Friday, August 29, 2008

On "London Eight Minutes"

Even before the Beijing Olympics curtain fell completely, fans had already turned their eyes to London. However, London's 8-minute show during Sunday's closing ceremony did not seem to generate much favorable feedback. Not all the criticism deserves serious attention, for example the "fake handicapped" performer in the wheelchair – it merely provided a weak bullet for a few pugnacious Chinese youngsters to return fire. However, a good question raised by some of the British audience is whether pop music represents England's long history and rich culture, or whether the idea of "a big party" is a good one for the London Olympics.

A British cyber friend, Paul Armstrong Taylor, wrote me from Shanghai on this (quoted with permission):

Consider this quote from an article about Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London Olympic Organizing Committee:

Coe kept mentioning two words -- creativity and fun. Both, he claimed, are representations of Britain's unique culture. Creativity, he insisted, is "Britishness in the very best sense of the word."

As far as the fun part goes, London knows how to throw a good party, and that is what they plan to do, Coe beamed. "We're actually quite good at partying," he said. "Let's turn it into a giant party."

Citing the famous string of British pop music and West End stars that are part of the planning team, Coe seemed quite certain that the organizing committee will be able to put on a great super-fun show.

This fills me with foreboding. After Beijing and China put on a dramatic and immense performance inspired by three thousand years of history and culture, London is going to put on a "giant party" inspired by pop stars and musicals. Apparently, the closing ceremony in which Beijing hands on to London, London will be represented by Leona Lewis, the winner of a TV talent series and now pop star; Jimmy Page, guitarist for out-of-date rock band Led Zeppelin; and David Beckham, the pop star of soccer/football. Honestly, I feel sick about this. I am not a particularly patriotic person, but I do think the UK has some things to be proud about and I do not want to see it embarrassed on a world stage.

If they continue down this route, it will be a complete disaster for at least two fundamental reasons:

a) Pop culture is shallow, temporary and very much subject to fashion. It is a flimsy foundation on which to build a presentation to the world. Every country has pop stars and they all change with the whims of teenagers (which change often). The Olympic opening ceremony is about presenting what is unique and fundamental to the culture of the host (as well as the obligatory spirit of world unity). Pop culture can simply not achieve this.

b) Politicians and Olympic committees can not be creative and fun by their nature. Even the Beijing ceremony was not particularly creative, but it was immense and powerful. I think this is what you have to aim for. A few years ago, the British government tried to create a "Cool Brittania" brand. It became a joke because anything a politician says is "cool" instantly loses any "coolness". I suspect the Olympic ceremony will end that way too if they are determined to follow this route.

The London segment [in Beijing Olympics' closing ceremony] was more or less what I expected. The frightening thing is that this sort of MTV-pop music approach should be relatively well suited to an 8 minute segment, but will be practically unwatchable for most people if stretched to an hour or more. I really hope they change direction before 2012, but it seems they are set on taking the "Cool Brittania" route. Obviously, they should not try to out-Beijing Beijing - they simply can't compete with the numbers of people China can commit. However, I think there are other ways to come up with a display that captures some of the uniqueness of Britain's character, culture and history.

So, what do you think?


Anonymous said...

. . . maybe.

But consider these two articles, one from The Age
and the other from The Guardian
Both written by the same writer [Marina Hyde] and giving an alternative view of both the Beijing events and how the London games might be.
I agree that if pop 'culture' is allowed to predominate this does not bode well but I certainly wouldn't want London to even think of imitating the Beijing opening ceremony.

All we have to do to be better than Beijing is
allow people to come and go, as they normally do;
not expel foreigners 'for the safety of the sacred flame';
allow people to make as much noise as they want within the stadiums;
allow people to demonstrate if they wish;
not expel migrant workers;
generally relax and have a good time - and not keep telling people they are happy.

richard said...

Besides, I have to agree with one of the NBC (US) commentators, who said that, after Zhang Yimou's opening ceremonies, the gold medal for opening ceremonies should be retired. It's hard to imagine that anything could compare favorably with that, so why not do something very different?

Lianping said...

What I appreciated most in the London eight minute show was exactly the strong difference it displayed from the Chinese style performance which bore lots of unique elements of history and ancient cultures. While China has actually gained a huge success and won high praise in its opening ceremony, and most critics as well as ordinary people are curiously looking forward to the next possible out-competitor, London as the follower would inevitably be stressful in this regard.

The “preview” was supposed to be unique but not obtrusive because it was anyway a part of the closing ceremony of Beijing Olympics. It would be terrible to see the explicit competition between the two cities (as we Chinese say “抢风头”) in London’s hurriedly showing off its classical cultures without respecting the consistency of the ceremony as a whole.

Finally I was happy to see the “preview” of 2012 Olympics demonstrated in a creative way, in that I saw both its modern culture which is obviously different from the theme of the opening ceremony of Beijing so that it left much room for people’s imagination to the next Olympics, and the fun part in the form of a party-like performance, which coincided with the theme of the closing ceremony of Beijing – a dazzling party after 16 days of competition under great pressure for the athletes.

I also believe it a wise idea to employ David Beckham in the performance (even though he almost did nothing but kicking a ball), because he is a perfect mix of both pop culture and sportsmanship in this country. It might be hard for people out of England to understand what the singers were singing and what the red bus stood for, but we were all reminded of the brilliance created by Beckham-led England soccer team, which could be seen as an explicit expression of Olympic spirit.

Anyway, it’s nothing but an eight minute preview. I’m looking forward to another exceptional Olympics 4 years later, which may not be so “dramatic and immense” as the Chinese one, but any mystery to be revealed and any uniqueness displayed would be even more appreciated.

Anonymous said...

"The brilliance created by Beckham-led England soccer team"?
this has to be a cruel joke ...
The English 'football' team is known for being grossly overpaid and underachieving.
When was the last time that they won anything significant?
This statement is almost as awful as singling out the Chinese football team for praise during the Beijing Olympics.