Though his generation is guilty of turning the ukelele into a hipster accoutrement that has transgressed the line of cute and simple into unbearable and overdone, especially in ostensibly sincere but more accurately cloying covers, Matthew Mitcham has once again beaten the odds and made the instrument fleetingly fun.
He first beat the odds first four years ago in Beijing when he knocked off China’s two top divers in the final round of dives to win the gold medal in the ten-meter platform event, which terrifies Raúl only slightly less than the trampoline, Mitcham’s previous sport. Nobody really saw the gold coming, so it came as an upset and one of my favorite Olympic wins. He made the victory look hard won, but being an openly Australian gay athlete in world competition rather easy by comparison. He gets gold all around.
Now he’s back in London for another swing. He claims he’s there for fun and to dive without pressure since he’s already won the gold, and his fun has already begun – with a ukelele.
Now, Raúl was once a fan of the reignited ukelele, but the novelty grew thin after a short while, and I do not appreciate Zooey Deschanel, the It Girl who needs to be retired, shitting all over the old standard, Tonight You Belong to Me, belting out and quashing the sweet melody and painfully misinterpreting the wistful lyrics. Apologies to Ben Schwartz who was drowned out in the background. And extra apologies to Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, who snuck real longing and gentle sorrow into The Jerk (1979) with the number.
Matthew Mitcham makes an unexpected selection, though maybe not so much so for a gay, Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) and plays it earnestly and without a wink. He doesn’t even bother with proper lighting. Mitcham is adorable, but it’s not the imposing adorability of a Zooey Deschanel that wears one down within minutes. He can therefore make the number work, and for about 90 seconds, return Raúl to his appreciation of the ukelele and the ease to which it lends itself to covers from all over the spectrum performed by amateurs who play and sing with a winning, sweet simplicity.
The context of the song’s lyrics and Beyoncé’s intense, highly stylized video in relation to Mitcham’s unapologetically amateur performance/setting makes for a rather wide gulf between the two versions, but this serves to amplify the breezy sweetness of the ukelele in contrast to Beyoncés hard, driving relentlessness. Moreover, the Australian accent wends its way in and adds another unique turn.
I wish Mitcham luck on the platform. He’ll have far better lighting and much more attention, but no less charm than with his ukelele.