Nul points for the West

An Eastern bloc of crappy music? The co-editor of German magazine Novo investigates the 'Cold War' over the Eurovision Song Contest.

Matthias Heitmann

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Twenty-five years ago, the world was still a happy place. The unknown German singer Nicole had just won the Grand Prix d‘Eurovision de la Chanson. Her song Ein bisschen Frieden – ‘a little bit of peace’ – emphasised a kind of apolitical discomfort caused by Nato’s decision to position Pershing II and Cruise missiles in West Germany. The Eastern Bloc was still intact and, apart from Yugoslavia, was not taking part in the Western song contest. ‘Good taste’, Eurovision-style, was defined in the West and meant easy listening and safe-as-houses pop songs (often with choruses comprising made-up words that would, helpfully, be equally meaningless in every language). The award was voted for by an elitist expert jury in each country and not voted for by telephone. No surprises, no scandals, just ordinary and boring music for the elderly.

A little bit of peace – did Nicole know how crucial the wording ‘a little bit’ would become? Probably not. She could not possibly foresee in 1982 that 25 years later Eastern Europe would dominate the Eurovision Song Contest (with eight of the top ten songs coming from Eastern European countries) and would define the standards of ‘good taste’ in our times. Nor could she foresee that even within the West there would be no notion about what actually constitutes good taste (and values) at all and what kind of songs would delineate a nation’s destiny in the contest.

The only thing Nicole wanted was ‘a little bit of peace’ – she did not want to tear down the Berlin Wall, she did not want open borders, nor did she want any Eastern European sectionalism (a product of a Western-sponsored break-up of the East) that would distort the traditional balance of power in the contest. Her song, written by the German songwriter Ralph Siegel, was not about undermining the old order and wiping away old barriers. On the contrary, it was just about a little girl‘s naive dream.

Twenty-five years later Nicole is furious about the way the contest has taken her song ‘a little bit’ too literally. The singer is disturbed at the way Eastern Europeans not only dominate the show numerically these days but they also vote for each other, thus giving them an edge over their Western counterparts.

Given the post-contest debate in the West this week, she’s not alone. The way Eastern countries have supported each other is regarded as unbearable and tasteless, even deemed as anti-Western. The German reference book on the history of the Eurovision Song Contest by Jan Feddersen is called Ein Lied Kann Eine Brücke Sein – A Song Can Be a Bridge – alluding to the illusion of culture bridging political gaps and frontlines. But just as Nicole wanted ‘a little bit’ of peace, Feddersen thought that a bridge between the West and the East would be enough.

But who is to blame for the West losing its feeling of cultural superiority? Surely that loss of nerve cannot be overcome by a new Cold War fought out in Western living rooms and on the telephone. Ralph Siegel’s idea of separating East and West during the qualification round for the song contest would also fail to ensure the victory of his idea of good taste. He should remember that in recent years there was no need for Eastern Europeans to expose the pettiness of his song writing with German comedians, Israeli transsexuals and Finnish trash rock bands successfully undermining the supposed seriousness of the Eurovision Song Contest.

For all the talk of block votes, a German newspaper made the point that the Serbian (!) singer Marija Serifovic would have won the contest even without East European votes. What is to be done, Ralph Siegel? Should we go back to the old elitist jury model, or rather make sure that gaudy singers join the East European qualification round?

After this year’s show, German participant Roger Cicero suggested that future entrants should sing in the Serbian language if they wanted to make headway. This could be seen as a comment of a frustrated artist – and a bad loser. But it is also indicative of a broader and more general sentiment: it seems that no one in the West knows how and in which language you could reassert yourself, a phenomenon also well observed in the sphere of national and European politics. Speechlessness, purposelessness and the lack of unifying ideas and values dominate the European Union these days, as it loses any sense of its own existence and borders. It seems that Eastern Europe is more determined to implement what used to be called the ‘European idea’ than the West itself.

In Western societies the term ‘Europe’ is becoming a symbol of the new Eastern threat – whether in the form of cheap labour or tasteless singers. In that sense, it is apt that the Eurovision Song Contest is now effectively an Easteurovision Song Contest.

Matthias Heitmann is co-editor of the German magazine Novo. View his website here.

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