Maudlin Nu-Metal Is Becoming The Sound Of Modern Figure Skating
In the ’90s, few sports captured our national attention quite like figure skating. So, like many ’90s kids, I asked my mom for skating lessons. Back then, the sport had it all: tabloid drama, judging controversies, pretty young competitors who were as ruthless as they were graceful, and dimwitted ex-husbands who were even more ruthless. Plus, as I soon learned, you could skate really, really fast.
My skating career didn’t last long. I quit in middle school when I (rightly) realized I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my entire youth in order to exercise inside a freezing cold rink for 12 hours a day. As we all know, elite athleticism requires discipline and dedication that most of us will not ever possess. That’s why I’ve continued to follow competitive skating as a spectator, even though the sport is considerably less sensational and popular than it once was. I know, if even just to a small degree, how difficult it is to be a real skater — to perform Herculean feats of strength and flexibility with effortless beauty, precision, and literal blades of steel strapped to your feet. Figure skating is metal as hell.
Lately, it is also becoming nu-metal as hell. Growing up, my favorite skater was Michelle Kwan. To me, her natural command of the ice and elegantly powerful artistry was, and still is, unparalleled; even today, re-watching her performances to selections from classical operas like Tosca and Salome can elicit chills and, sometimes, depending on what’s going on in my personal life, tears. Not quite the same feelings I had this past weekend while watching US pairs team Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier perform a stellar short program to the tune of Linkin Park’s signature nu-metal masterpiece “In The End.”
Technically, their chosen version of the song is a cover by Tommee Profitt, Fleurie, and Jung Youth, but from the moment I heard those first few haunting notes of a familiar piano melody, I felt chills for another reason. Suddenly, I was transported back to a bygone era, when all the boys in my 5th grade class had baggy pants and pointy hair. Not to suggest that I was somehow, as a girl, immune — I also knew all the words to “Nookie,” though I didn’t dare sing them at recess in fear of being labeled a “poser.” I can’t say that these memories of early-aughts musical and sartorial awkwardness are happy ones (Korn did, and still does, truly scare me). So why, God, why was my favorite sport evoking the same painful nostalgia as an episode of Pen15? The real question is, why wouldn’t it?
In 2014, music with vocals was allowed in competition for the first time in all disciplines of figure skating, which quickly ushered in a new era of unorthodox performances. Suddenly, the vast sea of Swan Lakes and Carmens became littered with Britney Spears, Prince, and even Billie Eilish, all to varying degrees of success. For reasons unbeknownst to me personally, proggy compositions by Muse continue to rise in popularity. (Before 2014, music with vocals was used exclusively in exhibition performances, which is how nostalgic gems like this surprisingly charming Jimmy Eat World moment from Canadian duo Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler came to exist.)
In 2018, Long Island’s own Jimmy Ma, a singles skater not known for his particularly impressive resume, decided to mix things up at the National Championships with Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What.” While he placed 11th overall and didn’t make the Olympic team, he did go viral, with one reporter tweeting from the arena that the crowd “went nuts when the beat dropped.” This past weekend, Ma returned and upped the competitive ante with a cleaner and more subdued program set to yet another tepid version of a Linkin Park song, “The Catalyst.” Clearly, nu-metal in skating is a fast-growing trend that cannot be denied, just like quad jumps and pre-teen Russian champions.
Linkin Park is high art in comparison to the worst nu-metal offences I’ve been forced to behold, both set to the same harsh, grating cover of “The Sound Of Silence” by Disturbed (of croak-screaming “Stupify” fame). The first, from Russian skater Dmitri Aliev, still haunts my dreams, and the other, from French pair Morgan Cipres and Vanessa James, remains an insult to Simon & Garfunkel. (Cipres later retired from the sport amidst sexual abuse allegations.)
So what draws an otherwise balletic and melodically inclined skater to venture into the dark, heavy world of nu-metal? At first, the connection seems silly, but it’s easy to see what the two artforms have in common. In both, there are extremely high emotional stakes. As the late Chester Bennington (RIP) once sang, “I tried so hard, and got so far… but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.” Sound familiar? An elite competitive skater trains a lifetime for one brief moment in the spotlight. By 18, female competitors are referred to as “veterans”; all it takes is one fall or misstep to shatter an entire career and permanently bury hopes of Olympic glory. (And for obvious reasons, falls and accidents rank among the gnarliest of any sport.) In figure skating, like in nu-metal, there are very few second chances. Like Mike Shinoda ecstatically rapping across a supernatural desert of broken dreams or Alexa Knierim being launched into the heavens in a gravity defying triple twist, it’s all about pushing through pain and doubt to seize the moment.
On Saturday night, Knierim and Frazier cemented their status as America’s most promising rising pairs team by winning their first National Championship title (their long program, set to a more traditional Andrea Boccelli ballad, was still pretty metal.) Operas and ballets will continue to appear in skating — it’s what the judges in this decidedly subjective sport tend to prefer. But major props should go to any athlete who attempts to challenge the status quo in such a white collar, conservative sport — one in which racism did, for a long time, go completely and unfairly unchecked. Twenty years from now, will we watch as the next generation of skaters glide along to sparse, diluted arrangements of Chainsmokers songs? Or will March’s World Championships offer up a dynamic interpretation of System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey”? Perhaps. Until then, I will continue to appreciate all types of performance by these brilliant athletes, whether it’s Puccini, nu-metal, or whatever this is.