Mar 302012

It’s clunky, it’s creaky, the format has only grudgingly changed through absolute necessity in almost 60 years, and yet – despite the technology it was designed to demonstrate being superseded several times over (the first satellite hadn’t been invented when the first one took place) – it remains hugely popular. People all over Europe hold Eurovision parties and invite all of their friends, families and neighbours around to all watch it together – it is unlike any other annual television event, a sort of indoor street party.

And the main, if not only, reason it remains so popular is that it is so consistently, predictably terrible. The presenters are selected for their ghastliness, the film clips are at best idiosyncratic, while the commentators are unable to contain their derision throughout as it rolls like my first car would have done had it only had three wheels and no brakes to the moment when the winner is announced and get up to do their thing again at whatever hour of the morning it finishes.

And, of course, the songs are almost invariably completely shocking.

In an average year there might be one which stands out as having some merit, at least in comparison with the others, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion that it will win, as householders in 40 nations with little enough in common with their neighbouring countries, let alone those not only at the other end of Europe but in the Middle East, some of which use different musical notation.

Since the addition of the former Soviet Bloc countries, it has been difficult to overlook their tendency to vote for one another as a matter of course regardless of the quality of the songs tendered, and also their tendency to not vote for anyone who has irritated Putin recently.

I tend to the theory that they generally vote for one another because they are culturally more used to the sort of music being made by countries to whom they used to be politically as well as geographically linked, just as Greece or Macedonia will tend to enter a song featuring banks of bouzouki and balalaika players and vote for one another because they like bouzoukis and balalaikas.

Greece and Cyprus ALWAYS give one another 12 points, and would probably insist on doing so even if the other were not taking part.

The Contest is further complicated by countries competing against one another who spend the rest of the year denying one another’s right to exist, or in the case of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus who owns which bit of which land-mass. I defy anyone to read the Wikipedia article on Northern Cyprus and emerge without a headache.

Armenia are boycotting this year’s contest after the Azerbaijani president declared Armenians to be their mortal enemies. Italy pulled out of the contest for 14 years, as far as I can ascertain because in 1974 the song chosen to represent their own country was claimed to contain subliminal messages aimed at influencing a referendum due to be held a month later on the issue of abortion, and the organisers refused to censor the broadcast. Lebanon were due to participate in 2005, but pulled out because they do not recognise the existence of Israel.

But, anyway, the songs… For many years all of the songs were sung in English, but in 1973 that was dropped. Mainly there is a mix of power ballads, bouncy pop songs with choruses accessible to all nations regardless of which language they speak – “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” “Ding-a-Dong,” “La La La,” and the aforementioned “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” all being worthy former winners, odd (to Western ears) Eastern music played in unfamiliar scales with banks of bouzoukis or things that look as if they are carved out of alien pumpkins – and songs which have been entered because the country they represent doesn’t want to win for fear of having to host next year’s competition.

There are always one or two of these which manage to get through to the final, and you can almost sense the fear among the participants that their avant garde performance art might actually backfire, and they will have to face the president when they get home and work out how a country with two-hundred-and-fifty inhabitants and an economy built entirely on the export of soft cheese is supposed to be able to put on an international music festival, and how they would be able to afford to build a major concert venue even if they could get it to stand up on a geological base of fine sand. I am fairly certain in my own mind that Finland did not expect this song to win in 2006.

It is very easy to mock, and indeed can be a great deal of fun to do so, but for almost 60 years the Eurovision Song Contest has done far more to bring people together than any other annual event that I can think of. No one anywhere in the world takes it seriously, but every year everyone turns up, millions of people all over the world switch it on to watch it, and everyone goes home happy. It started before I was born, and it will almost certainly still be going on long after I’m gone.

This year Jedward are representing Ireland again, and are, apparently, the favourites to win. Engelbert Humperdinck is representing Great Britain, but won’t win because none of the Eastern Bloc countries will vote for us, while the Russian Grannies could put up a stronger showing than one might expect. I’ve only ever picked about three of the winners in forty years, but that won’t stop me watching – if only to see if the Russian Grannies can go all the way.

International harmony at its best!


  30 Responses to “Where Did ABBA Come From, Daddy?”

  1. cliff sovinsanity

    Interesting. It seems to me if each country had the same process for selecting a representative ( I almost typed “tribute”), then the quality of singers would be higher. Yet, there is no accounting for some people’s taste, which would explain the Jedwards’ of the world.
    Therefore why not have the representatives be selected by committee. Example, winners from The Mercury Prize (UK), versus The Polaris Prize (Canada), versus Australian Music Prize, versus Prix Constantin (France). Music nerds would love it but I fear the average TV viewer would be bored to tears watching…er… Sigur Ros VS Arcade Fire.
    Then again I, like Happiness Stan, would probably watch the current incarnation it if not for the cheese factor.

