The Same Old Song

Music is supposed to be the language of peace and brotherhood, a force that can bring the world together in harmony. But is it any freer from politics as anything else in our lives?

Just look at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. The musical competition has taken place since 1956, produced under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The event is broadcast in 43 countries; the residents of each country call in to vote for the entry of any country other than their own. The EBU is a global association of national broadcasters; it has nothing to do with the European Union, which is why there were entries from Israel and Russia.

As an American, I’d never seen the Eurovision contest before, but I had always had the impression that it only generated mediocre pop songs, light and insubstantial in nature. But on a recent trip to London, I ran across the live broadcast on my hotel TV and I was excited about getting a first-hand look.

Venerable British television personality Sir Terry Wogan narrated the official broadcast from Belgrade. I was surprised at the overall quality of the entries – not great, but no worse than your average run-of-the-mill pop. The musical numbers had a greater range than I had expected. Spain’s “Baila El Chiki Chiki” was a silly dance number with less substance than your average cell ringtone. Latvia’s number looked like pirates run amok. Finland’s entry was heavy metal. Turkey and Azerbaijan entered rock songs. Sebastian Tellier‘s entry for France was clearly inspired by the Beach Boys.

Tellier’s song, like most of the others, featured lyrics sung in English (Apparently this caused a stir with French conservatives). Almost the entire international broadcast took place in English.

I was a little surprised by the narration by play-by-play announcer Wogan, who has done the British broadcast for decades. There were moments of gentle irony and sardonicism, but also hints of real bitterness. He predicted that blocs of countries would all vote for each, such as the Baltic nations. He predicted that the Russians had it in the bag.

After the performance portion ended, the call-in voting began. Fifteen minutes later, the voting results started to trickle in, as each country announced their results in turn. In addition to a series of points from one to seven from the phone calls, each country could award 8, 10 & 12 points each to three deserving countries.

Russia started dominating early. Greece and Ukraine also pulled ahead. Former Soviet Republics all voted for Russia and each other. The Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, etc.) all voted for each other. England came in dead last.

It took a long time for the votes to be reported. During this lengthy slog, Terry Wogan kept getting progressively more bitter. He expressed the notion that no one will support “us” – in other words, England – and it felt to me like he wasn’t just talking about the Eurovision Song Contest. Towards the end of the broadcast, he threatened to never do the show again.

This attitude of Wogan and some other Britons seems rooted in England’s long-standing skepticism towards the rest of Europe. In part, this stance can be attributed to the physical gulf separating the United Kingdom from the European mainland, but it’s a cultural gap as well, no doubt rooted (in part) to Britain’s former dominance in world affairs. You can see it in England’s reluctance to accept the Euro as their currency and in Ireland’s recent rejection of the Lisbon treaty.

I’ll admit, I got a little worked up myself at the voting in the Eurovision Song Contest. It did seem unfair. It wasn’t just the showing for England, a country I love. There were other votes that seemed politically motivated. Why didn’t Sebastien Tellier’s song do better? Why was Turkey’s rock number “Deli” (7th place) beaten by more mainstream pop songs? Why did anyone for that stupid “Cheeky, Cheeky” song from Spain?

This may seem like a ludicrous issue, but it’s still being hotly debated in Britain even now. Wogan has charged that the competition is “racist,” and that the other countries will never give England a fair shake. Ireland suggested that England has a bad attitude, assuming they can’t win, and so does not enter sufficiently competitive songs. England is one of the prime sponsors of the competition, raising the question of whether they should continue to support a contest they can’t win. (It also raises the question of whether assuming that everybody hates you endears you to anyone. In other words, if you assume you will lose, does it handicap your ability to win?)

The truth is that, while not my cuppa tea, the Russian song wasn’t too bad. It was produced by American producer Timbaland. It garnered lots of votes from countries that aren’t necessarily political allies. So maybe the most popular song just won on its own.

And while England might complain about losing a battle, Western culture may have won the war. The Eurovision rules were relaxed a few years ago and now entries can be in languages other than the native tongue of the entering country. Most of the songs had English lyrics. Most of the songs weren’t Balkan folk songs or German polkas, but were typical pop fare you might hear on the radio in Britain or America.

So perhaps the European Union has been brought together, under the unifying flag of crappy middle-of-the-road pop songs.