EUROVISION – amnesia for small nations

Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, Ajerbaijan itself, Lithuania and a few others outstripped themselves in desperation during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Small countries, some of them (but not all) absolutely on their uppers, desperate for approval from the larger, more ‘successful’, more ‘European’ nations whilst ironically they peddled their wares in a very local style, dancing, singing, playing instruments as if their lives depended on this very shoddy yet technically highly adept Eurasian display of mostly third-rate talent.

I couldn’t help but pause as I watched the Serbian entry. Wasn’t this one of the starring nations at the heart of the massacres  and ethnic ‘cleansing’ of millions of Muslims back in the early 1990s? It’s as if everything is squeaky-clean now, and all sweetness and light. But I have this uneasy sense that religious and political enmities take generations to lessen, never mind die out.

I’ve heard it said that there’s so much oil in Azeraijan that it’s literally seeping out of the earth in some places. They were able to throw up a pretty stunning piece of architectural bling too – the Crystal Hall or suchlike I believe – and it’s said that people were basically fecked off their own land to make room for this spectacle. So, democracy isn’t something the Azerbaijanis lose too much sleep about, we can take it, and there’s always the hint of civil war brewing there, but at least they kept the lid on it for the sake of the old Eurovision.

On the other hand, and as we all know, people in Greece are literally hungry at the moment. They do not have enough money to buy basic foodstuffs. Meanwhile, countries like Albania are also desperate to achieve wealth, prosperity, the magical mediocre averageness that seems to be the hallmark of European prosperity. And yet the notion of European prosperity is relative. Sometimes it’s a myth. When I was in Paris for two months this spring, I regularly saw homeless people of all ages carrying a sign which announced ‘J’ai faim’. Sometimes I’ve noticed Dublin city homeless carrying a similar placard of the ‘I’m hungry’ variety. It seems to me that there is an economic link that threads the whole of the Eurovision dream together, and that it acts as a visual litmus strip of national prosperity and well-being to which all entrants subscribe. Because in the world of Eurovision, we are all allowed to have a certain amnesia. We can forget that the Germans once screwed over the French Jews and deported the lot of them to the death-camps; we can forget Serbia, and the outcome for Muslims; we can forget Italy and Greece; we can forget Ireland and its warty little meannesses, its innate racism today for example, its unwillingness to share any economic cake at all, it seems to me; in fact we can forget the memory or recognition of anything unpleasant but true about the countries – because Eurovision is a fantasy that pretends there is a union of European ideas and ideals. There is no such thing of course. Just money-lust.

The story of Eurovision is one of those bizarre tales of late 20th century narcissism, when the countries of that infinitely flexible and elasticated land-mass called ‘Europe’ takes a long, adoring look at itself in the Mirror of Tall Tales. So it goes that long, long ago (it seems), watching Eurovision was one of those national past-times the whole country enjoyed. There were about twelve countries involved initially, and as those old enough to remember will recall, many melodies were memorable, hummable, and kept replaying in your head as you went about your business. The lyrics were another matter, often consisting of a kind of infant babble along the lines of BANG-BANG-BANG, or BOOM BANGABANG BOOM BANGABANG WHEN YOU ARE NEAR … or even included lots of LAH LAH LAHs.

There was something appealingly modern about the whole thing. And we all wanted to be modern, didn’t we? Especially back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, this seemed vitally important. And in their modernity and absolutely gorgeous romance, the Luxembourg, French and Italian entries never disappointed, the Dutch and Danish could be relied on to come up with something interesting, the Brits were superb especially when Phil Coulter composed for them, and we Irish popped out several sweet melodies that are still – actually – quite singable. The pretty girls and women (it was mostly women) presenting the songs sometimes set off new fashion fads. Around 1977 for example, the thing was to wear a very small diamond or other gemstone encircled in gold, but on quite a short neck-chain. Before that, Sandie Shaw set bare feet on the floorboards for many, and Abba in their turn set sparkles and sequins high on the agenda for fashion diehards. Love predominated as a theme, of course, because then, just as now, and just as in the middle ages, love has literally made the world of song go around.  

For me, Abba marked the first break with the temperate traditions of the contest. Although I liked their WATERLOO entry and even more their whole disco-style at the time, it clearly meant that something had changed and the group rocketed the contest into a more modern era. And until the accession of the countries east of Germany so it remained. European songs composed in a ‘western’ style, played in a ‘western’ style, and understood by ‘western’ people.  I realised on Saturday 26th May as I watched yet another display of dance, light and sound, that Eurovision now bores me on a number of levels.  I’ve always known I’d stop watching it someday, probably when my daughter had outgrown it, but I stuck with it as long as she has watched it. Now my tolerance switch has clicked firmly off, and I can’t think of any more excruciating way to spend a Saturday evening in early summer, having watched the parochial displays from countries absolutely desperate to receive some unspecified ‘European’ stamp of approval despite their ultra-nationalistic style of presentation. They remind me of Ireland in the old days, when we too were desperate for approval from the ‘big’ nations, and how – once Dana won the first Eurovision contest – the whole country agonised about how on earth we were going to look the following year when we played hosts. This kind of thing continued after Johnny Logan won, and again when the next song came through. There was a period when we hosted the contest three years in a row, by which time of course we were dab hands at the job and believed ourselves to be the height of contest sophistication and savoir faire. After all, we’d had Riverdance, hadn’t we? And yes, Riverdance reflects a lot of what was good about our creative empire and its capacity to spread. It had its detractors. Some of the Celtic ‘purists’ hated everything Michael Flatley achieved, while some of those in the entertainment business probably resented the energy and ferocity of the McColgan-Doherty enterprise and its outcome. But then, Ireland was on the up and anything was possible. So, watching some of those ‘small’ countries performing last Saturday during the Eurovision threw me back several decades as they gyrated frantically, grinned frantically, tried to sell their countries’ souls for the sake of attracting tourism and money, money, money, in any shape or form.


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