  2. BigSteve

    It’s hard to resist feeling that Eurovision is proof that Europe is the scourge of the planet. I can’t really grasp the international cooperation aspect of all of this. Most of these songs would make me want to invade or at least bomb the countries responsible. Boom Bang a Bang alone argues for a dissolution of the Special Relationship between the US and the UK. I can sort of understand the songs being lowest common denominator, but why are the production values of the TV clips so cut-rate?

  3. Happiness Stan

    I think that the Contest has been not taken seriously for so long that trying to elevate it into a serious music-nerd event from the glutinous cheese-fest it has been for at least forty years would be tricky at least.

    It’s perfectly obvious that such a contest would be fun for the likes of many gathered here, but unless it was called something else and there was any sort of money being thrown at it I doubt it would ever happen.

  4. Happiness Stan

    It’s testament to the diet of cheese served up by British TV and radio for so long that I can actually with hand on heart admit that I’ve always actually liked Boom Bang-A-Bang. This is what our generation in the UK were raised on, and to an extent all worthy musical movements throughout the twentieth century have ended up being tarred by the hand of cheese. You had Elvis, we had Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele; you had Miles Davis and John Coltrane, we (or at least the Germans) had James Last; The Sex Pistols and the Clash’s entourages spawned Billy Idol and Adam Ant.

    I can answer the last point about the production values – they are cut-rate because so many corners are cut in the staging of the thing. It looks cheap because it is done with practically no money. The voting is so erratic and unpredictable, with the votes of the populations of Armenia or Cyprus having the same weight as those of France or Russia, countries hundreds of times bigger, that most winners do not expect to win, and the TV companies who are suddenly faced with the prospect of footing the bill for staging it are not prepared to give over their entire light entertainment budget for the whole year to stage something which has been a laughing stock in most of the participating countries for decades.

  5. Never forget that a member of the Soft Boys went on to write and perform a Eurovision winner.

    My own favorite Eurovision entries are the ones that are deliberately cheesy as all hell. The most recent one I can think of is the UK’s 2007 entry, “Flying the Flag” by Scooch, which had both a classic Eurovision nonsense-syllable refrain and a surprising number of double-entrendre sex jokes.

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    I kinda like that “Ding Dange Dong” song.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    And I like the point in that otherwise execrable Bucks Fizz number when the chick on the right sings “…let them take you from behind” as she hikes up her skirt. It almost makes up for the fact that I was sorely tempted to shoot myself in the eyes as I watched the rest of their “performance.”

    This seems at so many levels to be a tradition that’s spun completely out of control. Countries submit shitty songs in the hopes they’ll lose; viewers tune in to be horrified, not pleased; corn-studded “groups” like Bucks Fizz emerge from deep in the bowels of the music industry, only to disappear down the pop culture U-bend after a few short days of infamy… yet it all goes on and on and on. Fascinating.

  8. Those chicks in the Bucks Fizz video early 80s sexy. Liked the move when they went to the short skirts!

  9. ladymisskirroyale

    Not to be completely biased here, but Abba’s song is the best of the bunch. Not only is there the cheerful tune, but you have lyrics with a double entendre. There’s more depth to that group (depth? Abba?) than the others. I like France Gall but that song was pretty dumb (no wonder it won the Eurovision contest).

    As an aside, did anyone catch Sir Paul with Terry Gross? She commented that his new song, “Valentine,” sounds sad (minor key) but the lyrics are cheerful. Abba’s “Waterloo” is the opposite: cheerful sound but sad lyrics. Hmmm.

    As for Bucks Fizz, Stan, we need your help to better understand the English connotation of this drink. Does it have the pseudo-classy brunch aspiration that the French/American Mimosa has? If so, Bucks Fizz is very incorrectly named. The band’s music was more like Donny Osmond meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Not classy at all.

  10. Happiness Stan

    I stopped drinking quite a long time ago, and even in my imbibing days I was a very long way from the sort of set who understood the social aspects of such things.

    I think it’s probably fair to say that the drink lost some of its reputation for class once the band had taken off.

    The Donny Osmond/Rocky Horror analogy is a valid one, but applies equally to many of the horrors being perpetrated at the time, and at least it was obvious that they had a sense of humour about it and were prepared to send themselves up, the polar opposite of the risible Adam Ant and utterly despicable Billy Idol. Which I know is like asking someone if they’d prefer a poke in the eye or a slap around the privates, but of the two I’d always go for the ones who are open about what they are doing.

