My obsession with the Eurovision Song Contest—the annual Europop kitsch fest that has been an assault on good taste since 1956–is by far the most embarrassing thing about myself that I’m willing to write about. It’s also one of the ways I have dealt with my homesickness for Europe, because I didn’t have to share it with Americans. In fact, I don’t have to share it with most Europeans either, because no cool person will admit to liking Eurovision. But I’m not cool, and that knowledge comes with a great deal of freedom.
The final of the 61st iteration of Contest, taking place in Stockholm, airs on May 14 at 9pm CET (GMT +2); you can watch it at eurovision.tv. Representatives from an unwieldy 42 nations are participating, including a number of non-European nations like Israel and Australia. UK bookmaker William Hill has even money on Russia for the win.
For decades, the Contest was probably the biggest global entertainment event that Americans didn’t care about. And I liked it that way.
That is, until now. This year, for the first time ever, Eurovision is being broadcast in the US, via Viacom’s Logo Network and LogoTV.com.
But that’s not the worst bit. The true death-knell of Eurovision as we know it is that Justin Timberlake is performing (though not competing) at this year’s Contest, as the entr’acte during the finals. I feel physically sick and I’m not kidding at all. I have no problem with Justin Timberlake, mind you. I just don’t want him at my Eurovision. It’s like going to a baton majorette show at a high school gym and finding out that the intermission act is going to be Laurence Olivier reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V.
The Heisenberg Principle of European culture
Any European pop cultural artifact changes just by virtue of being observed by Americans (other observers don’t matter, especially not Asia).
Eurovision used to be an area of unfettered play, partly because its participants did not think they were being observed. At the 2003 Eurovision, which I covered for The New York Times, I asked German songwriting legend Ralph Siegel a question. His nervous reply was, “Why is The New York Times interested in Eurovision?” which elicited laughter from the entire German delegation and the hundreds of Europeans in the audience.
And then he didn’t answer my question. My presence made everyone uncomfortable for the rest of the Contest. In fact, the singer representing Poland that year came up to me afterward and asked me to please not print his press conference statement that his song “No Borders” was about “the fucking Bush problem.”
The Eurovision Song Contest rose out of the ashes of the Second World War in an effort to unify the continent’s Allied nations through one annual multinational contest for the best original song–a song that symbolized the pride and best talent of that given nation. Prior to the creation of the European Union, the Contest was perhaps the most culturally important symbol of European unity.
Some time after the fall of the Iron Curtain, however, Western European interest in the Contest dropped off. The UK, for example, used to do very well at Eurovision, and some of their acts became local chart hits. Pretty much every GenX Brit knows the UK’s winning 1981 Eurovision entry “Making Your Mind Up,” performed by Bucks Fizz. Contrast that with the latter day–Since the turn of the millennium, the UK has come in dead last at Eurovision no fewer than three times.
Just as Western European interest in Eurovision was waning, the nations behind the Iron Curtain become nearly fanatical about it. And thank God, because the former Soviet Union entries are just… wow.
Ask anyone, really–the vast majority of Eurovision songs are awful. In the words of the film Ghost World, they’re not so bad they’re good; rather, they’re “so bad that it passed good and went back to being bad again.”
Yes, the Contest has produced some of Europe’s greatest hits, in an “infinite number of monkeys typing” kind of way. The Eurovision songs that got the most traction in the US are “Waterloo,” (yes, the ABBA song, which won first prize for Sweden in 1974) and “Volare” (Italy, third place, 1958). My favorite Eurovision entry of all time was 1961’s “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son.” The song was written by Serge Gainsbourg and sung by 17-year-old French pop idol France Gall, who was ringing for Luxembourg. In those days, the Contest had a rule that all entries had to be sung in the official language of the entry nation. That rule has been repealed several times on the grounds that it gave an unfair advantage to Anglophone and Francophone nations. Since 1999, there are no language restrictions. Unsurprisingly, this led to most songs being performed in English. And it’s the best thing that ever happened to the Contest, because it has led to its most charming attribute.
The Uncanny Valley of almost-idiomatic English lyrics
You know the old zen koan: If people are singing in English but there are no Americans around, are they actually singing in English?
Some of the English lyrics in Eurovision songs are incredible. They’re grammatically and idiomatically correct, but they’re just off enough that you kind of feel like you are in a simulacrum of a real world, like the fake Earth house that the aliens built for captive astronaut Dave Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001. One of the songs Estonia almost entered in 2002 (but which its countrymen voted down prior to that year’s Eurovision) was called “Email Love,” containing the lyrics, “Oh it’s nice, indeed!”
And it’s not just the lyrics that are uncanny. Take Norway’s winning entry from 2009, “I Believe in a Fairy Tale.” The performance is great. The mastery of English puts everyone to shame. But something doesn’t fit—maybe it’s because he’s playing violin wearing a peasant blouse while singing “I kinda liked a girl I knew.”
So in this, perhaps the twilight of Eurovision as we know it, is a compilation of some of the most memorable performances in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Dschinghis Khan, performing “Dshcinghis Khan.” West Germany 1979 entry, fourth place. This performance is jaw-dropping for 99 reasons, and the yellowface isn’t anywhere near the top of that list. The role of dancing Dschinghis Khan is played by Ralph Siegel, who has written more Eurovision entries—22, including this one—than anyone in history.
Michalis Rakintzis, performing “S.A.G.A.P.O.” Greece 2002 entry, 17th place. I saw this performed live. This song brought way more shame to Greece than defaulting on a huge number of loans and crippling the Eurozone economy.
Farid Mammadov, performing “Hold Me.” Azerbaijan 2013 entry, second place. If this doesn’t remind you of the pod scene from This is Spinal Tap, you need to either watch that movie again or watch this video again. I don’t know what’s going on here but I am very worried about the well-being of the guy in the Plexiglass box.