A Lively Olympics Ends by Raising the Pop-Culture Dead

The closing ceremony's greatest-hits vibe sometimes felt at odd with the games themselves.

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Annie Lennox performs at the closing ceremony. (Reuters)

Following the fabulous chaos of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the games themselves delivered every bit of the entertaining drama they're meant to provide. Visually, it was a spectacle unlike any other sporting event, with athletes competing in unprecedentedly brightly colored venues: a hot-pink gymnastics stadium, ultraviolet-purple beach volleyball courts, cobalt-blue Smurf Turf for field hockey. The U.S. gymnastics teams displayed a full range of emotions as we watched in HD; Michael Phelps splashed his way to become the most-decorated Olympic athlete of all time; and Oscar Pistorius made history racing on carbon-fiber legs. The most indelible moments often ambushed us: U.S. runner Morgan Uceny tripping and falling during the 1,500-meter final, the U.K.'s Andy Murray overwhelming Roger Federer on the tennis court, and the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup redemption with a last-minute header goal in overtime to win gold.

Watching the show was like listening to a wedding band trying to cover all musical bases

And then, the whole 17-day pageant wrapped up somewhat anticlimactically with a closing ceremony that was a celebration of the familiar. Pop favorites like the Spice Girls were reunited for the event, and the Who (or what remains of them) was dusted off and thrust on stage as the final act. In between there was everything from a marching band dressed as the Queen's palace guards to Fatboy Slim spinning while seated in the middle of a giant octopus. Artistic director Kim Gavin had promised viewers "an elegant mash-up of British music, a rich tapestry of British culture and life ... something people remember for years to come." But the extravaganza in the arena was overwhelmingly focused on years past.

Watching the show was like listening to a wedding band trying to cover all musical bases, with the result that at any given moment, some people would be thrilled and on their feet dancing, while others would be sitting morosely hoping to hear something they liked, soon. As a bookend to an opening ceremony that tried to dump all things British into a three-hour container—resulting in a slightly insane stew of literature, pop culture, and music—the closing ceremony duplicated the mashup effect without any of Danny Boyle's imagination or attempt, however fragmented or circular, at narrative.

Scotland's Emeli Sandé started things out with a cover of London rapper Professor Green's hit "Read All About It," in a newsprint-embroidered London landscape set up at the center of a track-like circle. The stadium floor was imprinted with Damien Hirst's tie-dyed rendering of the Union Jack. After the Pet Shop Boys performed wearing pointy wizard hats and black paillette-covered long coats, the boy band One Direction sang "What Makes You Beautiful," and the largest Stomp cast ever assembled made their usual clatter with brooms, poles, trash can lids, and barrels. Next, the athletes paraded through. In a strange meta-moment, many appeared to be watching themselves participating in the ceremony in real time, on their iPads and smartphones.

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Angela Riechers is an art director and writer specializing in design, media, and the visual arts. She received an AOL Artists 25 for 25 grant for her multimedia project Sites of Memory.

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