It’s cold as shit right now in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which is perfect for the Winter Olympics and really nothing else. They’ve already kicked things off with select qualifying events, figure skating, and, of course, the opening ceremony—which is a strange institution, when you get down to it. They’re exercises in wild excess, a chance for the host country to blow the hell out of its budget and prove that it can throw the most bonkers Cirque du Soleil-type imitation around. It’s also a chance for them to showcase some of the best musical talent the host country has to offer, as we’ve seen from Pyeongchang’s varied lineup of South Korean artists.
But like super bowl halftime shows, unless something truly insane takes place at an opening or closing ceremony (or something exceptionally stunning, like the Beijing Olympics,) I’m probably not going to remember what happened by the next week, which is why I’ve compiled a list of the five best (and only) olympic performances I can recall.
I’m not here to argue that these are the greatest, or even most insane moments from opening ceremonies in my lifetime—that would probably include when James Bond and the Queen of England appeared to skydive together—but these are definitely some I, again, at least remember:
Every year, the Olympics will select an artist (usually from the event’s host country) to record and perform an athlete tribute song that’s a huckster for the broad sports-movie themes of unity, teamwork, and dreams. The Vancouver Winter Olympics chose a remarkably shitty song, recruiting two of 2010's least visible Canucks: Bryan Adams and “I’m Like a Bird” singer Nelly Furtado.
Flanked by four massive ice totem poles and a crowd of dancers wearing indigenous costumes, the duo sleepwalked through a song that, sonically, would feel at home in a cruise commercial. It’s way too long and offers a smattering of inspirational cliches (“dream big, aim high, even believe you can fly.”) They even manage to give off, like, negative chemistry before disappearing into the ground.
My dad raised me to never like Bryan Adams, and honestly, he’s never been more validated than in this moment.
If you need any proof that the Spice Girls could still be a huge deal for a reunion tour in the Year of Our Lord 2018, look no further than their reunion at the London Olympics. Each cruising in on their own customized taxi cab, it really did feel like they were seeing each other for the first time since, well, their last reunion just five years prior. Music rocks, money rocks, “Wannabe” rocks. Just wish the sound mixing in the front half of this video did, too. :/
Okay, this technically wasn’t an opening ceremony (closing ceremony, same thing) but it’s by far the best testament to Creed’s world-conquering power in the early 2000s. Debate whether they deserved to be there, but they really were big enough to perform at the same event as Sting, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC, and Dave Matthews Band. Creed was America.
Come to witness the draw of Scott Stapp’s beanies, power stances, and rocky command of pitch in his prime, stay for the first comment on the video extolling Creed for making “songs that really make u think.”
Björk is just so extremely made for this shit. Remember how I said artists sometimes write songs specifically for the Olympics? The stunning “Oceania” was one of those songs. She was also given the latitude to not have it pummel the viewer over the head with inspirational themes, and that made it good enough for a real-life Björk album (2004's Medúlla).
The song is built from the perspective of the ocean, so she naturally makes it appear larger-than-life, her dress unfurling out to tarp-size, threatening to swallow the whole stadium. It’s one of the few instances where artistic ambition feels completely uninhibited, and she’s allowed to totally take over the production instead of being held captive to it.
Months before he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and a little more than a year before his death, Luciano Pavarotti delivered his final public performance at the Torino Winter Olympic Games. You don’t really need to know anything about opera, Italian, “Nessun Dorma” (and the opera it comes from, Turandot) or Pavarotti’s career arc to feel the bone-chilling virtuosity at work here. Moving art, like curling or speed skating, transcends language, age, and any international borders, which is what the Olympics, and life itself, really, are all about.