Among the countless contradictions that the Olympic Games bring into relief is that between private and public music. There is a chasm, unbreachable even by the world’s best long-jumpers and sharpest-eared eavesdroppers, between the individual playlist privately blasted into the ear and those quaint two-minutes of nineteenth-century bluster known as a national anthem. The former is heard only by the super athlete, the latter by the watching world.
Even the NSA probably doesn’t know what streams into Michael Phelps’ pre-race head even if rumors swirl that he, like President Obama before his recent speech at the Democratic National Convention, gets pumped up for his performances by listening to Eminem. Whether Obama, like Phelps, was wearing Beats by Dr. Dre headphones to get his pep rap in Philadelphia last month was not reported, though it is not unlikely that this was his delivery system. The President almost pitched the upscale audio accouterment in a 2014 Super Bowl commercial that was pulled when controversy erupted over the prospect of a sitting US head-of-state flogging luxury paraphernalia on American’s highest holy day.
Soon after that Beats (also a music streaming service) was bought by Apple for a cool three billion. Not surprisingly the accessory’s popularity has massively increased since. At the beginning of this month, just in advance of the Olympics in Brazil, the Cupertino behemoth brought out a red-white-and-blue version for Americans and as well as versions in the colors of other nations with large enough consumer markets, the host country Brazil being one of them. Apple makes more money each year than several of Brazil’s South America neighbors and almost every country in Africa. Not surprisingly, then, Apple offers no version of the headphones in the black, red, green, blue and gold of South Sudan competing in the Olympic games for the first time in Rio. The headphones retail for $379.99. By contrast, the per capita annual income of South Sudan is just over $1,000. The diamond-studded Beats model worn by hip-hop artist Lil Wayne purportedly cost a million dollars.
The competitive advantage on the balance sheet and on the medal podium provided by headphones has not left everyone in the South Sudan behind, however. The five-year-old nation’s 400-meter runner Margret Rumat Rumat Hassan has signed a deal with Samsung and will get focused for her event wearing Samsung’s recently unveiled Gear IconX earbuds. Samsung released a video, already seen by some 22 million around the globe—many hits probably made using the latest Samsung smartphone she also pitches in the spot—in which the athlete’s rise from poverty and through strife is framed by shots of her putting the buds into her ears and then taking them out again as she enters the stadium. Hassan is apparently not listening to her nation’s new anthem “South Sudan Oyee!” Instead she hears her countrymen and women chanting her name through a halo of studio strings. Samsung sells the black gizmos for a penny less than two-hundred bucks.
Even before Apple acquired Beats, the company had cannily exploited the Olympics as an advertising platform. The IOC vigilantly polices brand logos sported, as it were, by the competing athletes, prohibiting any advertising brands but those of the official sponsors of the games. Thus at the Rio festivities the Chinese sportswear giant 361˚ has clad not only all their athletes but the competition officials and staff.
Beats’ response in London to this embargo was to hand out their phones for free to a host of athletes, especially Americans, chief among them history’s greatest Olympian Michael Phelps.
And so it was in Rio, Phelps wearing not the newest Olympic red-white-and-blue models for the American market, but black phones that go well with the U.SA. team’s Darth Vader swimming caps that, in this late Imperial age of Guantanamo and ongoing foreign interventions, presents an unexpectedly honest color scheme. Americans wear the black hats these days.
In Rio, Phelps (or perhaps Beats) dutifully covered up the most obvious logo on the headphones with a tiny American flag, but other elements of the brand were left blatantly naked. The “Beats” name atop the band that spans the head and connects the left and right phone was left exposed. Phelps was seen in the waiting room and poolside before his events strutting the company’s stuff on the global stage before the Olympic brand watchdogs could crack down further.
All this brand suppression does little to sap the selling power of a Phelps and the identification of his accessories. The design of the headphones is enough to unleash consumer lust in the millions who covet the things.
The miniature American flag sticker blacking out the Beats “b” is a most fitting metaphor for the relations between nation and corporation: the country’s brand (the flag) provides cover for the enterprise (Apple) behind it. As we all know, even as we are enthralled by the beauty and drama of athletes in contest, the Olympics themselves are one big advertisement.
All performers have their necessary rituals enacted to get into the right state of mind and to do their best. That the majority of the audio-drones of the present age require personalized music and an enclosing environment is no surprise. It cuts out distractions and focuses the mind on winning—which means personal glory and the attendant income boost that victory can bring. From the Wheaties box of Bruce Jenner to the Apple “Beats” headphones of Michael Phelps that is the American way, the world way.
But watching Phelps beneath his Beats in the backstage and then as he scowls and preens as he comes through the pool entrance behind the green Rio 2016 backdrop I can’t help but feel somewhat insulted at the haughty disregard for all the millions, indeed billions, who want to be acknowledged as crucial to the games: the athletes need the participation of a world audience not only to give the sporting events themselves their requisite energy but also to buy the products they endorse. Instead he remains enclosed in the soundtrack of solipsism.
Then at the medal ceremony the black hat and headphones are tossed aside and the human head is shown to the world. The tiny American flag stickers become outsized fabric ones and are hoisted aloft to the orchestral strains of the Star-Spangled Banner. The hand goes to the heart, the lips move in the suggestion of song, and the smile shows a warm human side, a patriotic affection.
Phelps should keep the phones on and what we should hear at the moment of apotheosis is Eminem’s “Lose Yourself:”
If you had
Or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
In one moment
Would you capture it
Or just let it slip?
In the Olympics of the fully corporate future, Google will compete against Apple and Nike and 361˚. And the world will get what it wants and deserves: the chance to tune directly into the athlete’s audio world, to hear the music that ushers in the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat—but most important the crescendo of cash.