Wednesday 21 May 2008

Eurovision for the Uninitiated

This Saturday we celebrate the annual Fête de Fromage known as the Eurovision Song Contest. This pillar of our culture dates back to the 1950s when Europe’s governments, who always know what’s best for us, decreed that the wonders of satellite broadcasting should be used to unite us as brothers in song, thereby making war inconceivable. Astonishingly, nobody had thought of it until then.

Inspired by this noble purpose, Europe’s manly men and women-who-knew-their-place warbled songs that your grand-aunt (the nun) might have considered a bit trite. Nothing that didn’t require a symphony orchestra to back it had a chance of featuring, and lyrics typically sounded like a Pentecostal revival meeting, such was the proliferation of ‘sha-la-las’ and kindred tounguebabbling to fill the bits between ‘Moon’ and ‘June’ or their French, German, or Maltese counterparts. Imagine, if you will, what might have become of popular music if Mantovani and Mitch Miller strangled Elvis in his cradle, and proceeded to conquer the world. Now strip out all those controversial bits that you can’t sing with a grin like a coat-hanger stuck in your gob. Add two or three modestly swaying backing singers and you’re there .

Each country’s song was, until recently, chosen by a jury picked by and accountable only to the national broadcasting authority. Cynics who muttered darkly about casting couches must surely have been wrong, given the unimpeachably wholesome contestants that emerged. Women wore tasteful ball gowns, while the men, once allowed to discard formal evening dress, wore sharp suits. Italian lotharios who appeared without ties were, well, Italian you know.

The winning song is chosen by votes submitted by the participating states. This was always the best bit of the competition. In the grainy black and white days the presenter would talk to the national broadcaster of each country on the telephone to receive that country’s votes (which had been cast by the aforementioned unaccountable jury). These would be announced in English and French as they were added to the electronic scoreboard. As satellite broadcasting improved, a picture of a nice lady in a ball gown sitting in front of a shot of Rome or Helsinki by night replaced the crackly phone call.

Voting for or against neighbours is a time-honoured tradition. Greece and Cyprus invariably gave each other the maximum douze points, while France and Germany grudgingly gave each other a polite mid-range score. By virtue of entering some of the most wrist-slitting dirges ever heard outside a hormonal teenager’s bedroom, Norway frequently (some might say, traditionally) came last, once even attaining the coveted nul points for a tender chansonnette exploring the consequences of nuclear winter.

In the early 1970s a 17 year-old convent girl called Dana chirped an irritatingly anodyne ditty that won the prize for Ireland. Omigod, we had hit the big time, we were a serious player, a permanent seat on the Security Council, or maybe even a papal visit, was obviously imminent. These things really mattered back then. Dana wafted a soap-scrubbed air of doe-eyed colleendom that made Maria von Trapp look like a gin-raddled doxy hawking her wares in Port Said. And Europe had taken her to its world-weary sophisticated heart. Yes, Ireland, we had arrived.

But then some crowd called ABBA from socialistmaterialistabortionistcontraceptive Sweden (who probably approved of and practiced Sex Before Dinner Marriage!) won it. And one of them was actually holding a . . . a . . . an electric guitar! Appropriately, the song was called Waterloo. The barbarians were at the gate.

Not that things went bad all at once. The contest retained sufficient moral tone for Franco to bribe juries around Europe one year to ensure that a particularly awful Spanish entry won. (It beat the unspeakable Congratulations sung by the ever-virgin Cliff Richard). Ironically, a corrosively repulsive Portuguese song (E Depois do Adeus, if you must know) was used as a signal to start the left-wing revolution there not long after. Moving, patriotic stuff, however you look at it.

Then came the depressed 1980s. Reagan and Brezhnev waved their missiles at each other over our heads. Europe responded, as it always does when confronted by might beyond its own, with that uniquely irritating air of superiority we try so hard to make appear effortless. A favoured medium of response was, of course, the Eurovision Song Contest, which took on a sheen of irony and self-referential knowingness. (That neither the Americans nor the Soviets were even aware of the contest just underscores the smug superiority of its choice as a means of making Europe’s statement). The show’s presenters gave the audience a metaphorical wink to let us know that they were in on the joke: we all knew it was Quatsch, but wasn’t it fun? One presenter’s ankle-length dress ‘accidentally’ caught on a prop, tearing off to reveal a daring slit skirt underneath. You see? Even when we expose it for what it is, we still enjoy it. A whining Irish cabaret reject called Johnny Logan won in 1980 and 1987, the latter song fittingly named What’s Another Year.

After the annus mirabilis of 1989, something happened to make Ireland the capital of Cool. Europe being Europe, this also manifested itself in the cooly un-cool Eurovision, which Ireland won four times in five years. Interestingly, the only thing anyone recalls about those heady days is the 1994 contest’s interval act. This featured two Irish-American Irish dancers (still with me?), the male of whom sported a mullet and had replaced all his chest hair with baby oil. In fact, it was quite a spectacular dance number, but within a few months it metastasised into the monster we know as Riverdance and proceeded to trample and stomp over every city in the industrialised world.

In Eastern Europe, countries which had for so long been stuck in a 1970s purgatory of cheap bell-bottom jeans and Slavic lyrics interspersed with ‘Baby’ clamoured to join Eurovision. In a revolutionary change, they now could wear designer Italian bell-bottoms instead. Nobody ever paid attention to the words, so no change was needed there. However, the old rule requiring songs to be sung in their national language had been dropped, so the ‘Babys’ were now interspersed among Eengleesh lyrics. Turkey joined the fray with a truly bizarre number called Opera which is still cited by connoisseurs as the most outlandish performance ever delivered with a straight face.

A schism soon became evident. Western Europe (apart, of course, from Greece and Cyprus) voted for songs on merit – in other words, for Western European songs. Eastern Europe, unused to the responsibilities of freedom, persisted in voting for inferior Eastern European songs on patently partisan grounds. (Eastern European commentators have said something similar, but not quite the same). The breakup of the Versailles Treaty states gave the Easterners a numerical strength that began to threaten Western hegemony.

The West responded with a mixture of irony and camp. In a jaw-dropping parody of Ireland’s virginal first winner, an Israeli transsexual called Dana International won in 1998. The East’s response was to shrewdly treat the song as a mere adjunct of the performance itself. Ukraine stormed home with Savage Dances, featuring a pneumatic Xena-style warrioress bouncing around with pelt-clad bodybuilders thumping drums. Since then, the competition has ricocheted from one Easter European capital to the next, though politically (if not geographically) it returned to the West when the Finnish monster rock group Lordi won with Hard Rock Halleluiah. (This title, and the role foretold for the European Union in the Book of Revelations, allowed me to convince one American evangelical that the winning song became Europe’s national anthem for a year and was sung by government ministers at EU meetings. But I digress.)

Eurovision has come to have a new role as a cross between the Berlin Love Parade and the European Cup. We get to shout cheers and obscenities, screech at truly faaabulous outfits, snicker at the unfortunates who don’t realise it’s all a joke, howl in derision at uniformly terrible songs, and do so knowing that nobody outside Europe can understand what the hell is going on.

Looks like those wise, paternalistic governments in the 1950s might have got it right after all.

1 comment:

Gary said...


And Ameriocan Idol should be re-titled Just Another Cheap American Copy Idol.

I think I blame George Bush for this too.