From the international annals of overachieving singing and dancing Mormons
The Mormon moment for the Eurovision Song Contest came in 1984. Since 1956, the member nations of the European Broadcasting Union have held an annual contest in which each nation selects one contestant, and an overall European winner is selected in the live televised finale. In 1984, three Swedish brothers, Richard, Louis, and Per Herrey, all church members, beat out the Irish entry by just eight points to take first place with their song “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley.” Some Wikipedia contributor calls the song a sign of “everything wrong with the Contest,” with “three impossibly clean-cut young men” singing 80s dance music with a nonsense title. But the song also proved influential in its own way. Although the Herreys didn’t go on to musical stardom, a copycat number won the contest in 1985, and a leading repository of Eurovision lyrics can be found at diggiloo.net. To make the musical moment complete, the Herreys’ success was met by the accusation from a conservative Protestant minister that the title was actually a smutty inquiry in disguise (exercise left to the reader).
Most Americans know Eurovision, if at all, only in the form of abominable Youtube videos, which is too bad. The event itself is both entertaining and utterly fascinating. It’s rumored that the event can now be viewed over the Internet. Americans who tune in looking for the next ABBA or Celine Dion will probably be disappointed, however. In most cases, Eurovision is not about finding Europe’s next superstar. Some songs may be quite good, but what’s most interesting is how nations and performers use music and television to work out a European identity.
The European Broadcasting Union is bigger than the EU, and much easier to join. This year’s entries push the boundaries of Europe to include Israel, Turkey, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Morocco has participated in the past, and other North African nations could choose to participate. Eurovision provides a glimpse into current European aspirations, and into who may or may not be joining the EU in another decade or two.
Since each nation gets the same number of votes in the final regardless of its population, the largest countries with most of the viewing audience subsidize the disproportionate influence of smaller countries. People used to complain that the Scandinavian countries always voted for each other, and now the republics of the former Yugoslavia tend to do the same. But this seems like a small price for the rich nations of Europe to pay, since Bosnians’ voting highly for the Serbian entry, and vice-versa, is one of the few hopeful signs to emerge from the Balkans in years.
Each nation in the Eurovision competition is faced with the challenge of attuning local musical tastes to an overall European preference. Some countries aim for a cosmopolitan sound that could be written or sung anywhere. The next year, the same country might choose to remind its neighbors that it is musically and culturally distinct, thank you, and let the consequences fall where they may.
The choice of language becomes especially sensitive. There are four basic strategies for singing to a polylingual European audience:
1. Sing in English, so everyone can understand the song.
2. Sing in the national language, because it’s authentic, and we don’t care what the rest of Europe thinks, or we donâ€™t want to look like we care what the rest of Europe thinks.
3. Sing one or two verses in the national language and one or two in English.
4. Write lyrics that include snatches from as many European languages as possible.
(For all of these reasons, the idea of an American equivalent of Eurovision is ludicrous, unless you accept the possibility of Honduras and Guatemala voting to push the entry from Belize to victory over Vermont and Manitoba. The 50 U.S. states don’t have enough diversity to make a contest only between them at all interesting.)
There are other considerations that go into winning the Eurovision contest, of course. High-energy, upbeat songs have a good track record, but last year Serbia came through with an impassioned chanson, so we can expect to see more of those this year. Sex sells; there will no doubt be some outfits of questionable taste. After Lordi in 2006 and Ukraine’s strong second place finish last year, we can probably expect to see more novelty acts, unfortunately. We’ll have to see how well clean cut fares in 2008 (to my knowledge, Eurovision does not have any Mormon contestants this year). I’ll be tuning in at 9:00 PM tonight (or noon on the West Coast, 3:00 PM on the East Coast) to find out.