    They were created for Eurovision, but went on to have a fairly spectacular career over here for several years, and held their own quite well reputationally against many of the post-punk bands which I know you enjoy. They were actually held in quite high affection by post-punks with a sense of humour, mainly because the two ladies in the band turned out to be bright and intelligent and were highly entertaining when interviewed on chat shows and the like. Indeed, the punk band I played in would occasionally play “Making Your Mind Up”, our (male) bassist and I would put on skirts at the start of the song which our (female) singer would remove at the appropriate moment in the song. We probably only did it a couple of times live, but it helped to cement our reputation on the local circuit.

    Sorry I can’t elaborate on the drink. Does Mr LadyM have any opinions on either the band or the drink?

  11. Happiness Stan

    Hrr, you have put your finger precisely on what makes Eurovision so wonderful. Even though Bucks Fizz were the exception and had a long and incredibly successful career over here, the observation stands for practically every other act dredged up or invented for the contest.

  12. Happiness Stan

    And one which no muso could be ashamed to own as well!

    Even though I only heard it the once I can still remember the tune and chorus, and occasionally hum it. They came second to last, the video is here

    Here, on the other hand, is something I wouldn’t even be prepared to offer the Hall in the “If You Can’t Say Something Nice About” section, the UK’s 2006 entry

    If anyone can think of something nice to say about this one, other than “three minutes of my life during which I might otherwise have been eating wasps or picking out my eyes with a teaspoon” I would be keen to hear it.

  13. Happiness Stan

    I meant the Katrina and the Waves one by the first sentence, the Scooch one in the second sentence.

  14. I’ve just read through this a third time and watched the videos once more…Fascinating, as Spock would say.

    I think “Waterloo” is an excellent song. ABBA had maybe 3 other good-to-great songs, for my tastes, but seeing this live clip made me wonder why the two women always sang in unison yet, even in unison, are nowhere near on-key. What a weird European rock phenomenon they were.

    Happiness Stan, I always read about how England is reluctant to get tied up with continental European ideas, like the Euro. Isn’t it time your nation, just a few years fresh off winning the first-ever World Cup of Rock ‘n Roll, drops out of this contest and lets the non-native English speakers duke it out without you?

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    Mr. Royale’s comment: “Blech” on both counts. Bucks Fizz was big when he lived in England in ’83 and although they were all over BBC1, he didn’t really like them. He also recalls Neil Diamond’s “Turn On Your Heartlight” at this same time period, so that may have overshadowed things and made it difficult to fully appreciate that era of pop.

    As for Buck’s Fizz, the drink, Wikipedia says that it’s a favorite at weddings due to it’s lower alcohol content. I’ve been to a myriad of cousin’s weddings in The Motherland but never had a Buck’s Fizz (that I can recall, which does say a lot about English weddings). Elderflower Cordial was the non-alcoholic, lighter drink that was offered.

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    Oh, good, the Battling Scots would have a chance this time!

  17. Happiness Stan

    Mr M, that’s a very interesting question..

    Firstly, the question of England in Europe and England’s attitude to Europe is not quite that simple – other than to say that in general I tend to be more pro-Europe than most of my compatriots I don’t really want to be dragged very far into the politics of it. It tends to be the right-wing pro-Free Market types who make the most noise about getting out of Europe, and they also tend to be the ones who own the printed media and their online offshoots over here. Most people either couldn’t care less or believe what they read in the Murdoch press.

    There are a couple of reasons why the UK won’t pull out of Eurovision: firstly, as one of the early joiners we have an automatic right of entry, so can put up whatever terrible song by whichever dreadful act we choose and it will automatically be through to the final and we automatically have free advertising for the country across the whole of Europe, half of the Middle-East and the entire Eastern Bloc for one night of the year.

    Another is that it does allow the UK (which includes the far more Euro-friendly Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish) to both feel a part of Europe for a few hours in a non-threatening way while also feeling superior about having better music than the massed bouzoukis of Macedonia and the castanet-playing disco of Spain.

    Secondly, unless we accidentally win it, we don’t have to stage it – so for the cost of sending Graham Norton and a low-budget/low-cost pop group somewhere for a few days the BBC have a whole evening of low-cost TV with an enormous audience, most of whom will either be drunk or in bed before the last of the interminable results have come in.

    The papers and the rest of the media are going Engelbert crazy, so it gives them something a bit lighter to fill the space and dead air with, and as long as he doesn’t win (which he won’t, they’ve been careful to make sure the song goes on for too long without building into anything of interest) everybody will go home happy, and looking forward to a jolly week somewhere next year.

    There simply isn’t any incentive to pull out, unlike tennis or formula one it doesn’t have any international appeal so nobody will be fighting a bidding war with the BBC for the rights to show it, so everybody wins.

    What makes it even odder concerning ABBA is that, despite being Scandinavian, and thus from an entirely different continent, they have always been considered very much European simply because once upon a time the Swedish broadcasting network decided to see if they could get the simultaneous broadcasting technology to work.

