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Europa borealis: Reflections on the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest Malmö

By Philip V. Bohlman and Dafni Tragaki


In the spirit of the Eurovision Song Contest motto for 2013 “We Are One,” we seek the common space afforded by dialogic reflections on the European unity that has inspired and eluded the Eurovision since 1956. We search to rescue stretto from the fragments of the largest and most spectacular popular-music competition in the world.

Dafni Tragaki : I’d like to begin by sharing with you one of my general impressions of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest: the magnificent loneliness of the singers on the grand Eurovision stage. This minimalist spectacle of “oneness” was mediated by the dominance of the singing voice — what you described in Empire of Song as “the return of the Eurovision song.” And it resonated with this year’s slogan “we are one” that sounds almost like an imperative for European togetherness/oneness.

Philip V. Bohlman : It was almost impossible not to be struck by the theme of oneness and the singularity of its variants — loneliness, uniqueness, solitariness, togetherness. No less striking was the irony of the plural “we” becoming the singular “one.” The imperative surely depended on who held the power. It is interesting that, collectively, the “Big Five” (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom) all sent solo singers as their envoys to Malmö, but each one of them ultimately failed to define the parameters of their powerful oneness. While the UK debates whether to remain in the European Union, Bonnie Tyler, stands on the stage oblivious to the Eurovision and its history. Germany’s “Glorious” musically rips off Sweden’s winning “Euphoria” from the year before with impunity, France trumps the blues with chanson, Spain throws in a bagpipe to suggest that its oneness includes Galicia, and Italy proves that the Sanremo song never was at one with the Eurovision song.

Dafni Tragaki : I think that this loneliness of the “big” in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) mediates a European self in a state of melancholic introspection sounded through the solitariness of the ballad, the genre that dominated this years’ competition. Sentimentalism as a transnational economy of affect — I am inspired by Martin Stokes’s 2010 The Republic of Love here — appears to be the musical response to or the defense against the vanity of the European oneness that is endlessly in question.  “No air, no pride” as suggested by Anouk’s song for the Netherlands.

Philip V. Bohlman : And where better to witness the internalization of oneness than in Emmelie de Forest’s winning entry for Denmark, “Only Teardrops”? The lyrics unfold as a haunting counterpoint between the collective and the divisiveness of singularity. “How many times can we win and lose? How many times can we break the rules between us?” The solo singer and the narrative power of the ballad is rallied in support of this allegorical deconstruction of Europe as collective undermined by solitary selfishness. “Only Teardrops” seizes on this power when the answer to the question of European survival — “How many times till we get it right between us?” — is answered by the insistent recurrence of what has become a non-answer: Only teardrops, only teardrops…

Dafni Tragaki : I can hear this urgency for European survival in the sounds of the military drumming in the refrain — the heartbeats of the European precariousness in those times of teardrops. The sense of alertness intensifies as the drum-beats alternate with the serene melodic lines of the pipe that transpose us to the collective paradise of a pastoral and “natural” pastness. At the same time, Emmelie’s performance mediate the singer as the subject at a state of dispossession, I would say, positioned within a risky, to-be-destroyed realm featured by the towering flames of fire projected on the video-walls. As the winner, she is perhaps safe for now. “We could be one” — to paraphrase this year’s motto.

Philip V. Bohlman : There is more than a little political paradox in the ways the 2013 contestants responded to the motto, “We Are One.” Whereas it may seem to be politically charged, even responsive to the Euro Crisis and the fissures in the European Union, few songs actually included an open claim to do explicit political work. Greece is surely the best case of a political song, with Koza Mostra and Agathonas Iakovidis performing “Alcohol Is Free” as a criticism of the austerity programs imposed on Greece and other Mediterranean nations. True, a handful of entries took interpreted “We Are One” from the perspectives of eco-politics, but more often than not, the political slipped easily into an apolitical, even feel-good parody.

Dafni Tragaki : Yet, don’t you think that this apparent distance from the political is so politically charged? We could perhaps interpret the “apolitical” entries as performances of embarrassment with the political, disguised in sounds of political immunity. Indeed, a parody of feel-goodness, as you say. Or, we could think of the “apolitical” as a sort of post-political, following Slavoj Žižek, response that negotiates the political in song by employing the saturating modalities of emotion broadly recognized as “apolitical”. See the Azerbaijani entry “Hold Me,” for instance. The apolitical sung melodrama of a lover in despair encapsulates the politics of a nation projected as an agent of affective intensity. It sounds the Azeri power to affect and to be affective. In the end, Azerbaijan might not be considered to be a democratic state (who cares? this is Eurovision after all). Democracies are problematic in today’s neoliberal Europe. Sweden’s Eurovision spectacle was followed immediately by riots on its own streets, blamed on the immigrants in a northern European nation dependent on a work force from beyond Europe’s borders. Once again, we could perhaps understand the power of the “apolitical” as a paradox in the context of the supposed return of the Eurovision song at its imaginative native home, the North.

Philip V. Bohlman : The politics of Eurovision regionalism have been shifting for the past several years, redeployed from the much-maligned bloc-voting that pulled Eurovision victories into Eastern Europe after 2000 to the cool spectacle of the North. Eurovision Orientalism has given way to Borealism. Clichés of northernness have multiplied especially since Alexander Rybak’s 2009 “Fairytale,” which brought the grand prix to Norway with the largest margin of victory ever. The Eurovision’s migration to the North does not so much follow the region’s industrial power as absorb the metaphors of dark winters against the backdrop of the aurora borealis. Sweden transformed metaphor to narrative, presenting each nation as boreal with snow and ice on the postcards preceding the performances (even Azerbaijan’s postcard featured a skiing scene), and historicizing the grand finale into a show of Swedish nostalgia, complete with a “new Eurovision hymn” by Benny Anderson and Björn Alvaeus (with DJ Avicii) of ABBA, whose “Waterloo” won in 1974.

Dafni Tragaki : And the borealist turn in ESC that you describe also takes place in the metaphor of Malmӧ’s theme art, the butterfly. National songs are likened to butterflies which exist in thousand different forms, yet “they have one common name” (see Malmö 2013: We are one). It seems that, nonetheless, despite their common name, nation-butterflies each year undergo metamorphoses that lead to the diverse fates of the ESC’s eventful togetherness, the spectacular oneness of Eurovision Liebestod.

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).

Dafni Tragaki is a lecturer in Anthropology of Music at the Univ. of Thessaly (Volos, Greece). She is the editor of Empire of Song. Europe and Nation in the Eurovision Song Contest (Scarecrow Press, 2013).

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