A Public Spectacle

I hadn’t been intending to watch the Olympics opening ceremony, but I’m visiting my mother this weekend and she put the TV on around 9:00pm to see what was going on. I spent the next 4 hours glued to the screen wondering what Danny Boyle would manage to get away with next.

Of course he wasn’t in change of everything. The old men in suits managed to get to make boring speeches eventually, and I’d like to comment briefly on Jacques Rogge’s self-congratulatory comments about gender equality. Yes it is a good thing that even the Saudis have caved in and allowed women to compete, but set against that M. Rogge is presiding over some entirely unjustified rule changes. As this recent New Scientist article notes, while testerone might help build muscle, there’s no evidence that it inevitably makes you a better Olympic athlete in any disciple. What testosterone does to is make you look less conventionally pretty or, as the tabloid newspapers would have it, “look like a man”. These new rules are not about excluding people who are not female, or excluding people with an unfair advantage, they are about excluding women whom the IOC think are likely to be picked on by the media and accused of being “really men”. It is an exercise in spin, and nothing to do with sport.

But back to Danny Boyle and his remarkably exuberant celebration of British culture as it really is, rather than as right wing politicians would like it to be. Given how little love there has been for the Olympics in my Twitter stream up until now, what happened last night was remarkable. The only poms whingeing were those for whom the word “multi-cultural” is anathema. And their complaints did not go down well. If it were possible to recall MPs in this country, Aidan Burley’s arse would be toast by now. As it is, I suspect his constituency party will be getting a strongly worded letter from Tory HQ suggesting that they find a new candidate for the next election.

Of course Boyle can’t have been free of political constraints. His job was to celebrate Britain, not to point out all of the horrors from our history, so celebrate he did. It is what he managed to celebrate that was remarkable. We got the Sex Pistols, we got a lesbian kiss, and we got a remarkably moving (and multicultural) tribute to the victims of the 7/7 bombings. All of these things, so Twitter tells me, were beamed live to Saudi Arabia where they took live coverage. The USA opted for a long delay in coverage so that they could censor anything that might offend Americans Rush Limbaugh. Twitter tells me that all of the above items disappeared from the US coverage.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, the Metropolitan Police were doing what they do best: kettling, beating and pepper-spraying protestors.

Pop music, of course, is meant to distract us from all that. But one of the things about pop music is that most people don’t listen closely to the lyrics. Danny Boyle, I think, does. Thankfully I didn’t hear “Turning Japanese” being played at any point – using that song is a very common error at international events. But tucked into the ceremony there was a brief reference to London’s railway system, and with that we got a song by The Jam. Here’s an except from the lyrics:

What you see is what you get
You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don’t get what this society wants
I’m going underground, (going underground)

(Lyrics by Paul Weller, © Universal Music Publishing Group – read the whole thing here.)

Yes, right in the middle of the biggest public spectacle the UK has had in ages, and in the middle of a double-dip recession, Danny Boyle sneaked in a song that satirizes public spectacle as a distraction from political problems. Well played, Mr. Boyle, well played.

11 thoughts on “A Public Spectacle

  1. I wasn’t expecting to watch the opening ceremony either, but turned on the TV anyway and once the industrial revolution started to engulf Hobbiton, sorry, idyllic countryside I couldn’t watch away. Danny Boyle did good.

  2. I’m confused. Why would the Americans of all people censor a tribute to the victims of an al-Qaeda attack?

    1. It’s hard to say. On Twitter some people were suggesting NBC thought that only Americans had any right to be victims of terrorism. I think that’s unlikely. But the soloist was black and the choreographer was Akram Khan, so maybe they should people would get the wrong end of the stick, or at least be sufficiently confused to complain. Then again, they may just have thought that there wasn’t enough action in that segment of the ceremony.

      1. 210.blork.ly

        Looks as if your Twitter friends may have been right all along.

  3. I LOVED the musical choices throughout the evening. (Suspect I was one of the few non-UK-residents who picked up on the nod to the EastEnders credits in the opening flyover sequence.) And yes, both Going Underground and Uprising were fantastic nose-thumbings.

  4. Uh, NBC always delays their showing of the ceremonies until the evening hours on the east coast due to TV ratings/advertising rates they can charge. Beijing was on a 12 hour delay in 2008 I think. The main sporting draws that are shown on NBC (as opposed to cable networks they own) are also delayed 6 hours.

    Although the lesbian kiss may indeed have been censored, I suspect what happened with the others simply was the insertion of commercials during perceived lulls. After all, this is shown on corporate networks in this country and the other events (and possibly the kiss) aren’t controversial as much as they could be sacrificed for more money-making ads.

  5. The Brookside kiss wasn’t censored: I saw it. (It just happened so fast that most people didn’t spot it.) But the 7/7 tribute was definitely missing–I had no idea it even existed until I read this blog. So thanks for that.

    And excellent point about testosterone (I skipped the tedious suit-speeches at the end, so thanks for that, too).

  6. An extra piquancy of The Jam song being included is that they were one of the prime minister’s favourite bands as a kid, to Paul Weller’s horror. As the Telegraph puts it, Cameron made an “ill-judged” comment about singing along to Eton Rifles while studying at Eton, leading to Paul Weller popping up to say it was actually about class warfare and specifically attacking Eton privilege. ‘“If you can’t take the time or have the intellect to see what the song’s about, you haven’t got much chance of running the country, have you?” sniped Weller.

    There were other musical titbits… who’d have thought Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s lyric “Relax, don’t do it/When you want to come” would get such an exposure nearly 30 years after DJ Mike Read refused to play it, leading to it being banned by the BBC (and its subsequent rise to the top of the charts).

    And at the very end the fireworks went off to the sound of Eclipse, the last bit of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. That sounded kind of inclusive (All that you touch/see/taste/feel/love/hate and much more), but basically the song and the album is about modern life causing insanity and ended on a rather downbeat note: “And everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon” (Usain Bolt collapses on screen).

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