Pop Goes The Olympics
Music and the Olympics have gone hand in hand for decades, dating back to the birth of the modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Since then, organizing committees have commissioned classical figures to compose themes for the summer games, including Richard Strauss, who composed "Olympische Hymne" for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and John Williams' "The Olympic Spirit," which the 21-time GRAMMY winner composed for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. More recently, organizers have turned to contemporary artists to create music for the summer games, including GRAMMY winners Muse, who were chosen as one of five artists to compose a song for the 2012 Summer Olympics as part of London's Rock the Games initiative.
Expressing their excitement over being chosen to compose a song for this year's Olympics, Muse explains they composed "Survival" with the competitions in mind. "It's about total conviction and pure determination to win," the band states on their website. "Survival," which will be played throughout the Olympics, including when athletes enter the stadium, leading up to the medal ceremony and throughout international television coverage, joins a growing inventory of official Olympics themes through the years, including songs by GRAMMY-winning artists such as Bryan Adams, Björk, Christopher Cross, Sarah McLachlan, Giorgio Moroder, and the late Freddie Mercury of GRAMMY-nominated rock band Queen.
Though it's most widely accepted that the Olympics were first established in ancient Greece in approximately 776 B.C., the games as they are known today were launched in 1894 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee. Judging from statements he made during the committee's launch, it's clear that he viewed music as an essential part of the games. "Fashions have undergone many changes over two thousand years," he wrote, "but music has remained the factor which best conveys the emotion in a crowd and which best accompanies the amplitude of a great spectacle."
When then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was hired to orchestrate the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he worked diligently to modernize the games and commissioned disco pioneer Moroder to compose the official theme, "Reach Out," while Cross contributed "A Chance For Heaven (Swimming Theme)." Four years later, a then-newcomer named Whitney Houston performed Albert Hammond's and John Bettis' soaring ballad "One Moment In Time" for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. "Barcelona," Mercury's duet with soprano Montserrat Caballé, was featured in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Spain. GRAMMY- and Latin GRAMMY-winning pop songstress Gloria Estefan wrote and recorded "Reach," the official theme for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
As one of the first modern pop composers chosen to create music for the Olympics, Moroder has composed three official themes, including "Reach Out," "Hand In Hand" (1988, Seoul) and "Forever Friends" (2008, Beijing). A longtime fan of the Olympics, Moroder says his Olympic experiences rank among the highlights of his career. "It is quite big," Moroder says. "Just the thought that there may be 1 or 2 billion people looking and listening to your music — and maybe more listening throughout the games — [is] something you can only get with the Olympics. There's no other way to have an audience that large."
But just how are composers selected? According to Olympic Order recipient Williams K. Guegold, author of 100 Years Of Olympic Music: Music And Musicians Of The Modern Olympic Games 1896–1996, Olympic theme composers are often selected by a host country committee sanctioned by the IOC, such as the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Guegold says that while the IOC and its authorized committees do not place creative constraints on artists, the organizations reserve the right to approve or reject whatever music is submitted.
"The [International Olympic Committee] doesn't say that it has to be classical, contemporary, rock, indigenous to a certain country, or anything like that," says Guegold. "[But] the [IOC] would like to see something that reflects the indigenous, historic or cultural background of a particular country."
Moroder says writing an Olympic theme places unique creative demands on a composer. "There's no formula to it," he says. "It has to be a little bit of a solemn feel, so it's a little different than doing a song. But it's quite interesting. While you are composing, you sit down at a piano or synthesizer with a drum loop and watch some of the prior Olympics footage and start to write."
Moroder adds that composing for the Olympics can sometimes inspire a creative tug-of-war. "The Olympic committee wants something solid, something big, and the record company wants something commercial," he says. "The record company can have a lot of say in who is going to compose the song, who is going to sing it, and how it is going to be marketed. But the final decision, of course, comes from the Olympic committee."
For the 2012 Summer Olympics, no less than five artists were commissioned to craft official songs, including Muse, Elton John Vs Pnau, Delphic, the Chemical Brothers, and Dizzee Rascal, and each song will be rolled out individually throughout the Olympics. It appears that the traditions of symphonic themes are giving way to the crush of rock guitars, burbling synthesizers and the rasp of pop vocals.
"Early on, we might have heard more of what is considered 'Western art music' at the games, because most of the events were held in countries that fall under that definition," says Guegold. "Now we consider a lot of our pop or rock music to be more mainstream than we would have 30 [or] 40 years ago, so we're seeing a lot more popular crossover artists involved in these ceremonies."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)