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Friday, August 3, 2012

Olympic Divas!

I love the Olympic Games! Once every four years I can get obsessed about a wide variety of sports I barely knew existed, unleash my inner patriot and become an armchair expert in the finer points of gymnastic scoring. Aside from this great event my sporting interest is usually limited to two weeks a year on the lawns of the All England Club. Another reason to love the Olympics is of course the amazing Opening and Closing ceremonies, where the host nation looks to display its cultural supremacy to the rest of the world. Musically speaking, the London Games has been a little male-centric so far, but I'm hopeful (if the rumours are true) that this will be rebalanced for the closing moments. Some of the world's greatest female singers have contributed moments of magic for previous Games, so here are my top five picks of the Olympic Divas.

Whitney Houston - One Moment In Time (1988, Seoul)

Given we now know how the story ends, it is sometimes hard to remember that for almost a decade Whitney Houston was the world's biggest female star. I've already discussed her legacy in my debut blog [Remembering Whitney], and how at the peak of her fame Whitney recorded a song for the 1988 Summer Olympics. The spirit of the Olympics is a belief that the taking part is as important as winning. That might be true for some nations, but not the USA, where they go to win and win big. Whitney's anthem, One Moment In Time, succeeds in the challenge of capturing that spirit of competition and the supreme dedication required to be an Olympic athlete, but is really about how good it feels to win. Whitney certainly gives it her all and would have unquestionably taken the Gold medal if vocal gymnastics was an event in the 1988 Games. Like any good anthem this has multiple crescendos and endless bombast. It has managed to outlive its use as an Olympic theme and gone on to become a regular feature at major sporting events, undoubtedly due to Whitney's incredible vocal performance. If Whitney can teach us anything, it is to seize those shining moments, because they will fade all too soon.

Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Caballé - Barcelona (1992, Barcelona)

Like many gay men, Freddie Mercury was obsessed with opera divas and one of his favourites was the legendary Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. They met in early 1987 and when called upon to contribute a song for the Barcelona Olympics, Montserrat approached Freddie for assistance. Seizing the chance to work with his idol, Freddie and Montserrat ended up recording an entire album together, which included the romantic, sweeping love song Barcelona. It has one of the most thrilling openings of any pop song ever and Freddie uses every trick in the book to create moments of grandeur and drama. Freddie's rich voice mixes remarkably well with Montserrat's world class operatics. It is a rare crossover success between the perfection of opera and the cheap thrills of pop music, not least because Freddie gives Montserrat ample opportunity to shine. Her performance is riveting and there are moments that are so beautiful they take your breath away. Even operaphobes have to appreciate the incredible power and majesty of her voice and the way that operatic singing can flick switches in your brain and cause all manner of involuntary body movements. The song just works as an Olympic anthem, as a love story and as an ode to that wonderful Catalan jewel of a city. One of the all-time greatest duets and a fitting theme for a world-class event. Sadly Freddie didn't live to see his theme conquer the world during the Games, but it stands as a fitting tribute to his eclectic and unique talents.

Sarah Brightman & José Carreras - Amigos Para Siempre (1992, Barcelona)

Not content with one theme, the Barcelona Games called upon Andrew Lloyd-Webber to create a second theme (seriously, are there no Spanish composers?). He teamed up with lyricist Don Black to create Amigos Para Siempre (Friends For Life), another duet, this time performed by his very recently ex-wife (awkward), the popera soprana Sarah Brightman and the renowned tenor José Carreras. It lacks some of the drama of Freddie and Montserrat's epic, but it has a gentle lilting quality that makes it perfect for a sunny summer evening in a stadium. Sarah is occasionally outsung by José, but she digs in and holds her own and eventually outblasts him with her stunning final note. I'm old enough to remember Sarah as a Starship Trooper, so I will always hold a candle for her. She also has a pretty good set of lungs and her reinvention as a crossover classical diva has been spectacularly realised. There are precious few songs that speak about the strong love that friends can feel for each other, that can be just as deep and meaningful as romantic love (and often lasts a lot longer). For that reason alone I would love this song, but as it also contains multiple crescendos and castanets, it has a reserved place in my personal hall of fame.

Gloria Estefan - Reach (1996, Atlanta)

Bit cheeky this one, basically Gloria Estefan and Diane Warren got together and rewrote One Moment In Time, called it Reach and passed it off as the theme for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Of course my tongue is firmly in my cheek, if you're writing an Olympics song, then you pretty much have to talk about striving for your goals and having that one special moment in your life. Besides, I adore Gloria and worship Diane (I really must get around to blogging about them), so I would never dare to suggest they were plagiarists. Reach is actually rather good, not overly dramatic and what we in the trade refer to as a "grower". Gloria is in good voice and adds some much needed earnestness to the lyrics, which could easily sound trite in a lesser performer's hands. It is perhaps not the most memorable song, but in the rarefied leagues of Olympic themes it is a definite medallist. Perhaps the bronze though this time.

Björk - Oceania (2004, Athens)

Thank heavens for Björk. In a world filled with sound-a-likes and two-dimensional talents, she continues to carve her own unique path through pop. She is perhaps a surprising choice to contribute a song for the Olympics, but Björk's performance at the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Athens Games is without doubt one of my lasting Olympic memories. If you didn't see it, try and track it down on YouTube, as my attempts to describe it could never do it justice. Suffice it to say that she ends up wearing a very large dress! Oceania has all the best qualities of a classic Björk song, it is intricate, complex and beautiful. Like the rest of her album Medúlla, it only uses human voices for instruments, with Oceania featuring a London choir and the beatboxer Shlomo. It goes to show that Olympic themes don't have to be just about reaching goals and lasting friendships, they can also celebrate individuality and creativity that is simply out of this world.

? - ? (2012, London)

So what will be the stand out diva moment of the 2012 Games? Come on London, don't let me down. Please don't allow my lasting musical memory of my home Games to be Paul McCartney croaking out Hey Jude. We have some of the finest female musical talent in the world, let's show it off. And no, I'm not talking about Victoria Beckham. I'll be watching...

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