Eurovision: Europe’s Carnival of Desiring
Eurovision, which resumes this week, is more than a song contest. It is as though the street party of a Europe that, for all the humbug about unity and harmony, has few other means of self-appraisal.
Indifferent to the frequent sternness of their delivery, I am invariably inexpressibly thankful to those who intermittently remind me that I once came last in the Eurovision Song Contest. It still happens every year: the Eurovision ‘scene-setter’ that just happens to mention, of all the things lining up to be mentioned, that Ireland came last in the contest in 2007 and John Waters was one of the songwriters. This invariably provokes a brief flurry of ‘personal’ communications from people I’ve never met who seem to have been greatly moved by this obliging media memory-jogging. Though their communiqués are not, many years after the event, so frequent as in the beginning, I am invariably thrilled to find that people continue to take time out from busy lives to let me know their responses to what they remember of my song. A single random example will suffice — it came from a correspondent who scolded me thusly: ‘Your 2007 eurovision entry was shite’, to whom I replied, as I usually do: Critics are clampers who can’t drive.
Still, I‘m grateful for such communications because, without them, I would long since have ceased to believe that I once got through to the Eurovision finals as a songwriter and came last, with only Albania’s cinq points standing between me and a duck. I sometimes wonder myself, though it appears incontrovertible that, 14 years ago, I qualified as a songwriter, representing Ireland with a song entitled They Can’t Stop the Spring, a musical nod to Alexander Dubček and ’68. It appears, too, that we got no votes in the texted category and just the five otherwise, from Albania, possibly only because their texting system broke down and they had to call in their standby jury.
Such things cannot avoid becoming incredible: The unlikelihood of a non-musician even getting there in the first place seems to rule out the idea of coming last. I first had this sensation on the morning after the 2007 final in Helsinki, when I sat on my hotel bed asking myself if it were really possible that I was actually in this predicament. I decided not. In my teenage daydreaming, the idea of qualifying for the Irish National Song Contest had seemed impossible. The whole thing had obviously been an elaborate nightmare, and there was the bed to prove it.
But then I went downstairs for breakfast and encountered across the table the head of the Irish delegation, Mr Julian Vignoles, who looked at me as if he had just accidentally cut off his own hand with the breadknife. I said: ‘Julian, this is the first day of the rest of your life’.
The performers of our song, chosen in advance of the national contest by the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ, and for whom we had had to construct a ‘Eurovision type’ song, were Dervish, the most dynamic traditional music group in the country, and even more popular outside it. Dervish on their own turf are an unmitigated blast of pure energy, but their whirling oomph-ity-diddley was not made for Eurovision, nor Eurovision for them.
I took the rap and have continued to, but, if I had my time over, think I might speak less timidly against the cutesy choreography which involved folk musicians of advancing years moving like Pan’s People, if anyone remembers them anymore. Also, nobody told us that the rather excellent winning Serbian song Molitva (‘Prayer’)
had already been a number one hit in several Eastern countries, which meant that we had had a snowball’s chance in Majorca from the beginning.
It is mandatory in writing about Eurovision to use the word ‘kitsch’, so there I go, my cultural duty to Anglo-Saxon cynicism done and dusted. This is the unbending position of English-speaking commentators, whose godfather in these matters was our late countryman Terry Wogan, who died of wryness five years ago.
I stopped finding Terry’s Eurovision commentaries appealing about 40 years before. My interest has been neither of the cynical/ironic nor the naïve/anorak kind. In the beginning I was fascinated that seemingly half the human race tunes in to watch Eurovision (actually ‘only’ about 200 million people, but a lot more than has ever simultaneously witnessed just about anything else). What has interested me about the contest in recent decades has been the manner in which, after the intake of countries from post-Communist Eastern Europe, Eurovision became as a crude bellwether of the cultural condition of Europe. Over the past three decades, the contest has rather sardonically mocked the drift of Europe’s political and economic projects, demonstrating the incoherencies of expansion and the impossibility of developing a harmonic coexistence for 40-odd oddly differing cultures.
