3:15 pm Aug. 13, 20121
Welcome to the latest installment of Assessment, an occasional tour through the fights, critical squabbles, and obsessions of the Internet culture machine.
Opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics are always rites of national self-expression; and most countries have something to prove, so they are also rites of self-redefinition.
So it's perhaps a bit unsurprising that the reaction to the closing ceremony was mixed among English writers and cultural critics.
The disaster-free London Olympics were such an undeniable success that viewers could be forgiven some overly optimistic expectations for Sunday night’s closing ceremony.
Had the organisers convinced Kate Bush to perform live, 33 years after her last solo gigs? Was the heavily-pregnant Adele really going to appear, a performance that would have carried with it the possibility of the Olympics being concluded with the sight of a woman giving birth live onstage? And would Ed Sheeran be performing with a reformed Pink Floyd?
No, no, and no. But, The Guardian's Alexis Petridis writes, while the rumors were "redolent of the spirit of wild optimism that the Olympics seem to have engendered in the UK," the ceremony "didn't quite live up to what had preceded it. Perhaps nothing could."
And he exhibited a widespread trait of British writers on the exit of the Olympics: That perhaps now it was OK for England to return to dourness.
(Referring to the 2016 hosts, Petridis wondered whether Brazil might not also “be coerced into taking Russell Brand off our hands.”)
What we actually saw: performances by a re-united Spice Girls, the Who, George Michael, the boy band One Direction, Annie Lennox, and a cat-suited Jessie J. Fatboy Slim emerged from a giant octopus, the Pet Shop Boys sang “West End Girls” aboard orange rickshaws, and Russell Brand, dressed in a top hat and sparkly striped trousers, performed “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, eliciting a collective sigh from the British people.
Setting aside the lack of transportation crises and the unprecedented 29 gold medals that British athletes racked up during the Games, British music magazines found reason to be pessimistic about what came advertised as a “A Symphony of British Music.”
NME called the ceremony “disappointing,” comparing it to a “surrealist sketch show commissioned by BBC that had bafflingly managed to get a second series.” (They did, however, present a complete Spotify setlist from the evening.)
FACT magazine labeled it “rather embarrassing,” but seemed pleased that after two weeks of unadulterated positivity, the frequently bizarre closing ceremony “helped restore the cynicism and self-loathing which oils the wheels of everyday life” in England.
The event was better received on this side of the Atlantic.
Stereogum called the ceremony a “truly epic display of entertaining absurdity,” but abstained from further analysis in favor of linking to what may have been Blur’s last performance, which took place at London’s Hyde Park before 100,000 while the ceremony raged across town.
Alan Cowell, a British correspondent for The New York Times, approved of the final outcome. Describing the ceremony as “spectacular,” he wondered whether the overall success of the Games might lead to a “recalibration of the national myth,” one evoked by the sight of Eric Idle singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as nuns rollerbladed around him.
Then again, Cowell may think that the national myth is embodied to the rest of the world in shows like "Downton Abbey," when in fact it's already better encapsulated by "Little Britain" and the popular memes of photos of drunk teens in Cardiff, the kind of stuff that makes up the "Knifecrime Island" tag page at The Awl.
And, as Petridis observed, the legacy is much bigger than either of the two ceremonies that begin and end it. It was to be a legacy project, after all, according to Tony Blair. So what will the legacy be?
Skeptics about the games have come around on that point, a bit. The headline on Jeremy Paxman's assessment in The Independent was: "London 2012 Olympics: Who thinks Britain is rubbish now?"
Humanity has somehow duped itself into deciding that these things matter. And it seems to me that we have staged these Olympics, this collaborative delusion, rather brilliantly, and that the Games have been played in a fair and joyful spirit.
The biggest revelation is the obvious one. A nation that had elevated failure into a conviction is actually rather good.
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