A Spice Girl Symphony: The Olympic Closing Ceremony
By Ron Rodman
The 2012 Olympic games concluded on Sunday 12 August with choreographer Kim Gavin’s musical extravaganza. As with Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, Gavin was intent on impressing his vision of British music to the world. To underscore its significance, he titled the closing “A Symphony of British Music.” This title was a peculiar choice considering that classical historical musicology considers the “symphony” as a specific genre of classical music: a serious multi-movement work composed by a renowned composer, and performed by an orchestra.
No, Gavin’s extravaganza was not a “symphony” in the classical sense, but more a musical “revue.” But by tagging the closing ceremonies as a “symphony,” Gavin is participating in the postmodern agenda of flattening the musical register — the traditional defined hierarchies that distinguish “high art” from “low art.” On Sunday, Gavin leveled the musical playing field by elevating British pop and rock music to “symphonic” status. This was particularly notable by the reverence shown to the Beatles, John Lennon in particular (McCartney was so honored in Boyle’s opening show). The changing status of pop music was also shown in the performance of the teen idol group Take That during the extinguishing of the Olympic flame, a ceremonial moment traditionally reserved for solemn, orchestral-based music. (By the way, Take That is one of Gavin’s employers for choreography projects.)
Though rhapsodic rather than symphonic, there were two musical threads that shaped the closing ceremony. First, there was the veneration of ‘classic’ British pop artists, performed either through pre-recordings by the artists themselves, or covered by lesser-known (at least by American TV standards) contemporary artists. Of these classic artists, the Beatles loomed large. John Lennon was honored by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir and Liverpool Signing Choir’s singing of “Imagine”, along with a jumbo-tron video of Lennon himself.
Other ‘classical’ British musical luminaries were featured, notably David Bowie, in a brief pre-recorded collage that introduced the British fashion industry. The Who (who actually appeared later), Pink Floyd, and The Bee Gees were all covered by younger artists. The Kaiser Chiefs sang “Pinball Wizard”; Ed Sheeran with Nick Mason, Mike Rutherford, and Richard Jones covered Pink Floyd; and Fatboy Slim, Jessie J, Tinie Tempah, and Taio Cruz covered the Bee Gees. Queen performed with band members Roger Taylor and Brian May, along with the virtual presence of the late Freddie Mercury on the big screen.
The other structural thread of the show consisted of artists who performed their own works, either in a live TV-show-like direct address performance or through fanciful vignettes. These artists are perhaps lesser known than their classical counterparts, but have fan bases, longevity, and familiarity with the TV audience. In this group, we saw and heard Emeli Sandé, One Direction, The Pet Shop Boys (wearing conical hats while riding bicycles), Annie Lennox (on a giant ship), George Michael, Beady Eye, and of course, the Spice Girls, which NBC commentators thought the highlight of the show.
Classical music did make an appearance with Julian Lloyd Webber playing Elgar’s “Salut d’amour” for cello, although he was drowned out by actor Timothy Spall’s Churchill monologue. The British choral tradition reprised its role from the opening ceremonies through the youth choir singing Lennon (mentioned above), and the London Welsh Male Voice Choir and London Welsh Rugby Club Choir — both top-notch Welsh male choruses — singing of the Olympic anthem.
The one group that performs actual “symphonies” — the London Philharmonic Orchestra — was also present, but was mostly lost in the circus-like atmosphere of the finale.
So, Gavin picked up where Boyle left off, with his veneration and valorization of British rock music of the past fifty years. For many in the audience this is the new British symphony, Spice Girls and all.
Speaking of the London Philharmonic, it is reported that members of the orchestra recorded the national anthems for all 205 participating nations in the Olympic games in a little under 52 hours of studio time.
After the “handoff” of the Olympic flag to Brazil, the Brazilians performed a well-choreographed piece to the famous “Aria” to Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by native composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.
NBC edited out performances by at least two notable Britpop artists: Muse’s Matt Bellamy and The Kinks’ Ray Davies, and the broadcast of The Who’s performance at the closing party was delayed by NBC’s promotion of a sitcom about an animal hospital. All of these decisions led to many complaints to the network.
Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts “Music and the Olympic Opening Ceremony: Pageantry and Pastiche” and “Music and the Olympics: A Tale of Two Networks.”