This year’s Eurovision Song Contest has come and gone with Sweden crowned the winner for 2012, also taking the title of Australia’s unofficial winner (over 130,000 people in Australia visited the SBS Eurovision websiteto vote). Until recently, I did not take much interest in Eurovision, regarding it as lame, embarrassing and a lightweight media exercise in banal nationalism.
But a few years ago my daughter, who was on an exchange trip to Norway, said she was attending an actual, live Eurovision Grand Final! The idea that she would be somewhere in the crowd prompted me to tune in and since then I have joined the throng of avid Eurovision fans. Over the years the contest seems to be taking itself less seriously and, lord knows, we could do with some frivolity in these times of political crisis and economic austerity.
Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang’s hilarious commentaries are an added bonus! They epitomise the fun of being young, transnational, multicultural, irreverent and quintessentially Australian: “The UK’s youth policy does not seem to be working,” quipped Sam drily as crooner Engelbert Humperdinck (now well into his seventies) bombed to the bottom of the Eurovision league table! UK nul points!
Let me first recount a little of Eurovision’s fascinating history: The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) was formed in 1950 by 23 broadcasting organisations from Europe and the Mediterranean. First conceived as an international experiment in live television, the Eurovision Song Contest has been a focus for Pan-Europeanism since long before the days of satellite TV, digital broadcasting and high definition TV. In 1954, the Narcissus Festival procession was relayed across the Eurovision network and was watched by four million viewers across Germany, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In 1955, the EBU proposed the idea of an international song contest whereby countries could participate in one television show, to be transmitted simultaneously in all represented nations. The Eurovision Song Contest has been broadcast every year since 1956, which makes it one of the longest-running television programs in the world. In response to the setting up of the Eurovision network, Eastern European television stations set up their own network called Intervision, which started its own song contest, presumably in an effort to prevent viewers being too bedazzled by cultures not approved of by the Politburo! The two networks merged in 1993, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.
Today the Eurovision Song Contest is broadcast throughout Europe and also in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States, even though these countries do not participate. These days, with the entry of former Soviet Bloc and Warsaw Pact nations and those that lie within the European Broadcasting Area or are member states of the Council of Europe, the contest has become increasingly diverse and acts as a social barometer of changing international relations in the region.
But there is another side to Eurovision that is extremely interesting from a sociolinguistic point of view. The contest has always managed to combine a comforting picture of harmony-in-diversity with the shameless promotion of national chauvinism. Today some 43 states vie for the title of best song in Europe and when one looks at the voting trends among the competitors, they often appear to be along political and nationalistic lines with nothing at all to do with the merits of the music! Voting is the most hotly contested aspect of the contest; geography, history, culture, religion and other socio-cultural affiliations certainly do seem to influence how countries vote. The more dominant countries pack the kind of clout others command in the United Nations: The so-called Big Five countries (UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy) get automatic spots in the final regardless of their positions on the scoreboard. Indeed, on a number of occasions the contest and its voting practices have sparked patriotic indignation and withdrawals for political reasons.
Changing Eurovision Song Contest language policies and practices also make for interesting reading. According to Wikipedia, from 1956 to 1965 songs could be sung in any language. In 1966 a new rule stipulated that songs must be performed in one of the official languages of the participating country. This rule was abolished in 1973 and performers were allowed to sing in any language they chose. Several contestants in the mid-1970s took advantage of this relaxation, including Abba in 1974. In 1977, the EBU decided to revert to the national language rule, with special dispensations to Germany and Belgium who had already been selected and whose songs were in English.
By 1999 the hegemony of English in Europe was already well on the rise. At the 1999 contest, the language restriction was again lifted and today songs may be performed in any language. As a result, many of the songs are performed either partly or completely in English. Entries are often performed in English to reach a wider audience but at the same time this practice is often regarded as being unpatriotic. In 2003, Belgium found an alternative solution, entering a song, entitled Sanomi, in an artificial language developed especially for the song. This strategy proved successful as Belgium finished second, only two points behind Turkey (but in the eyes of many it was a sympathy vote. Belgium and France had opposed the British-American proposal to put NATO anti-aircraft guns into Turkey as defence against the threat of Iraqi retaliation in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iraq). In 2006 the Dutch entry was sung partly in an artificial language but it did far less well, coming 17th out of 23 contestants; the contest was won by the Finns, singing a hard rock song in English.
Songs have been performed in a minority language in only 19 out of 53 contests. Much like the Olympics, French is used by the contest presenters but it appears to play a largely symbolic role. The presenters announce the scores both in English and in French, a practice which has given rise to the famous exclamation “douze points” when the host repeats the top score in French.
This year the Buranovskiye Babushki, a.k.a the Russian Grannies, took hybridity to a new level in their song Party for Everybody performed in Udmur and English.
What can I say? Eurovision may be trivial and may gloss over political tensions but nobody can deny that it is fun. On a final and uncritical note, whatever you might think about the essentialised, commodified identities promoted by the Eurovision Song Contest, for me nothing will ever surpass the sheer kitsch fabulousness of the unbeatable Abba!