Europe in Spite of Itself
By Philip V. Bohlman
The Eurovision Song Contest has a long 57-year history. European countries send acts each May to compete for the best song in Europe. This “Grand Prix” of European music is played out before a television of hundreds of millions. For fans who feel they own the Eurovision — local, national, and international fan clubs are legion — the single blessing was that after the three minutes allotted for his song, Rambo became only a cipher for the worst of the worst, the singers everyone wants to forget. Surf the press generated by the European Broadcasting Union’s raison d’être each spring, or explore the farthest reaches of the ESC’s blogosphere, you’ll find barely a trace of “Euro Neuro”.
It’s a pity, for Rambo Amadeus’s engagement with European politics at some of its most critical moments has been considerable. From the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s to the civil war and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, to the nationalist yearning to enter the European Union in the past decade, Rambo’s songs have circulated widely on video and audio cassettes, CDs and DVDs (e.g. Balkan Boy: Unpublished Work, RTS I 1991). The brilliance of Rambo’s hip-hop style, interwoven into the deseterac hemistich structure of the epic singer’s (guslar’s) art in improvisatory counterpoint with the bowed gusle between verses of “Euro Neuro,” easily makes the song the most historically European of the entire Eurovision Song Contest. No other song, no other moment last week in Baku, did the historical work of song in the Eurovision with greater success; no other song was as willingly forgotten.
At Eurovision Baku 2012, history and politics were far more often footnotes than main texts. In the thirty years I’ve passionately followed Eurovision, the politics of nationalism and song together have shaped the modern and postmodern histories of Europe . From the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956 (responding to the Soviet military move into Hungary and Czechoslovakia) to the dominance of the ESC in Eastern Europe in the wake of the Cold War, the song contest bore witness to the politics of the day. In 2012, with European and global crises — political, financial, and humanitarian — run amok, we’d expect the same. The signs were there that Eurovision fans would not forget their fellow humans. The repression of human rights in the host country, Azerbaijan, extend to gay rights, one of the most sacred discourses of Eurovision; arrests continued even into Eurovision week (21-26 May). Armenia had withdrawn from participation because of renewed military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Only the most naïve fan would have failed to notice that Azerbaijan, buoyed by massive oil revenues from the Caspian Sea, had bought and spent its way into the Eurovision Song Contest. No other country would have been able to build a concert edifice like Baku’s Crystal Palace in months, just to host an international song competition. For Azerbaijan money was no object at the moment Europe approached financial collapse, and the demonstrations in the streets of Athens and Madrid outnumbered the visitors to Baku. Rambo Amadeus knew this and said it, then exited without ceremony from Eurovision Baku 2012.
Panem et circenses. But there was ceremony aplenty as the show went on. The 42 European countries that did compete — Azerbaijan, Turkey, Israel, and other non-European countries count as European because their national broadcasting concerns are members of the European Broadcasting Union — represented Europe and their own nations with the usual mash-up of the expected and unexpected. A better-than-average mix of songs introduced new sounds and memorable performances into the future narratives of Eurovision history. The past resurfaced in some notable forms, if forgettable performances. Two of the favorites, the six Russian grandmothers with their baking oven on the stage (Buranovskiye Babushki, “Party for Everyone”) and the UK’s Engelbert Humperdinck (“Love Will Set You Free”), finished second from the top and second from last, proving that nostalgia too, must be strategic if you want people to care.
Ballads and lyrical love songs fared well for the second year in a row, with strong showings from Serbia (Željko Joksimović, “Nije Ljubav Stvar,” 3rd place), Estonia (Ott Lepland, “Kuulu,” 6th place), Germany (Roman Lob, “Standing Still,” 8th place), and Spain (Pastora Soler, “Quédate conmigo,” 10th place). Spectators who relish the bloc-voting were not disappointed. Scandinavian countries voted for other Scandinavians. The Balkan bloc factions divided between Habsburg and Ottoman imperial heritage, and Roman and Cyrillic alphabets. The countries clueless about European song in the twenty-first century remained so (Ireland’s Jedward, “Waterline,” 19th place; or France’s Anggun, “Echo,” 22nd place). The musical foundations of Eurovision history are still secure.
In the end, no entry made a stronger case for the secure foundations of Eurovision history than Sweden’s Loreen with a striking performance of “Euphoria,” for which she received 372 points, the second highest number ever awarded. “Euphoria” (music by Thomas Gustafsson, lyrics by Peter Boström) was a Eurovision performance par excellence, the perfect mix of a stunning solo dance act with a song that will enter the list of Eurovision’s greatest hits, with Domenico Mudogno’s “Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)” (1958), ABBA’s “Waterloo” (1974), and Alexander Rybak’s “Fairytale” (2009). Loreen brilliantly mixed the old with the new, particularly in her incorporation of abstract modern dance and her clear bow to Björk. No less important, Loreen (Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui) has a compelling backstory. Born to a family of Moroccan immigrants in Stockholm, she represents the New Europe, with a multiculturalism and religious diversity that undoes the nationalism of the Old Europe.
Ironically, Loreen’s “Euphoria” became the fitting bookend — her reprise of the song ends the Eurovision broadcast — to Rambo Amadeus’s “Euro Neuro” that opened the first semi-final. Loreen’s eloquence realized Rambo’s sardonicism for a “new poetic”. The narrative arc was at once incomplete and complete, hopeless and hopeful. The voice of a Europe sounded through song in spite of itself.
Philip V. Bohlman is the Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music at the University of Chicago, Honorarprofessor at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, and a member of the Grove Music editorial board. He has written widely about the Eurovision Song Contest and nationalism in European music, including in his books, World Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Focus: Music, Nationalism, and the Making of the New Europe (Routledge, 2011).
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