April 27, 2017
Discover just how political the Eurovision Song Contest is in Chris West’s new book
by Nikki Griffiths
The Eurovision Song Contest is coming! One of the longest-running TV programmes in the world, it’s watched annually by over 200 million viewers worldwide. And last year, it began being broadcast in the US — so, my American friends, you have a couple decades of international pop brilliance to catch up on! This year, the finals are being held in Ukraine on 13th May.
The contest is loved by fans everywhere for its crazy costumes and props, pop-tastic songs and flamboyant staging… but beneath the glitzy façade, Eurovision also provides a perfect mirror for the cultural, social, and political developments taking place in Europe in any given year. Which is exactly what Chris West’s brand-new Eurovision! A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest is about. Out now in the UK (and Europe) it charts the history of the contest year by year, examining what was going on in Europe and how this was reflected through Eurovision. Here are some nibbles Chris collects, to whet your appetite.
1956: The Eurovision Song Contest is devised by Swiss broadcasting executive Marcel Bezençon as a way of bringing European nations together. Seven countries take part in the first contest, of which six will go on to sign the Treaty of Rome and form the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the modern European Union. The UK, still seen as peripheral to Europe, is not involved. The winning entry is from Switzerland, the hosting country, and sung in French:
1964: Finally, nearly a decade into the contest’s history, we see the first non-white participant: the Netherlands’ Anneke Grönloh, born in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies). She comes in tenth. It isn’t till 2001 that a black singer wins: Dave Benton, singing for Estonia. The first Muslim winner is Turkey’s Sertab Erener, in 2003.
1969: The contest is held in Spain, then under the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, widely rumored to have bribed his nation’s way to victory the year before with Massiel’s “La La La” (pushing Britain’s Cliff Richard into second place). Crowds arrive to find the stage at Madrid’s Teatro Real Opera House dominated by a huge silver sculpture, created for the occasion by Salvador Dalí and looking much like the yoke-and-arrows emblem of Franco’s Falangist movement. Lulu wins for the UK with “Boom Bang A Bang,” and you can see the sculpture looming ominously in the backgroun of the video clip:
1974: The playing of Portugal’s entry on Lisbon Radio is a secret signal for the Carnation Revolution to begin. As Paolo de Cavalho’s “After Goodbye” plays, units led by young army officers move to take over key locations such as the capital’s TV station and airport. People come out into the streets, and the regime, in power since 1932, capitulates. Of course, you’d never know any of this is going on by the sound of the winning song — “Waterloo” by ABBA, perhaps one of the most beloved Eurovision songs of all time.
1990: Enthusiasm for the European political project reaches its zenith, with Eurobarometer, the biannual Europe-wide poll run by the European Commission, showing 71% support for the EEC (soon to become the EU) around the continent. The winning song reflects this: “Insieme, 1992” by Italy’s Toto Cutugno is a hymn to ever closer union, with a refrain of “Unite, unite, Europe!” Support for the body began to wane from 1990 onwards, and by 1996 it was down to forty-eight percent. It has hovered thereabouts ever since.
1993: The former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina makes its debut in the contest as an independent nation. To participate, singer Fazla and his five musicians must escape war-torn Sarajevo — taking the notorious “Sniper Alley” to the airport, waiting until dark, then running to a corner of Bosnian-held land. Six people were killed trying to do the same thing the evening that Fazla and his team escaped. Their song “All the Pain of the World” received a rousing ovation from the Eurovision audience, but didn’t win.
1998: Eurovision has been popular in the gay community for many years, but it’s not until 1997 that an openly gay artist, Iceland’s Paul Oskar, participates. Next year, it’s the turn of Dana International, a transgender singer from Israel. On arrival in the UK she receives death threats, ignores them, and proceeds to win big with her song “Diva.”
2003: The Iraq War is being led by the US and UK, to the disapproval of much of Europe. This is reflected in Eurovision, where the British entry, Jemini’s “Cry Baby,” not only comes in last place (a first first for the UK), but receives the dreaded nul points. The UK has come last two more times since then, but has always managed to scrape at least a few points.
2009: We wrote last week about Georgia’s suppressed entry, the cheekily anti-Putinist “We Don’t Wanna Put In.”
2016: We also wrote last week about “1944,” the winning song from Ukraine’s Jamala, ostensibly about the Soviet deportation of 240,000 Tatars (including members of the singer’s own family) from Crimeaduring World War II. Resonant as it was with issues surrounding Russia’s current occupation of Crimea, the song was viewed by some as too political, but managed to avoid the fate suffered by Georgia’s entry seven years earlier.
2017: And as for this year? The favourite to win is Italy’s Francesco Gabbanni, singing “Occidentali’s Karma.” Interestingly, it’s in Italian, even though every winning song for the past ten years has been in English. Is Europe starting to become introspective, shunning the dominance of our most global language? And in keeping with the political undertones of many recent winners, the song has a real message behind it, according to an entry on the Italian “Significato delle Canzoni” blog, translated by Rene Smit for YepYoga:
The inspiration for Occidentali’s Karma comes from a book by British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape. Lyrically, the song is a full-frontal attack on Western obsession with progress, selfie culture, and internetology.
So don’t fall into the trap of dismissing the Eurovision Song Contest as simply light entertainment — it is so much more than that!
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.