers M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj. “We wanted to bring something iconic. Like, when people hear it, everyone will start to dance,” Taschler said. “We love this music. It’s super dance music and we are trying to share this feeling with the audience and judges.”
It will be hard to top Chen’s spectacular display to music by Elton John on Thursday.
It started with an understated, haunting snippet of “Yellow Brick Road” backed by more traditional instrumentals. Then, his 4-minute coronation veered to the classic rock and pop hit “Rocket Man,” then finally turned to an electrifying “Bennie and the Jets” remix by the singer Pink and rapper Logic, who declared “Momma, I made it/ True story, I have upgraded.”
For Chen, that meant upgraded all the way to the gold medal. “This program, no matter what, is always fun for me to skate,” he said, “And I loved it.”
It certainly produced better memories than four years ago in Pyeongchang, when his short program to music from British poet and lyricist Benjamin Clementine fell flat. Not even an incredible free skate two days later to an orchestral piece by Igor Stravinsky could salvage a medal for Chen.
He has come a long way in the past four years, putting in untold hours to perfect his craft. And it came through on the ice in Beijing, where the rap lyrics “I been runnin’ and gunnin’/ Been fightin’ for something in due time” were never truer.
“When you watch a sport,” Rippon said after marveling at Chen’s performance, “you want to see a little bit of yourself in there. And when you open it to be different kinds of music … it’s going to make people feel more involved, more included. It makes it a lot more accessible to everybody.”