Pop goes the European Union
It claims to unite the continent through the power of music, yet the Eurovision Song Contest is really all about ‘Dustin’ off nationalist rivalries.
Everyone agrees that the Eurovision Song Contest is silly. Certainly Dana, the Irish politician and singer who won it in 1970, believes it has become so. This week she urged Ireland to withdraw from the 2008 competition, owing to the fact that a puppet called Dustin the Turkey is to represent her country. ‘I just think it’s making a mockery of the contest and if we think it’s such a big joke then let’s get out of it’, she said. ‘Certainly don’t put a turkey in a trolley up against singers who are desperately trying to make a way in their career.’ (1)
She’s rather missing the point here. So does her compatriot, Terry Wogan, the broadcaster who annually bores us all to death about how ridiculous the whole thing has become. The truth is that Eurovision has been ridiculous from the outset. It is based upon the fraudulent conceit that Europe can be brought together through pop music. And all it does is generate antagonism between nations, and as a by-product it has produced songs, Abba aside, that nobody remembers.
For readers outside of Europe who are unfamiliar with the event, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual competition in which various countries select a musician, or a band of musicians, to sing a song to represent them. Then TV viewers in each country vote to decide which one they like the best. And then Terry Wogan exclaims that the voting has been ridiculous. Again.
To give it some credit, Eurovision did have a whiff of authenticity in its early days, having been launched in 1956. Until the 1990s, performers from countries did at least usually sing in their native languages, rather than in horrible American-English which has become almost customary now. This of course makes it unbearable to British monoglots. Every year we used to be subjected to incomprehensible Norwegian folk musicians with beards in woolly jumpers, prancing Spaniards with their castanets, or Israelis singing stereotypical Jewish songs of woe. (That Israel are in the contest is a mystery. I can understand why their football team competes in Europe. After all, should they compete in Asia, there would, as Danny Dyer would say, be some ‘right old proper naughty tear-ups’ when they met Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, and their ‘double naughty firms’ – ie, people with rockets who might saw your head off on the internet. But it’s not as if Israel is excluded from an ‘Arabvision’ song contest.)
This started to change in the 1970s, especially after 1973 when the restriction on performers singing in any language other than an official one of their country was lifted. Promptly, Abba won the contest with ‘Waterloo’. Eurovision reversed this language decision four years later, but then in 1999 it did another about turn. The consequence is that not only is every entry now identikit euro-pap, but some entries are literally in gibberish. In 2006 the Dutch entry, ‘Amambanda’, was sung partly in English and partly in an invented language, while three years earlier the Belgian entry ‘Sanomi’ was sung entirely in a fictional language.
Themes are no longer representative of national cultures. Israelis no longer perform dirges; instead they are represented by transvestites. Gone are the days when that famously miserable country Finland gave us something that conjured up the spirit of Sibelius; now we have comic death metal bands. We used at least to expect some corny Irish dancing, but not a turkey puppet. And since 1996 we have had no Italians at all. They don’t even bother to enter because nobody is interested in it there.
Then of course there is Terry Wogan’s endlessly voiced criticism: political partisanship. Cyprus and Greece exchanging 12 points was of course customary from the outset, but Wogan shouldn’t complain. Ireland have won the competition the greatest number of times, not, I suspect, out of musical merit, but because everyone thinks the Irish are just great: friendly, lyrical, soulful, ‘in touch with nature’ – that kind of thing. It is also no surprise that Britain, which has indisputably produced the best pop music in Europe in the past 50 years, rarely picks up many points. After all, we’re stuck-up, chummy-with-America, linguistic imperialists and we drunkenly go vomiting in the streets of every country on the Continent while on holiday.
Yet while Eurovision may appear have lost the plot recently, it was actually flawed from the outset. It was based on pan-Europeanism, which is a Cold War fantasy and now an anachronism. Eurovision was conceived by the European Broadcasting Union in 1956 as a way bringing the war-torn Continent together on a cultural level, at the same time that the European Economic Community (now the European Union (EU)) was seeking to do so at an economic level.
Pan-Europeanism is an illusion in my view. Those who claim the EU has led to an unprecedented period of peace in Europe are blind to the fact that it was NATO that was responsible for this. For 50 years we in Western Europe had no inclination to fight each other because we were terrified of the Soviet Union, that ‘Other’ who rendered us the ‘Self’. Since the Evil Empire’s collapse, pan-Europeanism defines itself on the basis of anti-Americanism, on being morally and culturally superior to the Yanks, or more particularly, living in economic fear of the United States. In other words, pan-Europeanism has always been based on alarm, paranoia and a desire for collective security.
This is why this coming spring in Eurovision, Russia will give 12 points to Serbia and vice versa, and why Britain will get nul points from France. Because nationalism persists, and all Eurovision does is to expose it and perpetuate it. I guarantee anti-East Europeanism, which has become rather commonplace in everyday life in Britain, will manifest itself at Eurovision this May.
So much for bringing Europe together. The irony of the whole thing is of course that most of the performers will be singing in a style of music called ‘pop’, an artistic genre given to us by the United States of America.
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