Loudon Wainwright III performs "Tonya's Twirls"
Loudon Wainwright III had special cause to catch I, Tonya, the acclaimed movie about notorious champion figure skater Tonya Harding--and especially the 1994 attack on her Olympics rival Nancy Kerrigan.
Shortly after the infamous incident, Wainwright, who had been writing topical songs for National Public Radio, was commissioned to write a song about it for ABC News’ Nightline. The effort, “Tonya’s Twirls,” was vintage Wainwright, depicting Harding apart from the rest of the ostensibly wholesome competition: “She wasn't goody-two-skates, like all the other girls/With their grinning and their spinning and their winning little twirls.”
“Tonya’s Twirls” was later included in Wainwright’s 1999 album Social Studies, which comprised similarly satirical songs concerning then current events that were mainly produced for NPR, like “O.J.,” about the O.J. Simpson trial, and “Jesse Don’t Like It,” about the late controversial conservative Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
“A producer at Nightline knew I wrote topical songs for NPR’s All Things Considered, and I wrote two songs for them,” recalls Wainwright. “One was about a Woodstock [Festival] anniversary and revival, and then they mentioned Tonya Harding, and I wrote a song about her. They even made a video of it with me singing, intercut with pictures of her or a little girl skating. [Anchor] Ted Koppel wrote me after and thanked me.”
An accomplished actor himself, Wainwright attended an advance screening of I, Tonya and was “knocked out by a lot of the performances and visuals.”
“It’s an amazing story and the movie’s well done--though played pretty hard for laughs,” says Wainwright. “But if listen to my song, it starts out being kind of light and poking fun at her and her weird mom and husband, but does a bit of a swerve toward the end.”
By “swerve,” Wainwright means that the lyrics veer toward a more serious vein, addressing the pressure of young Olympians to succeed and earn the sports trappings of the American flag-raising and a portrait on a Wheaties box.
In “Tonya's Twirls“’ lyrics, then, Wainwright laments how figure skating used to be the domain of “laughing, happy little girls,” but is now a fierce, nationalistic contest riding on “picture perfect twirls.“
“One strength of the song, if I may say so, is that it does that swerve such that it gets you laughing along to the dopey situation--and then it becomes something more.“
Wainwright has sensibly returned “Tonya's Twirls” to his current concert setlist.
“People are having a reaction to it--with the Winter Olympics coming up,” he says. “In a way, Tonya’s a perennial: Incarnations of her keep coming back. I couldn’t even recognize her at the Golden Globes--she looks completely different. But she’s still in the culture, even though she’s still angry and capitalizing on her moment--and I admire her for that. She’s had quite a life, and she won’t go away.”
Meanwhile, Wainwright is working on a film version of his acclaimed autobiographical theater piece Surviving Twin--a “posthumous collaboration” with his father, famed Life Magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., consisting of the son’s songs juxtaposed with his readings of his late father’s writings --which he hopes to accomplish this year. The title originated as a track on his 2001 album Last Man on Earth.
Still fresh is his also-acclaimed memoir Liner Notes: On Parents and Children, Exes and Excess, Death and Decay, and a Few of My Other Favorite Things, which was published last year.