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Sat May 10, 2014
My Country, Flat Or Sharp: Eurovision And The Global Citizen
Originally published on Sat May 10, 2014 1:05 pm
The fate of Western civilization rests in the hands of an Armenian comedian with a stage name that includes a popular digital music file format.
Aram Mp3, a musician-comedian-bon vivant, is the early favorite to win this year's 59th Annual Eurovision Song Contest. The absence of everyone's favorite and most reliable public events odds-maker Intrade aside, most betting markets suggest that Aram could run away with Europe's hearts and minds this weekend.
But there's more at stake in the annual competition of national pride and international sequin distribution. The splashy, awkward stadium rock contest — which has provided a launching pad for such well-known musical acts as Sweden's ABBA and Canada's Celine Dion (she sang for Switzerland, because, why not?) – might just be the best high-stakes reality singing competition for our diplomatically complex times.
Eurovision began as a way for the European community to come together around a common cultural symbol. And as we here stateside have learned during the recent reign of American Idol, The Voice and other similar singing competition through the years, nothing binds a people together like poorly-written pop tunes sung by previously unknown amateurs wearing unusual costumes.
Each country involved in the contest — and the number changes almost every year — submits a contestant through whatever method it deems appropriate. Some countries set up domestic reality TV competitions for their entrants, while others just decide independently which act should take up their country's honor and dignity on an arena stadium stage somewhere in Europe/Israel/the Caucasus.
The whole shindig is regulated by individual national television broadcasters and the European Broadcasting Union, lending the candidate selection process a certain grab-bag appearance. The fact that 1) residents of competing countries can't vote for their own entrants in the semi-finals or finals and 2) the "Big Five" (France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany) are guaranteed a finalist slot, no matter how absolutely terrible they might be, puts the quality of the music in this music competition fairly low on the list of entrant requirements.
Framed as a sort of cross between the Olympics and a battle of the bands, part of what makes Eurovision so different is the way its entries play with ideas about national pride (and sometimes international shame). On top of the free-wheeling approach to performer nationality that can give Celine Dion to Switzerland, language requirements for the contest mean that a country can sing (and lose, miserably) in an entirely non-native language. Like Norway in 2011.
But most countries have completely abandoned earlier "cultural symbol" efforts in order to embrace the winning formula of nominally sexy women / men singing in quasi-English while fire and similarly attractive backup singers hang out in the background.
Take this year's Russian entry. It stars the Tolmachevy Sisters, a set of eerily luminescent 17-year-old twins who want to sing you a song about "living on the edge" and "shining into the darkness." The lyrics are rather nonsensical — as are most of the Eurovision entries in English — but Russia has a way with these perplexing high-concept entries, or so it seems based on the near-win of 2012's all-Russian Grandma entry, "Party for Everybody."
When paired against the Ukrainian entry this year, it almost seems like the respective television networks in each country were ready for this moment. As Russia sings about shining and leading into the darkness, Ukraine is looking westward with a western Ukrainian singer doing "Tick Tock." (But seriously: when did Ukraine find the time to host a competition and choose this upbeat dance number in the last few months?)
As OZY sagely points out, there are genuine diplomatic questions at stake in this weekend's competition, with confirmation only a few days ago that votes from the disputed Crimean peninsula would be counted as Ukraine's votes, not Russia's. And it will interesting to see whether outside-Russia Russian voters turn away this year out of protest, or move closer out of symbolic solidarity.
What isn't in question, however, is the Eurovision Song Contest's ability to serve as a strange metaphor for global citizenship. Those of us not living in Europe have no direct voice in the competition's results. We can't vote, and we can't influence the participants from moving in any particular direction. Instead, we watch from afar as our European friends do as they will and find their own way of responding to the appearance of rebellious factions.
Eurovision is the best international singing competition you didn't know you were missing, and it's time you tuned in before the whole thing falls apart. Also, they have an operatic drag queen with a beard. Do you? Probably not.