THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST IS MOVING CONTROL OF EUROPEAN POP MUSIC OUT OF THE HANDS OF THE OLD-SCHOOL POWERS— AND EUROPEAN POLITICS MAY NOT BE FAR BEHIND.
Kiev, November 2004. The streets are alive with the sound of protest, and three days after a rigged ballot, a local singer, Ruslana, expresses her support for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. As her press release put it, “Ruslana has announced hunger strike and decided to place a symbolic ribbon around her head upon the news from Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to announce Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich the next President of Ukraine.” But Ruslana isn’t your average buxom Carpathian activist: her engagement on behalf of Ukraine actually started earlier that year when, clad in Xena-like leather and backed by an armada of brawny percussionists, she performed “Wild Dances” at the Eurovision Song Contest—and won. With that success, she followed in the hallowed footsteps of such glorious exponents of pop music as France’s Serge Gainsbourg (author of the 1965 winning tune, “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”) and Sweden’s Abba (triumphant in 1974 with “Waterloo”). But with her activism, Ruslana, née Lyzhychko, also vividly embodied the dizzying conflagration of pop and geopolitics that is the Eurovision Song Contest.
Terry Wogan, who’s been commentating the annual live event for the BBC since 1971, once mused, “Is it a subtle pageant of postmodern irony? Is it a monumental piece of kitsch? Is it just a load of old plasticene?” It’s actually all of the above, with a few key elements Wogan somehow overlooked: nation-building ideals, behind-the-scenes drama, inane choreographies, conspiracy theories, costumes from outer space (or at the very least, outer Croatia), and of course songs that veer from blisteringly stupid to blisteringly brilliant and, just as often, hit both extremes. The ESC may well be the greatest invention in pop-music history.
Growing up in France, I faithfully watched the telecast every May. Later, I also discovered punk rock and baroque, German techno and Norwegian black metal; I went to the opera and underground clubs. You might say I expanded my musical horizons. Yet I never got tired of Eurovision. In fact, I started enjoying it more as American and English indie rock got increasingly self-referential, didactic, and joyless. The Eurovision contest is the exact opposite: it’s so garish that it makes Telemundo variety shows look like outtakes from a Bergman movie, and you can always count on surprises, whether it’s a singer suddenly flailing out of tune or one unexpectedly putting on the kind of electric performance that short-circuits TV sets from Dublin to Bucharest. Every time I think nothing can top a particular eye-popping display, another act is champing at the bit in the wings, waiting to get its chance to show the world that his or her country’s pop stars can shine as bright as any others, or maybe just as bright as those from powerhouse Ireland. (Eire has won the ESC more than any other country: seven times, including three times in a row from 1992 to 1994.) As for the songs, yes, many are mind-boggingly awful. But there are as many good songs as there are bad ones, and a handful every year regularly qualify as great pop. So while I can’t deny my enjoyment is somewhat ironic at times, it is also deeply sincere because the ESC offers plenty of what pop is best at: outlandishness, disregard for bourgeois standards of good taste, music as community-building enterprise, and of course lots and lots of disco performed by divas of all genders.
Now living in New York, I buy Eurovision contest CDs by mail order, read Eurovision contest websites (which can sport some of the internet’s most wickedly entertaining writing), and watch Eurovision contest broadcasts on videos mailed from France by my ever patient mother. And yet all this wasn’t quite enough, so I finally broke down and decided to attend the actual event, which that year happened to be the fiftieth-anniversary edition. Which is how on May 17, 2005, I found myself on a Ukraine International flight to the host city of Kiev. An attendant named Stalina poured me a Coke. I knew I was pointed in the right direction.
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