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.