Politicians are always either fudging or understating the question of the EU’s manifest failure to develop any sense of a common European culture, yet pay scant attention to this amphitheatre of consumer absolutism in which the conundrum offers itself to be examined in laboratory conditions. Eurovision has long allowed Europeans to size each other up, in a sense having the function of a street party in enabling people to know what their neighbours are like, to take their temperature in a context that involves no longer term commitment. The context carries loads of unconsciously recordable information, some of it positive and potentially unifying, but some not so much.
Risking Pseuds’ Corner, may I dare to point out the ways in which Eurovision offers itself as an allegorical instrument, a way of laying bare the hidden patterns of European life and culture? Jacques Attali in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, wrote about the prophetic qualities of music which ‘makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible.’ In this case, the instrument of prophecy is not so much the music itself as the way our variegated nations behave around the provocation of a pop music contest. For those who lose sleep about the failure of Europe to present a single culture, the Eurovision is an instructive place to begin the investigation.
The massive expansion of the EU after 2004 was trailered in Eurovision from the moment the Berlin Wall came down. Later, like the EU, Eurovision became a showcase for globalist osmosis: Whereas once countries sang mostly in their native tongues, the preponderance of songs have latterly been in English — not what you might call a positive development but possibly inevitable.
The rose-tinted glasses of Western European observers tend to cause us to remember the glory days of Eurovision as having occurred in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but any close scrutiny of the matter reveals that the standards of the contest are nowadays infinitely higher than back then. The millennium untethered a seemingly fathomless ocean of talent from the former Communist countries, which for a time swept all before them, the trophy going in quick succession to Estonia (2000), Latvia (2001), Ukraine (2004), Serbia (2007) and Russia (2008). The newcomers took Eurovision seriously, and put only their best feet forward. They fielded the highest quality singers, songwriters, musicians, choreographers; their songs hinted at unfamiliar fusions of Slavic folk and giddy pop. This intensity was mirrored in the responses of the East European citizenry, in particular immigrants embedded in the West, who discovered they could appropriate the voting systems of their host countries to propel their own songs — and nations — to victory.
There have, for years, been a lot of crude ideas going around about Eurovision ‘voting blocs'. To dispose of this, all we need do is recall that, in 2007, when Serbia snatched the contest from my grasp, it received 12 points from each of the other former Yugoslav countries. Similarly, the idea that Eurovision is ‘no longer a song contest’ but a carnival of gimmickry and kitsch is one part laziness to two parts sour grapes. That Eurovision remains fundamentally a song contest is something you recognise when you pay attention. Most of the time, what seem like voting blocs are simply cultural responses to chord sequences. A factor rarely mentioned is the disjuncture between Eastern and Western pop musics. Westerners like their pop in major keys, whereas the Eastern ear prefers minors. Eastern and mid-European musics also go big on syncopated rhythms, mocking the typical straight-4 beat of much Western pop. These factors, together with the prevalence of short, interspersed riffs played on ethnic instruments using the harmonic minor scale, gives Eastern pop a different flavour. Combining elements of their own folk music with Western pop ideas, the Eastern countries have created new sounds that delight the Eastern European ear but to us can seem too folksy and unfamiliar.
Although the ‘political’ nature of Eurovision is over-emphasised, it occasionally bursts forth as a full-scale theatre of politics. In 2016, Ukraine won in Stockholm with 1944, a fervid attack on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, recalling the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Josef Stalin in 1944.
The composer/singer, Jamala, herself a Crimean Tatar, gave an intense and moving performance of what was musically a pretty pedestrian song. In 2017, Russian TV refused to broadcast the contest from Kiev because the Ukrainian hosts had banned its singer Julian Samoilova from entering the country on account of breaching Ukrainian law by visiting Crimea in 2015.
Last year, of course, for the first time in its 65-year history, the contest did not take place. Something about a virus, I understand. This year, Belarus was disqualified not once but twice because — on both occasions — it had submitted songs adjudged to breach the political rules of the contest. Both times the songs contained lyrics which mocked protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. Sounds like a pretty ‘political’ ruling to me, and what distinguishes it from the 2016 Stockholm episode is difficult to discern.
