The word ‘kitsch’ comes from German and describes a form of popular art that is adored by the masses but of questionable artistic value. What better word to describe the Eurovision Song Contest?
I have been a proud fan of Eurovision since arriving on this continent in the last millennium. Watching the annual televised event back in the 90s felt lonely and obscure, although Terry Wogan’s dry commentary on the BBC made me feel at home. This was way before reality TV, way before social media gave us hundreds of ways to connect with each other. It was a rare moment to combine the pleasures of:
- Feeling European – one of the reasons we moved here but had difficulty experiencing in France
- Nostalgia – the competition brought back memories of American beauty pageants when we so joyfully picked apart the tackiness of Miss Georgia’s dress or New York’s nose
- Making fun of accents as representatives of far-flung countries called in with their votes in fractured French or English (suddenly my French didn’t seem so bad!)
- Laughing at the costumes, staging and the songs themselves – if you’ve never seen a Eurovision event, over-the-top doesn’t quite do it justice
In recent years the trend for Eurovision contestants has been to push the limits of bad taste towards the frankly bizarre – European folklore and cultural stereotypes, Gothically inspired pop fantasy, machine-head metal and over-the-top ballads with wind machines and strange dancers. Check out last year’s dancing Russian Babushkas (who actually made it to the final).
One oddity of Eurovision is that you don’t have to be a national of the country you represent. Céline Dion won for Switzerland in 1988 (Note to the Swiss: if you would like to adopt her, I believe I speak for most Canadians when I say we’d be fine with that).
This year’s Eurovision was held in Sweden, home of ABBA, who won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo”. Sweden won again last year with this less than memorable tune from Loreen. The tradition is that the winning country hosts the following year’s event. This gives countries that no one has ever heard of a chance to promote themselves to the rest of the world. One of my favorite parts of the show are the travelogues about the host country.
Last year’s broadcast from Baku, Azerbaijan continued the kitsch tradition with the theme ‘Light your fire.’ And this year’s edition, live from Malmo on the southern tip of Sweden, came under the banner of ‘We are one’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of Eurovision is divisiveness, backbiting and politics. Deep rifts that go beyond the language barriers and dig in almost as deep as the nails of those beauty pageant contestants.
The debate rages as to whether it’s the song that matters. The voting is complex to say the least and has evolved over the years but to summarize, each country votes for itself, and if it sees it has no possible chance of winning, then votes for its closest neighbours (unless they are at war), or failing that, geopolitical region. When former Eastern block countries start voting for each other, everybody else gets blown out of the water.
And what about France? The French have a long tradition of la chanson française and this won them top honours at Eurovision five times in the early years of the contest, which kicked off in 1956. France hasn’t won since 1977 but as one of Europe’s ‘big five’ we are guaranteed a spot in the final. All the others must compete through the semi-finals in order to make it to the Saturday night spectacular – this year, with 26 singers and their backup groups and an international audience of 125 million viewers.
To be honest, it’s all getting a little too slick and commercial. The lines are blurring between Eurovision and reality shows like The Voice. This year’s winner is Emmelie de Forest from Denmark, and the song, Only Teardrops, has chart potential.
But that won’t stop me from tuning in next year. Vive Copenhagen!