There are still two days left of Olympic figure skating, and I have officially maxed out my lifetime tolerance for the Les Misérables soundtrack, something not even Russell Crowe could do to me. Same goes for the score from the 1968 movie adaptation of Romeo and Juliet: I have never seen this film, but in the last week alone I watched six different skaters perform to the music from it. And if another figure skater cues up the Santana during the Sochi Olympics—please God, no—I will seriously lose my mind.
Figure skaters spend years dreaming of their Olympic performances. They expend inordinate amounts of time and money picking out costumes, working on choreography, practicing and mastering their programs. So why, for their big Olympic moments, must skaters all perform to the exact same rotation of, like, 10 different songs?
"Because those songs work," Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, told me, laughing. (Yamaguchi performed her gold medal-winning free skate to the music of "Malagueña," by Ernesto Lecuona, which I have so far heard performed in Sochi only once.) "There are certain standby favorites that pick up the crowd, or have a lot of highs and lows and crescendos that add [interest] to a performance. Those pieces—you know, Carmen, Swan Lake, a lot of Tchaikovsky—you hear over and over again because they have that dynamic, and the skater knows the judges like it."
For skaters—and especially for the elite ones, who are hoping to make it to the major international competitions, where the judges tend to have more exacting standards—there's a lot that goes into the process of selecting program music. Picking the perfect piece isn't just about picking a song you like, or even finding something you'll be able to tolerate after thousands and thousands of repeat listens. You want something that's going to fill up an entire 12,000-seat arena and ramp up audience participation. You want a piece that that feels epic, but not so epic that it overwhelms your performance. You want music that speaks to you. And, most importantly, you want music that speaks to the judges.
"You want a piece that's going to really showcase your strengths and present your skating in the best light," said Yamaguchi. "Because not only does a skater have to really connect with a piece of music, but you also want something that is going to be universally liked. In international competitions, you have judges from all around the world. You don't want to leave anything to chance."
Choosing the old standbys can be a useful crutch for skaters who haven't totally established themselves on the international scene, or who don't have a strong sense of their own artistic tastes. But capitalizing on that advantage is a tricky proposition. Because as much as a piece like Carmen—dramatic, swelling, emotional—can prop up a skater artistically, it will also, inevitably, remind the judges and the audience of other, probably better, performances.
"Skaters get this feeling of, 'I have to skate to these classic pieces in order to be recognized, to be up there, to be in that league,'" said Shae-Lynn Bourne, a former world champion ice dancer and current choreographer, one who's known for working with skaters on choreography that's comparatively unconventional. "But, for example, when people in the skating world hear Boléro, they think of [Olympic ice dancing champions] Torvill and Dean. If you are going to skate to Boléro, you have to do it in such a unique way that you're not being compared to Torvill and Dean—you want to stand out for your interpretation. If you can do that, great. But if not, then I wouldn't try it. Because you're going up against someone who's done something really special with a piece."
When you look at people like Jason Brown, who performs to music from Riverdance for his free skate, it quickly becomes clear how using a piece that's even the tiniest bit unique can really work to a skater's advantage. With Riverdance, Brown has the perfect opportunity to showcase his exuberant, youthful energy, his athletic power, and his original choreography. He's able to express his personality through his performance, so that by the end of the program the audience loves him as much as they love his skating.
"You have to be so present when you skate, because the audience knows when you're scared or you're frozen," said Bourne. "We know because you're not connecting with us. If you're sincere with your performance, and you truly can get into your music and show how much you love to skate, then people will respond to that, and you'll feel their energy coming right back at you. And that kind of response is huge."
The problem is that not everyone can pull off bold, unconventional, artistically challenging programs. The skaters who can really sell the old classics are the same ones who are more likely to do well by taking risks, while an "avant-garde" performance from a mediocre skater will flop much more dramatically than, say, a so-so interpretation of a Beatles medley. (Bourne remembers one men's skater a while back who composed his own program music, an abstract collection of raw sounds, which did not exactly win over the audiences.) And even the top skaters can feel restricted by the judges' preference for more traditional, classically styled pieces.
"There is this feeling like you're working within the confines of the classical music genre," said Yamaguchi. "It's refreshing when you see a risk being taken, but, as a skater, you better make sure that you're prepared to make it work."
Bourne says she encourages her skaters to be as creative as possible within the confines of the judges' expectations, and next year, those expectations will be forcibly upended: For the first time, singles and pairs skaters will be allowed to perform competitively to music with audible lyrics. (Ice dancers have been able to skate to music with vocals since 1997, though that seems to have mostly occasioned the unfortunate ubiquity of programs set to "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," complete with very literal Marilyn Monroe getups for the women.)
So are we on the brink of a new era in competitive figure skating, in which skaters ditch the Tchaikovsky for, say, Robyn and Beyoncé?
"I don't think that the judges would embrace that, if I'm answering honestly," Bourne said. "To me pop music is a little bit like nursery rhymes: It's easy to hear, it's easy to sing, but it can be easily forgettable, too. … I do realize, though, that we're coming into a place in skating where we have to be creative and bring new ideas, and new music. And that's the wonderful part about being a skater at the top—when you're a leader, you can step out of the box and try new things. And it's usually [those skaters] who are copied by the other skaters."
Until one of those leaders (we're looking at you, Yuna Kim) throws down on the ice with a performance to "Rocket," the rest of the pack will probably have to content themselves with baby steps outside of the mainstream. Ashley Wagner has her Pink Floyd short program; Germany's pairs team, Maylin and Daniel Wende, perform their free skate to the soundtrack from the stoner comedy Your Highness.
Beyond that, they can also look forward to the real moment of liberation: The pro tour circuit, in which skaters can perform to whatever the hell they feel like.
"During my very first tour as a professional—Stars on Ice in the 1992-1993 year—one of my numbers was 'Never Gonna Get It,' by En Vogue," Yamaguchi said. "At the time, people saw me as a 20-year-old, an Olympian, you know, this graceful skater—and I went out there in a bustier, with my hair up, doing hip-hop choreography. That one was kind of liberating."
Lucy Madison is a NYC-based writer and reporter. Her work has appeared at the Awl, the Hairpin, Interview, CBS News, and more. You can follow her on Twitter here. Art by Jim Cooke