What has happened to the Eurovision since its expansion to embrace Eastern bloc countries is infinitely interesting. The key to understanding it is as an exercise in post-cynicism: Those countries most enthusiastically embracing Eurovision for what it is tend to do better than those who approach it with an arched eyebrow.
In a 1990s interview, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard posed an intriguing question as to whether the Berlin Wall fell inwards or outwards. He supplied his own interpretation: it didn’t fall outwards as a mark of openness and freedom, but inwards ‘as a mark of disintegration and of a dismantling that was violent but had no liberatory consequences.’ His point was that, as much as the collapse of Communism was provoked by the desires of the peoples of Eastern Europe, it was also the consequence of Western culture’s need for a new frontier to breach, probably because of exhausting its own potential. In this analysis, 1989 marks the moment when popular culture ran out of space and burst through the Cold War boundary in pursuit of new converts. The passion of the Eastern Europeans for what they had been ‘missing’ resulted in a kind of catching-up process, which soon became a recycling of history, a playing out in reverse of 20th century Western culture.
We can observe some evidence for this analysis in Eurovision also: the linguistic convergence of the songs, the levelling of tastes, the collisions of unstoppable global forces and immovable national objects. But overall Eurovision tends to contradict Baudrillard’s conclusion, suggesting that the Wall did indeed fall outwards in a tremendous explosion of desire to participate and prevail.
Or perhaps it fell equally in both directions: As much as the breakout from the East was provoked by the unfreezing of Eastern European desire, it was also the consequence of Western culture’s need for new territories to conquer.
Whatever: Eurovision became a toy for the repressed former subjects of Communism who wanted a boiled down version of Western culture to catch up in. In no time at all they had overtaken us on the inside lane. Our own jadedness and condescension towards the Eurovision ‘kitschfest’ prevented us from acknowledging their achievements. We peevishly refused to appreciate their success in filling in the missing gaps in their own cultures, imagining for themselves a history that had never happened and in doing so creating a passable simulacrum of a freedom revolution that had happened not abruptly and briefly in 1989, but stretched backwards from the continuous present, as though Karl Marx had never been born.
Fast-forwarding through the cultural history they had for decades been soundproofed against, the former slaves of Marxist-Leninism produced in their early years of Eurovisioning a series of distilled and flamboyant reinventions of things we in the West could faintly remember, and in doing so exhibited a far more intense enthusiasm for Western pop values than the Western pop pioneers had latterly managed to muster. Having caught but passing glimpses and distant rumbles of Western pop since the 1950s, they now reimagined it in more intense and literal forms, presenting the West with a genetically-enhanced version of its own cultural past. For a decade or so, their boundless enthusiasm for this voyage of discovery rendered them almost unbeatable at Eurovision, and their presence fundamentally altered the contest even when they didn’t win.
More recently, things have been changing again, a kind of levelling-out process arising from various economic and cultural factors. One such was that the economic meltdown of 2008 slowed down the flow of immigration, reining-in the voted influence of Eastern diasporas in the West. This approximately tracked a less tangible phenomenon: the ebbing of Eastern desire into conformity with Western ennui. In tandem, some Western countries have been getting their acts together, especially Sweden, which makes for an interesting longitudinal study. In 1974 it unleashed the all-time most potent and successful Eurovision-winning act in ABBA — disparaged for years until they came to be listed alongside The Beatles as minters of perfect pop songs. During the Eastern European takeover of Eurovision through the Noughties, Sweden slumped, like many Western European countries, to the bottom half of the table, managing only one Top Ten placing between 2005 and 2010. A radical rethink for 2011 led to Stockholm souping-up its qualification process, importing judges from Eastern Europe to help choose the Swedish entry. The result was two wins and five top-five placings in the next six years. In 2012, Sweden carried off its first victory in 13 years with Euphoria, sung by Loreen,
an immense and impressive Kate Bush pastiche that suggested itself as the winner the moment you heard it. In 2014, Sweden looked another surefire winner but Sanna Nielsen’s Undo
was pushed into second place by the calculated — and highly political — Austrian entry of drag queen Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix. In 2015, Sweden reclaimed the top spot with Heroes, a subtle evocation of Berlin and Bowie grafted onto a blast of pop orthodoxy, sung by Måns Zelmerlöw.
