Until the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, ladies, men’s, and pairs skaters were not allowed to include lyrics in the pieces of music they skated to, be it Broadway songs or pop covers or classical music. PyeongChang will be the first Olympics where this is allowed.
In the past, skaters could be docked points for including lyrics or words in their programs. However, Kurt Browning recalled to the New York Times that the word “tequila” in one of his eponymous programs never saw any deductions.
French skater Florent Amodio (who has since retired) skated a Michael Jackson medley which included lyrics in the 2011-12 season. He “happily lived with the automatic deduction for the sake of his art,” the Times wrote.
The lyrical change was first implemented for the 2014-15 season, the year after the Sochi Olympics. So while it’s nothing out of the ordinary for devoted figure skating fans, those who choose to only watch figure skating during the Games will hear something new.
It’s a welcome change of pace for most in the sport, despite some being skeptical at first.
Jason Brown’s coach, Kori Ade, was originally against the change, saying in 2014 that it might make the sport look “corny.”
Brown worked hard for the better part of two years to sell his coach and choreographer on his ideal short program for the Olympic season. They caved, and he’ll skate to “The Room Where it Happens,” a song from the Broadway smash Hamilton, on his quest to make his second Olympic team.
Legendary coach Frank Carroll initially thought lyrics would destroy the sport; however, he found that he liked it. The very first season lyrics were allowed, then-pupil Gracie Gold chose Phantom of the Opera for her free skate.
“I absolutely did not intend to use lyrics this year,” Gold said then. “But [my team] had cut this piece of music for me, and they had fallen in love with it. Competing is definitely rooted in tradition, but I like [lyrics]. I don’t think of it as a crutch. I actually think it can help enhance the program. But I know that traditionalists will never quite accept lyrics the way they like their classical music.”
Gold and new coach, Marina Zoueva, selected “People” from Funny Girl for her short program this year, despite the fact that she's not competing. They wanted something “touchable” for audiences to relate to. Her free skate, music from the opera La Bayadère, doesn’t have lyrics.
But she was partly right about the traditionalists.
“Can lyrics save skating? Give me a break,” 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion Dick Button quipped to the Washington Post. “This lousy point system is the problem.”
Joshua Farris, world junior champion in 2013, planned to use lyrics right away. He debated between John Mayer and Jason Mraz songs, but for the 2014-15 season, decided on “Give Me Love” by Ed Sheeran. It quickly became a fan favorite and the short program helped him earn him a bronze medal at the 2015 Nationals.
This season, Ashley Wagner used music from the movie “La La Land” as her free skate, as she explained to Rocker Skating:
“I wanted to tell a story and when you have lyrics it makes it so obvious: This is the story I’m telling to you. This is how I’m feeling. This is how you guys should feel, too. I knew I wanted to get some lyrics in there. I just felt like ‘Audition’ was the one piece of music that I kept coming back to. It’s this moment where everything’s so raw and she’s telling a story. That’s literally the whole point of this program for me.”
In the past, she's chosen “Moulin Rouge” for her free skate.
Wagner’s “Moulin Rouge” program changed friend Adam Rippon’s mind about using lyrics in his skating. Instead of feeling like he was watching a show program, he realized that lyrics added another layer to the emotion and performance. He soon included lyrics in a Beatles medley program.
And for the Olympic season, Rippon was rumored to be taking it one step further (once upon a time, he said his short program was to “Diamonds” from Rihanna, performed by Rippon himself). So far, he's only teased the song by performing it in a gala in Japan.
Vincent Zhou's free skate is "Moulin Rouge!" this year as well.
Ice dance, on the other hand, had been allowed to use lyrics in their music dating back to the 1990s.
“There was never any reason not to use lyrics, it was just the way it always was from the beginning of the sport,” International Skating Union board member Charlie Cyr told the Washington Post. “It was like why you put three slits in the pie. Maybe it helps to get the air out, but the real reason is because that’s the way your mother always did it.”