December 17, 2011

Eurovision primer for the American noob

So you're an American, and every once in a while you hear about this song contest called "Eurovision" that those crazy Europeans do, usually with a clip of some outrageously schlocky and amusical act that makes you cringe and have serious doubts about any claim to taste that the Europeans might once have had. (You might also know it as the answer to a trivia question about ABBA, who won in 1974 with "Waterloo", subsequently breaking out into the wider European and world markets.)

I'm not entirely sure why the Eurovision song contest almost universally holds that reputation, although I think they went through a bad period a while back that they're still recovering from. But while there's a certain amount of schlock, the majority is a serious effort, and while there is a strong leaning towards pop songs, there's always a pretty broad range of genres represented. For instance, consider Rändajad, the 2009 entry from Estonia:

This is not "pop" by any reasonable definition, and it most certainly isn't schlock. What it is, is gorgeous. As it happened, that one didn't win its year (it took 6th); the winners are often pretty good, but in any given year some of the best songs are further down-list. The power ballad "My heart is yours", from Norway in 2010, is a good example:

For my money one of the best songs from that year, but it only placed 20th (out of 25 finalists). Speaking of genres, though, one of the most personally appealing aspects of the ESC is that year after year it has an incredibly high ratio of great ballroom-dance-able songs. The song "I wanna", the Latvian entry from 2002, is a great (if slightly fast) cha-cha:

Marvellous bit of trick costume work, too, and I'd wager that most or all of those dancers had some significant ballroom training. That one actually did take 1st place in its year, with medium- to high-point votes from nearly every other country. The full table is on the Wikipedia page for that year; essentially, each country gets to vote for ten other countries, with the top two receiving 12 and 10 points, and the rest receiving 8 down to 1 point. (The scores are read at the end of the competition in French and English, so the exclamation "douze points"—12 points—has become a catchphrase for the whole contest.) And if you like the text-message voting systems now used on everything from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars, you can thank Eurovision, which pioneered this voting mechanism for the ESC back in the 1990s.

I originally got hooked on the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009, when Alexander Rybak's win was all over the BBC news page due to massively breaking the record number of points. So I watched it on Youtube (of course), and I quickly discovered three things:

  • The related links at the end of a Youtube video of an ESC song often include many other songs from that year and other songs from that country;
  • If not, you can always do a search for "ESC <year> <country>" and find at least three copies; and
  • There are, perforce, thousands of these by now and if you don't set yourself a limit you could be at this for a very long time.
You can literally pick a random year and a random country and start anywhere.

I ventured into some of the earlier years, too. The ballroomy songs were even more common then, as in Sweden's entry from 1959, a tango called "Augustin":

I find this performance perfectly captivating. Brita Borg's voice is gorgeous, and the storytelling is strong—although if you don't speak Swedish (as I don't), you might find it helpful to check out the indispensable Diggiloo Thrush, a comprehensive listing of all ESC entries ever, along with their placings, lyrics, and translations into English (and in some cases other languages as well). The balladic storytelling songs continue to show up in later ESCs; the 1969 entry from Netherlands, "De troubadour", is a haunting one:

Again, translation at Diggiloo. As a general rule, the more recent the ESC, the more songs are in English; there was a rule in place for a while that countries had to perform in (one of) their national languages, which is fun for language geeks like me, but was sort of unpopular; since "everyone" speaks English, the English-speaking countries were seen to have an unfair advantage (and maybe they did; UK and Ireland did win fairly often in those years). But even after the rule was dropped, there are still plenty of great non-English entries, such as "Dis oui" ("Say yes"), the 1998 entry from Belgium and in my opinion among the best ESC songs ever:

Here we also see one of the features of ESC that has been standard since the 70s: the "postcard" before every song that (logistically speaking) gives them a chance to reset the stage, and usually includes photos and videos of the host country (in this case the UK). It also gives each local broadcaster a chance to announce in the home language, since the main ESC broadcast is primarily in English or French; depending on where the Youtube uploader is from, you'll get voiceovers in any number of different languages over the postcard. The above video is apparently off BBC---that's Terry Wogan you're hearing there.

Part of the reason Eurovision is largely unknown in the US is, of course, that it doesn't get broadcast here. The internet is a great resource for European expats as well as for us Americans that got hooked remotely: between Youtube and the various info sites (especially Diggiloo and Wikipedia), we can access the whole 50-year-plus trove of great songs. Furthermore, Eurovision has long been at the cutting edge of broadcasting technology (and often uses the ESC to test/showcase new stuff); for several years now the whole live broadcast has been streamed at eurovision.tv for anyone abroad who cares to watch. Next year's is broadcast from Azerbaijan on 26 May; tune in with me!

"The only weapons we have are simplicity and convention." --Jonathan Edwards

Posted by blahedo at 4:43pm on 17 Dec 2011
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