Can Michael Jackson Save Figure Skating?

Desperate to attract a younger demo, figure skating's governing body tries something radical: music with lyrics

Max Aaron performs at the Smucker's Skating Spectacular on January 12th, 2014. Credit: Jared Wickerham

Can the King of Pop lift figure skating from its doldrums?

That question will be answered this season as the International Skating Union allows athletes in all disciplines to perform to music with lyrics for the first time. Skating insiders say that the lyrical free-for-all is an attempt to boost television ratings and lure younger viewers. Last year's Winter Olympic qualifying competition, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, saw a 20-percent decline in viewership from the previous Olympic year. And according to the United States Figure Skating Association, 52 percent of American figure skating fans are now over the age of 45. This is a far cry from the early Nineties, the good old days of none other than Tonya Harding.

Twenty-three years ago, when the then-reigning national champion attempted to defend her title, she performed to a baffling mix of the Robin Hood score, jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri's "Europa," and "Sleeping Bag" by ZZ Top. It wouldn't be the grandest imbroglio of the skater's career – what with the later whack attack on Nancy Kerrigan – but at the time, with Harding's teased tuft of bangs flopping in the wind, a torso's worth of gold-sequin snowflake appliqués flying over the ice and ZZ Top crackling from a faltering sound system, her performance was transfixing, if not dazzling.

The year before, Harding had also skated to a peculiar cut that veered anarchically between snatches of musical genres, and part of the excitement of watching her compete derived from this mysterious incoherency. One moment, Harding might be plowing down the ice toward a triple Axel, a blonde, badass chevalier, the next, working her neck to the call of early Nineties percussion. A Harding program was something like a malfunctioning iPod Shuffle, and it was thrilling. Today, its wild card musical styling remains a rarity in the skating world, with skaters favoring reiterations of Swan Lake, Carmen and, perhaps lacking prescience, "Nessun Dorma" ("None Shall Sleep"). Hence: lyrics.

The rule might not seem revolutionary, but it is, in fact, a radical policy shift. Ice dancers have been permitted to use vocal music since the 1997-98 season, when the ISU mandated that all teams perform a jive for the tightly restricted original dance portion of the competition. Because of an unforeseen – though perhaps not unforeseeable – dearth of instrumental jive music, the ISU was forced to concede to lyrics. However, ice dancing is dramatically different than freestyle skating, the kind most familiar to the majority of viewers that features jumping, spinning and, in the case of pairs, overhead lifts. The two disciplines are so different they do not even use the same type of skate blade. Up until now, freestyle skaters would be penalized for the use of lyrics in competition, and if they didn't like it, their only option was retiring from Olympic-eligible competition.

But at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (which air Saturday and Sunday on NBC), Stephen Carriere will compete to music with lyrics in both his short and long programs. Like many in the skating world, he believes that skating has become more homogenous since the judging system was overhauled in 2005 to reward each move with a specified number of points. The system remains byzantine to those unfamiliar with the technical distinctions between maneuvers and the corresponding point-building strategy that dictates current skating choreography (which is to say, most people). But lyrics, Carriere says, are one way to stave off boring skating:

"The system lacks a whole lot of originality. You can only take so much of girls throwing their legs up in the air," he says. "So I think lyrics can combat that and maybe create a little originality."

In theory, the new rule could mean a turn toward Earl Sweatshirt, Caribou, or to get really meta, noise rock outfit Pissed Jean's "Romanticize Me," released with a music video featuring a ponytailed janitor-slash-skater swizzling, launching into Russian splits and staring icily into the camera. But at this point, catching figure skating up with 21st century culture is mostly notional. This year, reigning U.S. champion Gracie Gold is skating to music from The Phantom of the Opera. There's a lot of regular opera too. Many have chosen not to take advantage of the new rule at all. It might seem that when presented with lyrical Rumspringa, many American figure skaters have retreated into bunkers fortified against music released before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When asked about this phenomenon, Evgenia Chernyshova, a secondary coach of Nathan Chen, a talented national competitor skating to Michael Jackson, explained, "You have to understand that old ladies are the ones who support U.S. Figure Skating. That's where the money really comes from. It comes from old ladies.

"So fortunately or unfortunately, you'll have to cater to that taste no matter what," she continues. "Changes are implemented slowly because it's kind of an old sport – and it's kind of an old-people sport in terms of who's actually watching it. So it will be shifting, but it will be shifting slowly."

There are also judges to consider, and as skaters weigh the competing interests of appealing to an aging pool of judges and coveted younger audiences, maintaining a competitive edge generally takes precedence over cultural capital.

Figure skating is, in spite of the spangles, a judged sport. And its athletes tend to be less concerned with TV ratings than making the podium. Choreographer Mark Pillay points out that skaters train hard year round for a handful of competitions, and they don't work that hard to look cool; they want high marks. In some ways, the lyrics present a catch-22: the new judging system has made figure skating competitions more difficult for casual viewers to understand, so the sport has allowed music with lyrics – music that most skaters are afraid will offend a milquetoast panel of judges.

"We're trying to win the judges over, and the demographic of the judge is not necessarily the demographic of the more widespread audience," Olympic coach Bobby Martin says. "I've had teams where I know they're not going to be cracking the top six or seven at the event, but we want to win the audience, so we might approach their music in a different light. One of my teams right now is not in the medal hunt at the senior level but they're skating to Grease."

Grease might not seem like much of a consolation prize, but that is an issue of taste, and figure skaters are a rare, wonderful breed – somewhere between snowboarders and theater geeks. They throw themselves off glorified ice picks into acrobatic maneuvers with terrifying names like "Death Drop" and "Broken Leg Spin," yet they enjoy emoting while doing so. Show tunes aren't cloying or schmaltzy to most skaters; they're admired.

This year, Pillay choreographed a program for American men's title contender Max Aaron to the music of Footloose. And he's excited:

"There's so much energy in that music. It gets an audience immediately. People connect with it. They know what it is right away," he explains. "There's that really amazing guitar riff in it. It's just incredible."

That said – and with no offense meant to Kenny Loggins – Footloose isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of millennial audiences (2011 remake notwithstanding), which goes to a more problematic point: Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect that figure skating will ever enter mainstream pop culture. Whereas pop and dance music has continually evolved, the technical demands of figure skating are not necessarily conducive to on-the-fly adaptations.

"It's very difficult to implement modern choreography or hip-hop choreography," Chernyshova says. "We are moving fast – not only that, but your center of balance can't shift, and you're not standing on your feet. You're really standing on a two-inch blade."

In other words, the physics of skating mostly precludes the hip shaking, swiveling and popping so characteristic of today's popularized dance forms – there's not room for the kind of movements that made Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" video go viral.

Then again, figure skating might not need baby oil, undulating pelvises or even lyrics to connect with a new generation of fans:  Last year, a video of Jason Brown's U.S. Figure Skating Championships long program became an Internet hit, lauded for the joy expressed in his performance. The music? Riverdance.