  18. Happiness Stan

    That’s the second time in this thread the reply’s ended up in the wrong place…

  19. Happiness Stan

    I have no memory of that Neil Diamond song.

    I can’t imagine many non-Brits enjoying Elderflower Cordial, it’s like lemonade with an less of an aftertaste than an aftershock akin to what I would imagine drinking a small tub of quick drying wallpaper paste would be like. Homemade Elderflower wine has a similar aftertaste, but if made effectively can be very potent. A friend once drank a couple of glasses, missed the door on trying to exit the room and walked straight into the wall. Most humourous!

  20. BigSteve

    Does anyone else find the idea that Scandinavia isn’t part of Europe strange?

  21. ladymisskirroyale

    That Neil Diamond number was one of the horrific songs that ET gave us.

  22. I do, but it’s kind of cool having them maintain their separate identity.

  23. Happiness Stan

    As a European, I find that as baffling as I suspect you would be if I were to suggest that Australia should become a state of America, but it is being led to thinking about things such as that which makes me find the Hall such a fun and fascinating place.

    Culturally and politically they are very much removed from Europe, as well as physically being on another continent. They are geographically right next door to Russia, and have had to be very careful throughout history to retain neutrality, plus they have even worse weather than the UK, but not as bad as Siberia.

  24. Happiness Stan

    Our kids have been known to watch ET, but I’ve just realised that even though I thought I had watched it I don’t think I’ve done more than catch a few seconds as I wander past the TV.

  25. alexmagic

    I really enjoyed this write-up. I had some familiarity with Eurovision, but things like the winning countries attempting to sandbag and throw the competition the next year so they wouldn’t have to pay for everything – in fact, that the winning country hosted the following year itself – were new details to me. Very entertaining.

    I was vaguely aware of the concept before then, but 2006 was the first year I got to follow along with Eurovision via some people from the UK posting about it as it was happening, so the arrival of and subsequent win by Lodi was quite the first-year payoff. I think the cheesiness of the whole undertaking is probably an acceptable parallel to the “let’s hit every stereotype” closing ceremonies at the various Olympic games.

    I’m kind of surprised, with the successful importing of Pop Idol over here into a massive American Idol franchise and various knock-offs, that no one has yet tried to mount a week-or-month-long version of Eurovision to the US. 50 states competing against each other. The same “no voting for the band from your own state”/”every state’s aggregate voting counts the same” rules could probably still work. I doubt I’d want to watch it myself because there would still likely be the same homogeneous “written by Diane Warren, performed by someone to appeal to the 13-18 year old girl demo” musical product that dominates, but if there was some kind of push to figure out what the sound of each particular state was, that would be interesting.

  26. Happiness Stan

    Thanks Alex – and thanks also to everyone else who has ploughed through what became an unintentionally lengthy write-up even after all the bits I cut out!

    The Pop/American Idol angle is an interesting one, as from the little I’ve seen of it I think that prior to these shows taking off the only place where such lowest-common-denominator wannabe popstars had the chance to give it their best shot was Eurovision.

    It can actually be rather sad as they cut backstage during the voting to see someone whose ego had been pumped up with the prospect of winning it and selling a ton of records being reduced to pumping the air in uncontrollable excitement as the 36th country to vote gives them three points and elevates them from the prospect of the dreaded “nul points”.

    One of the great things about the Contest, which has probably come from its longevity, is the lack of being written for teenage girls market, as the songs are selected in the main by elderly male executives at the TV stations, and teenage girls wouldn’t watch it.

  27. BigSteve

    I’ve checked some reference sources, and all of them agree that Scandinavia is part of Europe. For example, the first sentence in the Wikipedia article reads: “Scandinavia[1] is a historical cultural-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and related languages.”

  28. BigSteve

    And I don’t get the idea that they’re “on another continent.”

  29. I would have to agree fully with Stan’s assessment that the BBC would never pull out of low cost original programming with some guaranteed audience. That explains much of American TV as well, like the Donald Trump thing.

    I was thinking about how that would work here. I’m not sure there is enough diversity between the states (really CT = RI same as OR = WA) but you could do OK with North and South America plus some outliers like Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Wouldn’t it be fun to see Uruguay’s finish pop musicians on NBC once a year? To hear our cheez-ball host (Howie Mandel?) do a few jokes at the expense of Guadeloupe? Why not?

  30. Happiness Stan

    It’s probably a throwback to having been invaded by Vikings over and over again a thousand years ago, but it is certainly not a common perception that Scandinavia is very European. I think that I must consider myself pince-nez’d, although I think that most central Europeans would consider this culturally, if not geographically odd. I was certainly taught at school that Scandinavia was another continent, it would appear that either my teacher was wrong or the world has changed.

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