Our American readers may think their culture has a lock on kitschy television events. Between American Idol and the innumerable reality shows, they have a good case. Indeed, it’s because of such awfulness that some segments of American society pine for Yerp (as I believe Clive James called it), a semi-mythical land of culture, sophistication and heritage which many Americans believe they visit each year when in fact they are in Italy, or France or some other actual country.
But in terms of kitsch, tackiness, geopolitical tension, and sheer entertainment value the U.S. has nothing, but nothing, to match the Eurovision Song Contest. The Eurovision is the common cultural bond uniting generations of Europeans, the continent’s one true collective ritual.
For those of you who’ve been unlucky to miss out all these years, the idea is simple. Each country is represented by an individual or group. In the first half of the show, each entrant sings their song. Then there’s an intermission, which is usually an opportunity for the host country to launch a long musical advertisement for itself. Then there’s The Voting. A mysterious jury, sequestered somewhere in the capital city of each participating country, casts their votes for the songs live over the phone. Each allocates a fixed number of points—2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and the coveted douze points. There are more entrants than countries have votes, so not everyone gets a score from each jury.
It all makes for great television. Many people skip the first half altogether and just tune in for the voting, although this does mean they miss a parade of pathetic but endearing nobodies singing truly awful songs. The general rule of the Eurovision is that winners are never, ever heard from again. The only exceptions to this rule are ABBA, who won in 1974 with Waterloo and Celine Dion, who was imported from Quebec by the Swiss in the 1980s.
Whatever about the songs, it’s the voting that brings out the worst in everybody. The anonymous juries pass judgement on the cultural worth of their neighbors, which makes for indignation and outrage all round. Ireland, for instance, is well known for generously forgetting 600 years of English oppression and routinely giving the British entry a decent vote. The Brits, by contrast, rarely vote for Ireland at all, except perhaps to give it a derisory deux or trois points, which is almost worse than nothing. (This may not be true, by the way, but these prejudices are themselves an important fact about the contest.) Similarly, the Scandinavian nations have been known to do a lot of neighborly backscratching. This is because—again with the exception of ABBA —they produce some of the worst pop music in the world. Consider the execrable Diggi-loo Diggi-ley, Sweden’s entry for 1984, which actually ended up winning the contest. Norway has the distinction (in 1978 and 1981) of scoring the dreaded nul points, which probably led to some local horsetrading to prevent this happening again in the 1980s. And that’s just the beginning. Bear in mind that Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and many other countries are also regular entrants. Think of the possibilities.
The songs themselves have evolved in interesting ways. “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley” represents the high-point of the nonsense-chorus Eurovision song, designed to appeal to the multi-lingual audience. This lowest common denominator approach produced successes throughout the first thirty years of the contest, including such classics as “Boom-Bang-a-Bang” (UK), “Ding Dinge Dong” (Netherlands), “A-ba-ni-bi” (Israel) and of course “Diggey-loo Diggi-ley.” (I promise I am not making these up.)
In the 1990s, though, the mood changed and the ‘Euro-Heritage" song—some pap tinged with a bit of your country’s musical tradition—was a good bet. Countries with no musical tradition worth speaking of, such as Britain, suffered greatly during this period. Ireland, on the other hand, won four years out of five in the 1990s, and the year they didn’t, a Norwegian group won with song written by an Irish guy.
The breakup of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union in the 1990s caused all kinds of problems for the contest (too many countries) but also injected a fresh dose of bad taste. Countries like Slovenia, Estonia and Romania can use odd native instruments to produce Euro-Heritage songs, and also have the advantage of being 10 or 20 years behind the rest of the world in terms of popular music genres.
This year’s contest—the 48th—is being held in Riga. Defying the unspoken norm of sending unknown performers, the Russians have entered Tatu, the faux-lesbian duo beloved of Matt Yglesias. They’re the favorites to win, but are already pissing everyone off with their diva-like behavior. They clearly hope to treat the contest as a joke, win it anyway and further their careers. But the Eurovision really is beyond irony or parody, so Tatu will instead be tarnished by it, rather than vice versa. I hope they lose big. Then again, everyone’s a loser in the Eurovision. That’s what makes it so entertaining.