War Minus the Drumming

Viewed in any way objectively, the concept of formal competition in things cultural is strange in the extreme. Nothing unusual, of course, in artists or entertainers measuring themselves against others, against yardsticks imaginary or real, but shoehorning all this into a competition between notional equals just screams ‘odd’, if one can imagine that word as a scream. It’s all about as scientific as a bonnie baby contest, no matter the mantle of respectability the competition might attempt to sport. A contest between countries ups the weirdness further, as nationalism, political intrigue and rudderless kitsch become melded in one unholy union. This is why the Eurovision Song Contest is such great fun, whether you approach it through a pall of mordant irony (the Terry Wogan school) or with disarming seriousness (most of Europe).   The Eurovision takes place this year in Azerbaijan, a country that has an unsavoury record of treating its citizens who voted for the wrong country. That bizarre Orwell-meets-Almodóvar anecdote linked to serves as a totem both for human rights violations in the oil-rich former Soviet state and for the political voting that has marked the competition since the break-up of the eastern blocs two decades ago. It’s always with amusement when I hear people — usually in Western Europe —  complain that countries vote for their neighbours with unerring regularity, as if this is violating the sacred bond that lies at the heart of the Eurovision — music alone will prevail. If there’s a lesson to be learned in life, it’s that everything is political, even gormless kitsch that might otherwise be considered above the grubbiness of horse-trading and back-scratching. In a way it’s a betrayal of the dream that music might be sufficiently denuded of difference or heterogeneity for ‘artists’ to compete against one another. But the politics have always been there — little Luxembourg won the Eurovision in 1965 with the help of two already established artists from neighbouring France — Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote and produced, and France Gall, who sang, ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’; neither was ever fully forgiven in their native country for doing so. It is also true that many Western European countries vote for one another; methinks the fact that the ‘established club’ of Eurovision countries, those who competed from its inception in 1956, simply have a diminished chance of winning these days, rankles a lot of folk. In any case, since the national votes were ‘democratised’ in the 1990s by allowing viewers to vote by text or phone call, political ‘irregularities’ might be expected. This is, after all, an era where fascist leaders can be elected a country’s greatest citizen of all time, if sufficient of their supporters can be mustered to text.   Another reason the Eurovision is such a curiosity is it remains a fossilised relic of an era when the music industry knew what was best, before pop musicians started getting their own ideas and breaking out of the overly-formatted styles and forms bequeathed them by the record companies. There was of course innovation in popular music before the mid 1960s but that was the watershed for an era when the music industry would henceforth have to react much quicker than it had before. Previously, styles had formed away from the recording studio and the industry gradually absorbed them into their rosters. After the Beatles, the Stones and the Who broke onto the scene in the early 60s – to mention only three groups – the artists were very much calling the shots, creatively if not commercially. The Eurovision belongs to that tradition that was quite happy to take the money man’s advice.   It’s not true to say the music in that tradition didn’t evolve but the evolution has been much more gradual and been very much overseen by the studios. A measure of the gap between the Eurovision world and the ‘evolved’ music world was the shock in 2006 when a group of Finnish accountants dressed up as monsters won with a catchy novelty heavy-metal tune. People across Europe, whom Kiss and Iron Maiden had presumably bypassed, vociferously condemned Lordi and their ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’, seeing it as the ultimate demeaning of the fine competition. The Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church was even moved to call the group Satanists threatening the continent’s children. The Eurovision is consumed in different ways by different groups of people; those that were outraged by Lordi were definitely not occupying the ‘ironic’ register.   The Eurovision is pure kitsch and many of the songs are undeniably awful. But that doesn’t mean some good stuff can’t seep through. Sandi Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String’, ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ and the Gainsbourg-penned winner ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ are all good workaday pop numbers (though the latter might be improved if France Gall sang in tune). Even some of the more disposable stuff can sometimes never quite be disposed of, lingering in more cultic circles such as Sweden’s schlager disco nights, where it’s not unusual to hear tunes like the UK’s 1976 winner ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ by The Brotherhood of Man being played in a bar or club. The ‘Song for Europe’ episode of Father Ted understood this so well — as it understood most things about Eurovision — when Ted and Dougal are rumbled after the obscure Norwegian B-side from the seventies they have plagiarised turns out not to be so forgotten.   Some Eurovision songs pass into history, none more so than Portugal’s entry from 1974; Paulo de Carvalho’s ‘E Depois do Adeus’ was used as the code signal for the 25th of April Revolution to begin. A group of revolutionary army officers commandeered a late-night radio station, instructed the DJ to play the song and the tanks promptly started rumbling out of their barracks. Carvalho finished well behind ABBA’s weird piece of historical commentary about the place where ‘Napoleon did surrender’ but in a way, his song was history itself.   Unless you’re particularly given to schlager or the like, most of the tunes will be forgotten fairly quickly (who now can hum Azerbaijan’s winner from last year?) and even schlager aficionados have their barrier of exclusivity — people in Sweden told me most of Ireland’s record seven wins can’t be included because they are too syrupy and ballady (though that is the definition of schlager in several other European countries). But the Eurovision remains an unusual pleasure because it exists at such a unique confluence between light entertainment and national rivalry. If international sport is, as George Orwell famously remarked, ‘war minus the shooting’, the Eurovision might be considered war minus the drumming. Armenia certainly sees it that way this year, withdrawing in protest at its long-standing territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
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