To Understand Europe, Watch Eurovision (Dammit)

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/15/2011 03:01:00 PM
[OK, so it may be more difficult for those in Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas to watch this programme on broadcast TV, but you can certainly watch the videos online. Relive when Finnish Klingons won with their rendition of "Hard Rock Hallelujah."]

Even for Europe's boosters, creating a European identity has proven to be a difficult task. Just what is it that defines being part of Europe? Judeo-Christian heritage probably would have counted sometime ago, but Europe is becoming famously secular. Nor is it, sadly for Europhiles, the European Union. Aside from not incorporating all the countries in the region, there remain ardent Eurosceptics in several member countries who threaten to undermine the entire project. For the sporting-minded, you can't say that it's football given that certain powers dominate the competition year in and year out in Champions League and the Euro football tournament.

From a democratic standpoint, there are certain things we'd like to see in a gathering that truly represents Europe. Aside from allowing all comers in, a majority of them actually having chances at winning the grand prize would help. Maybe to contrast the seemingly distant and stereotypical "bureaucrats from Brussels," we'd also like a genuine sense of participation from the citizens of the continent. And to top things off, how about having a large audience (turnout) when this gathering comes around?

If you put together all the desirables in the last paragraph, the closest we come to European popular appeal that brings the continent together is the Eurovision Song Contest. In the past, it's been a hit-and-miss affair if you're interested in slick entertainment. While daft outfits and dodgy performances have been staples of previous competitions, this year's event seemed solidly produced. Believe it or not, nations put much time and effort in grooming contestants for the top prize. Football bragging rights are hard to come by; Eurovision champions less so. Moreover, its pulling power shames elections for members of European parliament as fans watch the show and phone in their votes in droves.

Academics have taken notice of the significance of Eurovision, too. It has been the subject of serious academic research with its own network of researchers. For instance, given that fans and judges cannot vote for performers from their own countries, it's always been interesting how cultural similarity and geographical proximity account for results. There are even pretty extensive Wikipedia entries on Eurovision voting patterns. Among observable voting blocs are those for former Soviet satellites. Consider, for instance, Russia:

Anyway, Americans are usually not keen observers of Eurovision for the obvious reasons that (a) they don't participate and (b) the event receives scant media coverage stateside. However, the New York Times has just come out with a pretty good article on the event. As many commentators including myself have now done, what lessons are there from Eurovision that can be transferred to the project of European integration?
Eurovision, a Continental battle of the bands that has been building to a climax this week with live televised semifinals, is often dismissed as tacky, politicized and rarely capable of producing durable stars. Yet this wildly popular song contest may also be just the thing that Europe needs right now.

Since 1956, Eurovision has been one of the few cultural institutions that bind citizens of Europe together, proponents say, an urgently needed common denominator at a time when European solidarity is under strain. If the past is any guide, the finale on Saturday will draw well over 100 million viewers.

“Critics claim that the European Union lacks legitimacy because people don’t identify with it,” said Milija Gluhovic, an assistant professor of theater at Warwick University in Britain, and a scholar of Eurovision. (Yes, there is such a thing as a scholar of Eurovision.) “There is something to be said for the ways in which the contest may be engendering a way of identifying with this larger supra-nation, Europe.” Professor Gluhovic is among a growing number of scholars treating Eurovision as a subject for research. “There are not too many events doing this kind of cultural work,” he said.
What's nice is its inclusiveness. Especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europeans have taken to the event like fish to water. What's more, as someone keen on Turkey joining the EU, the inclusion of any number of nearby countries (especially Turkey) is welcome:
Europe, as defined by Eurovision, extends as far west as Iceland, as far south as Israel and as far east as Azerbaijan. Yet, in what could be a reflection of the mood of austerity and fiscal gloom hanging over Europe, some connoisseurs of the event have detected an unsettling trend in this year’s entries.

The campiness that has won the event a global cult following — especially among some gay people, researchers say — seems muted this year. The Eastern European countries, which normally set the standard for bizarre combinations of folk culture and Vegas glitter, are going easy on the sequins...
And there is of course, the notion of good neighbourliness that pervades despite occasional real-life skirmishes:
To be sure, the contest has some elements that seem typical of politics in the European Union, widely criticized for its byzantine decision-making process that produces mediocre results. The winner of Eurovision is chosen by a combination of professional jurors and telephone voting by viewers. Jurors and viewers cannot vote for their own countries, so they tend instead to choose their neighbors.

That has led to charges of collusion, as when Serbia won in 2007 with help from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. But Mr. Gluhovic, who is from Sarajevo, said voting patterns reflected cultural similarities rather than deliberate manipulation. “You had the Balkan wars in the ’90s, former Yugoslavia in flames, but then after fighting each other, these nations gave each other big scores,” he said. “When I saw that, I was really moved.”
Tonight millions of European households will have watched this year's finals--and many would have bought the CD too. Look past all the vocal contortions and glittering sequins. Intelligent observers will spend time seeking clues as to how Eurovision holds lessons for the more specific project of European integration.

From the clip above, you can probably infer that my favourite is the gospel-tinged entry from Austria, Nadine Beiler. She has powerful "pop diva" pipes from the Whitney Houston / Mariah Carey template. Plus, the song she composed is really very well constructed, going from an acapella performance to power ballad territory. This is, after all, a talent competition.

We all are dreamers on our way
In a world where we´re not meant to stay...

BTW: Others that floated my boat were Estonia's Bjork-esque Getter Jaani and Georgia's pop-rock Eldrine. But in the end, oil-rich Azerbaijan won the competition this year via Ell & Nikki. With all those oil revenues, they can certainly afford to host next year's event even in austerity-hit Europe as is the privilege of the winning contestant's home country. Alike Lena from Germany who won last year, it certainly wasn't to my taste in being too so-so, but de gustibus non est disputandum. See you next year in Baku.