Among all the sports at the Winter Olympics, figure skating is the strangest and the most distinct: unlike the others, there’s a unique element of fine art inscribed into its history. Invented by a New York City ballet dancer in the 19th century and popularized and formalized in continental Europe, figure skating, in its motions and presentation, enhances the sublime experience of intense athletic competition with the expression of grace in fragility — what people generally refer to as beauty. When a skier crashes or a speed skater falters, it’s purely a failure of the body. There’s a sense of disappointment but no sense of ugliness. But when a figure skater slips, it’s always ugly. Figure skaters are athletes, but they’re also artists, people who consciously represent an ideal sensibility, and witnessing their fall has the same disorienting quality as being wrenched out of a dream.
The presence of music, which pursues a similar trance-like state of mind, is a leading sign of figure skating’s status as an art. What could only serve as a distraction in other sports turns out to be a necessity in skating. Who could imagine a routine conducted entirely in silence? Yet there are limits to the sort of music that gets played. Certain modes of music just don’t harmonize with the act of gliding over, and spinning above, a frozen surface, a fact well illustrated by current American Olympian Jimmy Ma, who scored a routine to DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s dissonant, spastic club anthem “Turn Down for What.” It turned out that, no matter how graceful Ma’s motions were on ice, the rancorous fizzles of the more brutal variants of EDM couldn’t resonate with them.
One could add much else to the list of musical traits that make poor complements for skating. The lumbering 808s of trap; the knotty, sober poetry of classic hip-hop; the sizzle of classic rock and roll; the abrasive charge of punk; the serrations of metal; the ironic reserve of college rock — however effective in their native settings, they all fall flat on the well-lit ice. What works best is music whose power is phrased with smoothness and delicacy. Figure skating, with its special conjunction of dignity and swift motion, naturally calls for parallel sonics: when French pair skaters Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres chose the Weeknd’s waltz-like “Earned It” for their routine last year, it was clearly an inspired choice.
Pop music is just beginning to expand its presence in figure skating: It was only in 2014 that the International Skating Union, which governs the sport, permitted the use of songs with lyrics in competitive routines. (Exhibitions had always been a different matter: witness East German legend Katarina Witt’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” way back in 1988.) With that in mind, and also perhaps out of a desire to avoid more Beatles songs and “Hallelujah” on ice, we compiled a list of 25 songs that are both great on their own and ideal for figure-skating performances.
Lana Del Rey, “Off to the Races”
Though anything but cold herself, Lana makes a lot of music that turns out to be perfect for low-temperature skating. The second track on Born to Die is just the best example of many: with its effortless shifts in tone and pace coupled with a ready melody, skaters have everything they need to complete them.
It’s entirely possible that skaters jumping under the influence of Future’s highest-flying love song will gain some extra hang time to complete their spins.
Erykah Badu, “Green Eyes”
Erykah is almost always cool, but the one song where she loses her cool turns out, paradoxically, to be a song quite worthy of being treated on ice. The gracefully somber pianos and the absence of strong rhythm create a gliding effect for an expert skater to mirror.
Frank Ocean, “Thinkin Bout You”
Pretty much all of Channel Orange can and should go on ice, but we’re singling out this song because of the potential to synchronize a quad-jump with the line about a tornado.
Mariah Carey, “Underneath the Stars”
Only good things can happen when fantasies on ice hook up with Fantasy, right?
Tricky’s Maxinquaye is an album all about pressure, but grace under pressure is no less important. The vigorous yet delicate sound in “Overcome” suggests a winding lateral motion, precisely the kind of energy skaters can make use of.
Chalk it up to the cold Canadian weather or whatever, but Grimes’ forward-thinking artistry is a great fit for the artistry in ice skating.
Daft Punk, “Digital Love”
Exactly the kind of dance music — strong but understated — well-served by a translation to dancing over ice.
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Succeeding at keeping one’s balance in a treacherous environment is the theme of Solange and the skater alike, and it’s an added bonus that you can time the flight of a triple jump to the titular refrain.
Led Zeppelin, “No Quarter”
Not only does the coldly patient control of this Zeppelin semi-deep cut set it apart from the more familiar blues and heavy metal in their catalog, it also happens to make the song suitable — very suitable, in fact — for a spin over ice.
Tove Lo, “Cool Girl”
Specializing in concept albums laced with erotic intelligence, the Swedish electropop artist Tove Lo is an expert at making heat seem chill, and her 2016 single “Cool Girl,” with its mixture of reserve and kineticism, is especially compatible with the logic of skating.
Taylor Swift, “Dancing With Our Hands Tied”
Charged with tender urgency, the best song on Swift’s otherwise rigid Reputation is also her best song for skating. That album has certain things in common with the ice rink, which we won’t enumerate.
Clipse, “Ride Around Shining”
Clipse has stiff competition for the title of greatest rap duo, but there’s little doubt that they’re the coldest pair ever to trade verses for a living. This impeccably elegant song sounds like it was recorded at absolute zero; it’s perfect for skating, though leaving out Malice’s third verse, which deploys a gay slur, might be wise.
Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”
Whether it serves as backing for a sad individual routine or a gratifying pairs routine, this gentle ballad will flow at just the right pace for a skater.
SZA’s pep and poise on this Ctrl cut would be more than worthy of a routine set to it; in fact, the whole album would only gain by being transposed to ice.
Kanye West, “Street Lights”
Kanye’s chilliest, slowest, least bass-reliant album, 808s & Heartbreak, sounds like it was shaped six feet under the ice, so it’s no surprise that one of its best tracks is readily adaptable to a performance right above it.
Kylie Minogue, “Love at First Sight”
Any high-octane routine would be blessed to have this Kylie classic fueling it.
Vince Staples, “Crabs in a Bucket”
The light-show ambience and wiry energy of Vince’s Big Fish Theory opener makes a good companion for a skater sharing Vince’s forward-thinking mentality.
The No I.D. beat is as classically stately as any old sonata; it’s perfect for ice performance, and the song title jives nicely with potential spinning leaps. The only risk is that Rihanna’s cries might melt the ice, but as with anything Rihanna-related, it’s a risk worth taking.
The xx, “Islands”
A duet animated by the balanced energy of its production, “Islands” can go anywhere a pairs routine needs it to.
Drake featuring Rihanna, “Take Care”
Spacious and cool as the air above the rink, the title track from Drake’s album, much like “Islands,” is a duet produced by Jamie xx. Small wonder that it’s also a superb skate song. Given that he seems unable to stop putting out music, this might be the only way to put Drake on ice.
Spirited, affirmative, and chaste, Brandy’s first hit song is both a monument of ’90s R&B and a godsend for any skate choreographer.
Angelo Badalamenti, “Dance of the Dream Man” (Twin Peaks soundtrack)
All we’re saying is that any song a little person can effectively jam out to on a non-ice floor in an alternate dimension where everyone talks backward is a song that no skater will have trouble moving to in the ice rink — which, come to think of it, is itself a weird dream dimension.
Lorde, “Green Light”
Once you start, it’s utterly impossible to stop thinking of Lorde’s lead single from Melodrama as the epitome of a figure-skating pop song. The disciplined build-ups and the bursts of energy all but demand to be embodied in a skater.
Assuming that the skater manages to keep the tears summoned up by Sade’s voice from affecting their coordination, the absolute poise, firm expression, and persistent care of “Flow” mark it out as a song that sums up everything they aim to represent.