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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 May 2018

Beyoncé, Disturbed, and Coldplay: Olympic figure skating unveils new, modern soundtrack

After the 2014 Sochi Games, the International Skating Union announced a new change that allows skaters to perform to music with lyrics 

China's Sui Wenjing and Han Cong compete in the pair skating short program to K D Lang's cover of Hallelujah during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. AFP
China's Sui Wenjing and Han Cong compete in the pair skating short program to K D Lang's cover of Hallelujah during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. AFP

When the International Skating Union made the popular decision to allow lyrics in all performances, the Paul Simon classic The Sound of Silence seemed like it would be a natural choice.

The folk tune is light and airy and fits neatly within the confines of traditional figure skating.

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres went in another direction.

Yes, the French pairs team chose the 1960s hit for their free skate last year, and will bring it back for their Olympic programme Thursday. But rather than the melodic version performed by Simon and Art Garfunkel, they opted for a haunting, heavy metal cover by American rock band Disturbed.

"It was our coaches who found it," James told The Associated Press. "They were like, 'We really think it could be a hit.' And Morgan listened to it and was like, 'I don't like it,' because we weren't used to it. And I was like, 'OK, let me see if I can get into this.' I thought it could be amazing, and I was like, 'Morgan, let's trust them.' And we were so right to have trusted them."

That's because the stirring rendition, coupled with the pair's dramatic programme, became such a fan favourite that they replaced this season's programme with it for the Pyeongchang Games.

"When you have a powerful voice and words to express," James said, "it changes everything."

Now, nobody is throwing tradition out the window. Fans still will see four Olympic programmes set to Carmen and three to Swan Lake. Two programmes are set to the figure skating staple Moonlight Sonata, including one by ice dance favourites Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

But the decision by skating's governing body after the 2014 Sochi Games to allow lyrics in all disciplines expanded the breadth of what is available, and skaters have taken broad liberties with it.

Ed Sheeran and Coldplay will provide popular soundtracks to the rest of the Olympic skating scene. The rock bands Imagine Dragons and Snow Patrol, English vocalist Benjamin Clementine and pop musicians Lorde, Christina Aguilera and Adele also have music in the mix.

"At the beginning, people were just choosing random music," Cipres recalled, "but after some time I think people realised it didn't work. You have to choose your music carefully."

Many skaters, such as James and Cipres, wound up choosing covers over an original. They may like the lyrics or message of a song but they also want it to have a different rhythm or feel.

Two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada wanted With or Without You for their short programme, but they decided U2's original was a bit monotone. Their choreographers unearthed a little-known cover by singer-songwriter April Meservy that worked better for their routine.

"There are people who are like, 'Why aren't they skating to the original?' But if you listen to the original, it doesn't lend itself well to a figure skating programme," Radford explained. "April's version just has more ebb and flow, and it just works better for us."

Worked out well for Meservy, too. An anonymous donor provided funds for her to travel from the US to South Korea and watch Duhamel and Radford perform to her rendition on Olympic ice.

"With or Without You is a popular song," Duhamel said, "but we always try to find unique versions of things. We try to veer off the path and pick obscure versions of songs."

That's what German skater Paul Fentz thought he was doing when asked his choreographer to find a 1950s-style jazz tune, and wound up doing Paul Anka's version of the Oasis hit Wonderwall.

Fentz performed to it during his short programme for the team competition last week, and he quickly became a trending topic on social media as fans debated whether it was cool or cringeworthy.

"That's the risk you take," said Fentz, whose free skate set to music from Game of Thrones ought to win back some sceptics. "I know the Oasis song, I really like it. But it wasn't like I was trying to make something new or something. I just wanted something a little smoother."

The Austrian pairs team of Miriam Ziegler and Severin Kiefer will perform to the well-known song I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) when they step on the ice Wednesday for their short programme.

Rather than the pop-fuelled original by The Proclaimers, though, Ziegler and Kiefer chose a soaring version by the cast of Sunshine on Leith — a British musical set to the Scottish duo's music.

Jeff Buckley's popular version of the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah will make an appearance, but so will two covers by K D Lang, including the one chosen by pairs favourites Han Cong and Sui Wenjing.

"We have so much more music to choose," Fentz said. "Many skaters picked Ed Sheeran or something, and you can't skate to Ed Sheeran without lyrics. You can't pick that.

"With lyrics," Fentz said, "it's just better."