Monday, 12 May 2014

Rise Like a Phoenix

Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes
Seeking rather than vengeance
You were warned
Once I'm transformed
Once I'm reborn
You know I will rise like a phoenix
But you're my flame
Europe at Play
 "An annual competition that pits three dozen or so European nations against one another in a glitter-spangled maelstrom of wind machines, detachable clothing and the cheesiest tunes in pop music, the Eurovision Song Contest is exactly what it says." (Time)
The Eurovision Song Contest is the last legacy of EU style frivolity - the other was "It's a Knock Out" - a typically British loose translation of the much more formal French "Jeux Sans Frontières" (games without frontiers). The French words on captured the European ideal. The British words captured the actuality. And that's pretty much what we still have with Eurovision. Every commentator treats it with deadly seriousness, except the British where we have Graham Norton, and before him Terry Wogan, making acerbic put downs on the acts.
The UK pretty well always gets a poor showing because the commercial successes in the UK pop world go to the commercial areas - the pop charts, the domestic UK market, and even the American market. Why send good songs for potential oblivion, when there are more lucrative avenues to explore?
What is left for the UK once those are removed are second hand songs, or second hand singers past their prime (e.g. Engelbert Humperdinck), or song writers penning something that will probably make some sales in the local market, but is really music by numbers; they don't really need to try to get it in the UK pop charts, being the Eurovision contender almost guarantees that, so they can be lazy.
Winning Songs
I thought if you didn't watch it, but heard it, the winning song by Conchita Wurst was very good - very James Bond theme (I could imagine Shirley Bassey belting it out!) - and of course, songs are for the most part to be heard not seen.
There was some criticism along the way of Russia, which was booed, but the lyrics of their entry were ominously political in overtones:
Living on the edge
closer to the crime
cross the line a step at a time
Now maybe there's a place
maybe there's a time
maybe there's a day you'll be mine
Sound and Spectacle
What happened with the old Top of the Pops, when it existed, was the rise of the pop video - now a lot of that is done using the outlets of social media. TOTP used to have live acts, and videos, and as time went on, the videos grew to dominate. That's not to say that the songs were bad - Abba almost always did videos rather than live - but it did lead to a culture in which songs sold as an audio-visual experience, which is actually quite strange.
Think of Michael Jackson's Thriller. It's actually not particularly spectacular as a song, but as a video, it is sheer spectacle. The studio with all its glitzy lighting and smoke and camera angles, and teen audience bopping away, could never really compete.
Most of the 20th century popular music was broadcast on radio, and was heard not seen; the singer if seen would just be performing, perhaps with a backing band, and a microphone. People came to watch the singer singing, not see some kind of stage show. That's very much still the case with festivals like Glastonbury. At that distance from the stage, spectacle is diminished, however much the singer gyrates about the stage.
A different strand came with the movie musicals, often taken from stage musicals, where clearly the visual was important - but it was not enough to save very poor shows. Remember some of Cliff Richard's musicals in the West End, which bombed. But spectacle could save what was musically very mediocre - for example, Starlight Express.

Eurovision is closer to those strands of spectacle and music than anything else, but it is not serious, so very rarely does any winner then go on to international fame. But it is clear they are aiming for it.
A Classic Division
In the classic tradition, there is the same split between sound and audio-visual spectacle, in orchestra and opera. Orchestral pieces  and operatic shows are two very different beasts.
In an orchestral piece, the emphasis is on music. With opera, it is spectacle and music, so that it can get popularity (as it did in the 18th century) despite it being largely incomprehensible because it was in a foreign language.
Language Games
And that's the other thing which is not so obvious - language. 29 of the winning entries are English, 14 in French, and then it drops to 3 and below. Apart from Serbia in 2007, since 1999, all the winners are English. From 1999, a free choice of language was allowed, and in 2013, only 12 countries had songs in their national language. Mostly they opt for English. So English is a crowded market, and that probably also is a problem for the UK entry.
Prior to 1999, with a few exceptions by special dispensation (Germany, Belgium), matters were different. From 1966 to 1973 and 1977 to 1999, only official languages of the participating country could be used. This meant that the UK entry was not swamped with other English entries, as it is today.
As it stands, many of the people voting are voting for English language songs, and given the world dominance of English, that probably means more people judging can understand the songs. National language restrictions meant most countries probably didn't understand many of the other countries songs. The widening of participating countries, with Eastern Europeans has meant more other language entries, but in terms of results, most non-English songs have been far less successful than those in English.
Incidentally, Abba took advantage of the dropping of the rule in 1974 to win with an English language entry, Waterloo.

1 comment:

James said...

"the lyrics of their entry were ominously political in overtones:

Living on the edge"

When you realise that "Ukraine" literally translates as "at the edge", doubly so.