Sweden effected its spectacular comeback by plundering and imitating the tricks learned by Eastern nations in seeking to crack the codes of Eurovision in the first place — an unintentionally ironic burglary of the magpies’ box of spoils. The past decade has also signalled the end of the Eastern ascendency, with Azerbaijan (2011), and Ukraine in 2016, delivering the East’s only punctures to a Western — actually predominantly Northern European — resurgence, with wins for Sweden (twice), Denmark, Austria, Portugal, the Netherlands, and, incongruously as always, Israel.
Sometimes you can tell which song is going to win without hearing any of the others. I believe this is one of those years. In 2010, the last time this happened, Germany walked away with the contest — in spite of being at the time especially hated (politically, I mean) by the rest of Europe. This was largely down to the sultry performance of its singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut’s. The song, Satellite, was passable — actually pretty pedestrian — but her performance and personality were deeply infectious and delivered an X-factor that nobody could possibly hope to define; it’s just something you recognise when you see it.
On much the same basis, I am predicting an Eastern comeback this year, as Bulgaria’s song, Growing Up is Getting Old, sung by Victoria,
is streets ahead of everything else, and remarkably in tune also with Western tastes, a song likely to inspire the Indo’s ‘rock critic’ to reach for adjectives like ‘dreamy’ and ‘ethereal’. This time, both song and singer have qualities that defy words, but can be instantly recognised as special. Victoria sings in the second semi-final, on Thursday, May 20th. (I’ve already voted for the Bulgarian song in my capacity as a juror in the Eurostory Best Lyrics Award.)
Ireland’s song, Maps, sung by Lesley Roy,
will feature in the first semi-final, on Tuesday. Roy is a great singer, but the song seems to start in the middle of itself and goes nowhere in particular, as though guided by some dodgy made-in-Venezuela GPS system, swamped in light but lacking shade and a dynamic. Still withal, it’s catchy and high-energy and will probably do better than Ireland has managed to do for quite a while — a pretty low bar, sad to say.
All this, I would say, is indicative of the need for a different attitude — not because of Eurovision per se, but on account of the more important underlying things the contest might be nudging us about.
There are few things in life more pointless that cynicism about Eurovision. How shall I put this? Eurovision does not occur in the same stratosphere as Lou Reed singing Jealous Guy —
it doesn’t claim to and wouldn’t work if it tried. It is stupid to disparage Eurovision, which confides many things about the fragility of cultural desiring — including the reminder that, without periodic fundamental renewals, all cultures are doomed to cannibalisation and repetition. It is especially stupid to slag the contest for not being what it was never meant to be.
In pop culture as otherwise, we in the West continue to think of ourselves as waiting for pop’s Next Big Thing. Far more likely is that the explosion of desiring that erupted in the 1960s, and which continues to dominate our cultural understandings, is now approaching the emanation of its death rattles. For close on seven decades, pop music has been turning tricks on the same basic idea, and the future as we can reasonably anticipate it offers nothing but the same déjà vu over and over again.
An even more chastening spectacle offered by Eurovision is the rapidity with which the processes of longing and fulfilment work their way through even virginal cultures subjected to a big bang of Western pop values. In a relatively short time, the desiring burns itself out on the intrinsic incapacity of pop and its offshoots to stretch beyond certain narrow limits, and there are signs already that Eastern countries are now contracting the West’s jadedness and cynicism towards Eurovision and, by implication, everything else.
Or perhaps what appears to be a deadening of desire is merely the fear of defeat: the dread of that moment in the hotel bedroom when you will wonder if any of this could even have occurred. To this fear, I say: On your deathbed, which might you regret more — being Paddy Last or having ventured nothing?
If you want, you can hear, They Can’t Stop the Spring, our 2007 song here: