Eurovision: The Candy-Coated Song Factory
Eurovision: The Candy-Coated Song Factory by Jack Stevenson
While American pop culture beams itself to all corners of the globe, invading and conquering foreign cultures with movies, sex symbols and hamburgers, its harsh glare is outshone once a year by the mega-watt glitter of the Eurovision song contest—a tour de force of Eurotrash excess that has left this jaded yank bedazzled since 1993, when I moved to Denmark.
Founded in 1956, this international songfest was a product of television when the young medium was idealistically seen as a tool that could unite diverse European cultures for an evening in the simple shared joy of music. And for all the crassness and kitsch Eurovision has come to epitomize forty-four years later, this noble aim is still its main motivation—or so the official line would have it.
Eurovision pits one act—vocalist, duo or group—from each of Europe's twenty-three countries in a night-long competition that culminates in public phone-in vote in each country. Each nation then casts its votes for other national acts, resulting in the emergence of a single winner with a single song.
The voting has always been notoriously partisan, as enemies like Greece and Turkey never give each other a single vote, while East European neighbors tend to vote for each other, as do the Scandinavian countries, etc. Beyond that, the voting is unpredictable and erratic in the extreme, and that’s one of Eurovision’s joys.
With a global audience of 100 million, Eurovision is a virtual cottage industry for the broadcast media, yellow press and tavern business. Gays love it. The merely cultured indulge it for one night in the name of patriotism, and common folks are moved to laughter and tears at the rounds of parties in homes and bars. Intellectuals disdain it like the bubonic plague and make it a point to attend high profile events where there is no television present, 'lest they be suspected of hiding at home in front of the tube. To admit any of the songs moved you to tears would be a lowbrow humiliation worse than slipping in dog shit.
It's a glitzy, showbiz event, like the MTV awards or Oscars, Emmys and Grammys—but with a very distinct difference. Similar American events tend to be very "star" and "award” oriented: the biggest, brightest stars singing their mega-hits in the communal glow of well-affirmed success, accepting endless honors awarded by esteemed judges as they troop to the stage to give speeches.
Eurovision, conversely, is a shrine to the song, not the star. It’s an homage to the ton of hope and glory attached to the lone pop song. It's a real-time event with the one award given by "the people."
In the capital city of the previous year's winner gather the bright hopefuls from across Europe to form a massed concentration of facially perfect Barbie dolls, photogenic jawbones and a raw maw of uncut charisma. Each contestant is hoping to ride one miraculously catchy tune to fame and fortune the way “Waterloo” catapulted ABBA to stardom in 1974. This is considered by most to be the event's immaculate golden moment, and it endures as inspiration to countless entrants since who dream that all this might lead to something more than a free vacation and lots of tabloid exposure back home.
The acts have all just won their own national competitions and achieved some short-lived hope, hullabaloo and celebrity on the local level, previous to which most of them were total unknowns. And after their fifteen minutes of fame, most will go back to their day jobs or go on to supply second-rate lounges and supper clubs with an endless glut of "where are they now?" easy listening acts.
But still, a hope held dear in the darkest moments is that a winner can come out of nowhere. Its all about amateurs scoring big and dreams of a lifetime coming true in a single night. In 1998, an Israeli transsexual, Dana International, triumphed over a Maltese farm girl in the last round of voting with a catchy disco tune. It’s about hope—and hope dashed.
And while that Maltese farm girl and all the other thousands of losers over the years will grow older and move on to other pursuits, their old performances lay eternally entombed in an electronic purgatory of outer-orbit TV signals floating around in space... songs that will come back years later and haunt the unwary in unguarded moments. "My God! I remember that one!" they shriek with expressions contorted in shock as if they'd just swallowed a bone.
Eurovision is also good at producing freaky camp followers and obsessed trivia buffs who can sing the lyrics of all the past winners and remember details that should never be allowed to lodge in the human brain. These people only come truly to life once a year, and in the meantime they pester co-workers with Eurovision prattle that nobody wants to hear unless the Contest is actually about to happen.
In its shining belief in the transformational power of the 2:30 pop song, the Eurovision Song Contest redeems bubblegum's bright promise and harkens back to its heyday, the sixties, a time of 45 rpm singles and portable record players that folded up like little suitcases. A time before every act needed to shoot a video, a time when TV shows like Shindig!, Hullabaloo and Top of the Pops brought a visual dimension to the sound. The era when the pop song ruled.
Like bubblegum, Eurovision is instant: full of instantly disposable empty-calorie confections that tend to be bouncy effervescent love songs that evaporate as fast as it takes the cute lead singer to shake her long blonde hair across her face (Charlotte Nilsson's trademark). You only hear most of the songs once, on the night of the show. All are essentially instantly judged—and being pretty helps.
Like bubblegum, none of it seems quite real or to possess any substance. It all seems suspiciously pre-fabricated, as artificial and sweet as it is inevitably upbeat and bright, perfect for teenaged digestive systems. No death rock here, although basically anything is permitted and you never know what crazy stuff some little country you could never find on a map (if you're an American) is going to come up with.
And like bubblegum, the songs are totally apolitical, recalling a time before rock and pop musicians became "youth spokesmen" and organized benefits to stop world hunger. While the songs are naturally more diverse and differ stylistically from the American brand of bubblegum, they possess the soul of bubblegum—pure pop distilled to its sugary upbeat essence. And its biggest fans behave like total junkies.
In 1999, with acts free to sing for the first time since 1974 in the language of their choice, many predictably opted for English. In this respect Eurovision might serve as a global springboard for European pop groups. You don't need a degree in history to remember when groups like Shocking Blue, Golden Earring and ABBA conquered the car radios of the world and made planetary history by singing their one great little song in English.
Although viewers are ostensibly tuning in to see the future—the next big hit-makers or supergroup—what they really get, and what is really more delicious and cavity-inducing, is nostalgia. They get more reruns of ABBA’s “Waterloo” with blonde Agnetha gently gyrating in those outrageous skintight blue pantaloons. They get week-long lead-up programs in every country as local TV pop-show hosts plunder library archives for old kinescope tapes and dredge up their own pop culture pasts with appalling and hilarious hairstyles, costumes and set designs intact. It’s a cheap ticket back to teenland and a glutton’s helping of guilty pleasures.
Every Eurovision edition is full of surprises and absurd moments guaranteed by the wide cultural diversity of styles unknown in an assimilationist monoculture like America. Pop culture is, above all, local and untranslatable, and despite all the warm fuzzy talk about pan-European unity and brotherhood, Eurovision is really a celebration of nationalism, provincialism and parochialism. This tends to result in acts wildly popular in their own countries but totally inscrutable to anyone else. All those stunned silences at otherwise noisy parties might be described as the sound of a million jaws dropping.
I happened to be passing through Sweden in February on the very night that the strangely too-perfect-to-be-human 24-year old blonde chanteuse Charlotte Nilsson won the national Eurovision competition there. By chance I switched on the TV in my hotel room in Örebro to witness the closing minutes of congratulatory hugs and tears, and, as seemingly thousands joined her on stage, a final group singalong of her very Abba-esque song, “Take Me to Your Heaven.” I was transfixed by this national outpouring of feel-good euphoria on a dazzling TV sound stage, and I felt privy to a spectacle intended only for Swedish eyes. It was total rapture, the impact of which far exceeded even the finals in Tel Aviv. The next morning I walked the streets to see her mug plastered on every broadsheet and tabloid, and I knew that she had seduced an entire nation. Or rather a nation had seduced itself.
Watching the finals, which took place on May 29th in Tel Aviv (to the outrage of orthodox Jews), I caught her act again and experienced the same adolescent tingle I felt when I stole my first candy bar. Nilsson had been tagged as one of the favorites and battled it out in very dramatic fashion with Selma Björnsdóttir from Iceland, while Germany's entry, the all-Turkish band, Surpriz, singing in Hebrew (!), finished a very dangerous third with “Journey to Jerusalem.” (Hey, you gotta hear the winner twice!)
Meanwhile the field spread out behind them. Precious, the British all-girl quintet with more than a passing resemblance to the Spice Girls, had been ranked at top but finished a disastrous 14th. Portugal, with its hairy hippie male lead singer, got only twelve points, all on a first place mercy vote from the ever unpredictable French. Spain came in dead last with a single point. My own favorite, Austria, placed somewhere in the nebulous middle, and I'm waiting someday to hear/ see that one again when I least expect it.
Finally Sweden was put over the top and declared the winner as Charlotte-the-good went over to give an emotional hug to her Icelandic rival.
When all the Turkish bagpipes, Greek oboes and harps, accordions and guitars have fallen silent for another year, and the world's greatest big top of pop has folded its tent, one is left to wonder how... how all this ballast can balance itself on one all-too-brief little pop song that if you're lucky—or unlucky—you only hear twice.
There may be a career in it for the winner, and lots of love and tears, but not a great deal of respect—at least not the kind of respect that is automatically afforded to winners and stars in America, land of winners and stars. Where success as an end in itself is so prized and swallowed whole, where its hard to believe the public would take something like this so casually
But this is unswallowable. It is however eminently wallowable as well as being very drinkable, as the obviously tipsy hosts and commentators and vote casters (especially Holland...) evidenced as they cracked wise, missed cues and, in the case of the British commentator, treated the whole thing with the kind of scandalous and hilarious irreverence that would have got him yanked of the air in The States and then fired and sued in that order.
Ultimately Eurovision remains professionally unprofessional as well as impossibly unserious, a lark, in a world where things tend to be increasingly bleak and serious. Sometimes sentiments collide; this year's closing singalong in support of all the victims of the Balkan war was absurd.
At the end of the magic night, with her greatest dream come true, Nilsson stood alone on stage right waiting for someone to give her something. Presenter Dana International, fluttering in sheer gown and feather boas and tottering on stacked heels, then proceeded to steal the show in bizarre fashion by tripping and falling flat on her ass.
And the next day the world went on...
Dave Thompson Picks:
Ten Great Eurovision Entrants
Allisons (UK, 1961) - “Are You Sure”
Gigliola Cinquetti (Italy, 1974) - “Si”
Dana (Eire, 1970) - “All Kinds of Everything”
Dana International (Israel, 1998) - "Diva"
Françoise Hardy (Monaco, 1963) - “L'Amour S'en Va”
Lasse Holm and Monica Tornell (Sweden, 1986) - “E'De'Det Har Du Kallar Karlek”
MFO (Turkey, 1985) - “Diday Diday Day”
Srebrna Krila (Yugoslavia, 1988) - “Mangup”
Teach In (Netherlands, 1975) - “Ding Ding Dong”
Telex (Belgium, 1980) - “Euro-Vision”