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Dredging the Dregs of European Culture: The Eurovision Song Contest

eurovision_winners_2011_1

Azerbaijan's Ell & Nikki schmaltzed away with the Eurovision Crystal Corncob this year, but there were plenty of acts deserving of dishonorable mention. Photo: Alain Douit (EBU)

It’s all right now. It’s over. I have to admit, it wasn’t quite as horrifying as I had feared. Still, it’s a relief to have it behind us. We won’t have to think about it for another whole ...

eurovision_winners_2011_1

Azerbaijan's Ell & Nikki schmaltzed away with the Eurovision Crystal Corncob this year, but there were plenty of acts deserving of dishonorable mention. Photo: Alain Douit (EBU)

It’s all right now. It’s over. I have to admit, it wasn’t quite as horrifying as I had feared. Still, it’s a relief to have it behind us. We won’t have to think about it for another whole year.

I am referring, of course, to the Eurovision Song Contest, the final round of which was broadcast on May 14. For the edification of readers who are unaware of this annual kitschfest, every May the European Broadcasting Union invites each of its member countries to enter a musical act in a televised competition to pick what’s supposed to be the best song in Europe. It never is, but that hasn’t fazed them yet. The first contest took place in Switzerland in 1956, with seven countries vying for the prize, and since then it has expanded into a low-denominator cultural juggernaut with 43 participating countries (including some you didn’t know were European, like Israel) and an estimated 125 million viewers.

I first became aware of the ESC in 1981. I had just moved to the Netherlands and happened across the show one idle Saturday night while flipping through the channels on TV (a short process, because the Netherlands had only four channels back then). That was the year Norway earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records by entering the only song ever to receive no points at all in the vote tally – an impressive feat since each competing country allots a total of 58 points to 10 different entrants. Also, 1981 was the year that a group called Buck’s Fizz won the contest for Britain, thus entrenching a trend for a particular brand of wishful thinking (see photo) in what was already a festival of saccharine optimism: ABBA won the contest in 1974, and for about two decades thereafter at least a dozen countries each year chose their group according to the ABBA formula. Simple but rarely effective, it went like this:

2 guys + 2 girls + (>3m) blonde hair – any semblance of musical creativity = surefire winner!

As one would expect, the competing songs are conceived to appeal to the broadest swathe of the general public as is humanly possible. This means that they all fall into the stylistic category that musicians call “middle of the road.” In fact, Eurovision songs could be described as “middle of the middle of the road,” or even “center of the focal point of the middle of the middle of the road.” If it were possible to build a highway through the core of the Earth, the ESC composers would write songs for the exact epicenter of the midpoint of the median line of that road, measured with a laser micrometer.

Naturally, this means that the entries tend, with few exceptions, to vary very little in impact, overall sound and quality, which should make it difficult to choose a winner but apparently doesn’t. For example, this year the Dutch contestants came in dead last with only 13 points in the semi-final. But listen to their number and then listen to the winner, Azerbaijan, and see if you can perceive any notable difference in musical merit.

They’re both plain, straightforward, soupy pop songs for listeners who haven’t heard much music before. If there is a hell and when I get there I’m given a choice of being forced to listen to Holland’s “Never Alone” or Azerbaijan’s “Running Scared” for all eternity, I think I’ll sign up for the wooden shoe clog-dancing workshop. Just to pass the time.

Unfortunately, the Eurovision contest only gives out one award, for best (or rather top-scoring) song. But fortunately, all of the entrants’ videos are easy to find on the Web, so you can still watch the clips, listen to the songs and see if you agree with my own picks for the:

C’est Ironique Eurovision Song Contest Special Awards 2011!

• Song least qualified to live up to its own title: “Popular,” sung by Eric Saade from Sweden

Eeesh. A self-conscious performance of bland music with a well-intentioned but unpleasant modulation between the verses and choruses, all in the service of sadly preposterous lyrics. Also, as though realizing the hopelessness of his stated goal, the lead singer almost cracks his voice on the last “popular.”

Mitigating factor: speaking of cracking things, the (symbolic!) glass smashing about two-thirds of the way through is a nice thoughtful touch.

• Most urgent need of wardrobe consulting: Greece

Seriously, guys, would you go out in public, let alone out on stage in front of one hundred million spectators, with your pants looking like that? (The singer, not the rapper.)

• Clearest influence of a totalitarian regime: Belarus

Most Eurovision lyrics are vague, not-quite-rhyming, syntactically challenged declarations of undying love for another person. The blaring exception this year was Belarus, which entered a song entitled “I Love Belarus.” Given the country’s rather poor showing in the annual UN Human Rights Awards, I can’t help but wonder if the title of the first draft wasn’t “I Love Belarus – No, Really – So Please Don’t Put Me In Prison.”

• Most amateurish faking of instrumental skills: Bosnia & Herzegovina

These people seem to be intent on setting a new standard for elaborately pretending to play instruments that are obviously (and mercifully) emitting no sound. Notice how the singer-guitarist strums in time but doesn’t move his hand for the first chord change. Even so, he’s doing a stellar job compared with the “pianist.”

• A dual award:

Most incongruous appearance of mimes in a video, combined with least baddest gangsta rapper: Georgia

Look closely after the one-minute mark. Who let those two Marceau wannabees on the set? And why? Then the Ali G wannabee comes in at about 1:20.

• Now, lest my readers tire of my relentless cynicism, here’s my pick for best song: “Madness of Love,” performed by Raphael Gualazzi of Italy

A good number well performed by actual musicians who can really play. Refreshing, isn’t it?

• Most startlingly peculiar contrast between publicity photo and stage appearance: Moldova

Check out the photo of Zdob si Zdub, the group that represented Moldova.

I bet those blondie-boy twins from Ireland were worried about being alone in the men’s room with those dudes when they saw that snapshot, but check out what the Moldovans actually looked like on stage.

• Lastly, most inadvertently insightful lyrics: Macedonia

I’d like to close with a line from the English translation of the lyrics of the Macedonian entry, “Rusinka.” It’s a phrase that nicely captures the very soul and essence of the Eurovision Song Contest: “Music takes us high to a different world… Singing of God knows what.”

David Jaggard

Reader Chilla Rousselle writes: "I watched Eurovision and David is right on! Absolutely hilarious. I'm still laughing. It was shocking when the most loathsome was announced the winner. I did vote for the Italian among the top three! Next year, a must-watch for first-time viewers!"

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