Eurovision 2012: One For The Geriatric Crowd

Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest has left us for another year, and yes, this post is late , but I was at a party, and could not post my thoughts in live time.  I want to share with you, dear readers, my thoughts on this year’s Eurovision. 

Hello Baku, this is Washington DC calling.

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that even a bad Eurovision Song Contest can be turned into a great experience by attending a Eurovision party.

That was what happened to me this year.  Going in, I was thoroughly unimpressed with this year’s crop of never-to-be-heard-from-again pop stars* and their songs.  Yet after attending the party hosted at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC (apparently the first live broadcast of the competition in America), I came away thinking that this was one of the best Eurovisions that I had ever seen.  Granted there was nothing like “Satellite” or “Volare” and there was certainly nothing to compare with ABBA, but the charms of Eurovision 2012 cannot be denied.

Before I can talk about the good and the ugly, both of which were in abundance at the competition, I have to talk about the bad: the host Azerbaijan.  As a gay man, even an American gay man, I feel that Eurovision is my rightful property and I resent seeing it appropriated by homophobic countries that tread on human rights.  This is Azerbaijan (and Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, etc.), whose homophobia was, exacerbated because of a pissing match it had gotten into with Iran over the last few months.  Azerbaijan repeatedly insisted that the nation hated gays and they were not welcome.  No doubt that is true, but to all those countries in the European Broadcasting Union that hate the gays, I have a message for you: stay the hell out of our competition.  (I cannot imagine how hard it must be to be a homosexual in Azerbaijan, and my brothers and sisters there truly have my sympathy.)

Azerbaijan also has an atrocious record on human rights in general, and leading up to the competition there were protests to try and focus the world’s attention on that records rather than on the government’s stated goal of attracting more tourism.  Alas, I fear the protesters were as successful as the Argentine protesters of the 1978 World Cup.  I saw in the Daily Telegraph‘s liveblog of the event that there was violence, but I have not yet determined that for myself beyond the blog’s single Twitter message.

The Crystal Hall was very nice and the fact that it lit up in the colors of each nation’s flag prior to the performance was charming.  It does not negate a lack of freedom and liberty.

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Every Eurovision is influenced by the previous year’s winner in some way.  I was positive that this year would be chock-full of male/female duets like last year’s ear-bleeding atrocity “Running Scared,” a song performed by Ell & Nikki (formerly Eldar & Nigar), two utterly lifeless individuals who screeched at each other, all the while looking like they just met prior to taking the stage.  Fortunately, a lack of chemistry was not  the lesson learned.  No, this year’s also-rans imitated the Azerbaijan couple by wearing all-white.  White costumes was a recurring theme, and fortunately a rather innocuous one.  And like with every year, the winner was someone who deviated from the previous year in every way possible.  Loreen was decked out in black.

Of course we were still subjected to Ell & Nikki (again in white) as they screeched “Running Scared” to each other again one last time (please God!).  A year had passed and they still completely lacked chemistry.  Then Ell put on a tuxedo and joined two women to present the competition.  Nikki, who lives in London, was shunted away until she presented the winner’s trophy.  Probably she was being beaten for leaving the country.

Now I have a confession to make: despite fanatically watching Eurovision for the past eight years (trust me Europeans, that puts me in the 99.999th percentile among Americans), I had never been to a Eurovision party before.  I had no idea what to expect, although I did suspect it would be fun.  And it was.  There was a lovely Danish woman who waved German and Danish flags throughout the afternoon.  She was kind enough to paint a German flag on my arm.  Danish lady (whose name I never found out) got crazier and crazier as the contest went on, and was already dancing around with wild abandon well before the Danish entry appeared.  I loved her and her utter recklessness, a stark contrast to her stoic German friends.

The other important person in the Embassy that day was my boyfriend, whose comments and judgments I valued enough to write them down and will even share a few.

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The opening show was quite spectacular, perhaps the most spectacular ever, although with the exception of Greece from 2006, I tend not to remember the opening ceremonies.  This number alternated between faux ethno-music and flying acrobats in glow-in-the-dark white outfits.  It was impressive though; my boyfriend turned to me and said, “I would hate to be Armenia right now.”

Azerbaijan is apparently the land of fire, and fire was very much abundant on the stage during the opening number and many of the entries.  The contest’s slogan this year was “light your fire,” which I suppose is meant to be inspirational, but it really only served to remind me that Jim Morrison and the Doors, whatever their flaws, would never do Eurovision.

And speaking of old musical acts with deep flaws, the first entrant was Englebert Humperdinck for the UK, but before we get to the Hump, I did want to point out that the hosts this were generally not as annoying as in previous years.  Which is not to say I enjoyed them, but they were serviceable.  Perhaps I just didn’t hear them well enough.  And in that stubborn Eurovision tradition, the hosts still repeated everything in French despite the fact that only one country and parts of two others in this year’s competition actually use French as an official language.  Quelle charmant.**  We also got to see a video of the Crystal Hall built in 60 seconds, and all I could think is that this is what happens when you don’t have unions.

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Englebert Humperdinck sang a power ballad called “Love Will Set You Free” on behalf of the UK.  The Hump is an odd entry into Eurovision.  Usually the UK votes on who to send, but the BBC opted not to let the same public that chose DJ Daz, Scooch, and of course, Jemini have any say whatsoever in this year’s entrant.  In theory this was a smart move, but the BBC seemed to forget that (1) as good a singer as Englebert Humperdinck may be, when your last hit came just after the Stone Age, people tend to forget you; and (2) the rest of Europe really hates the UK (okay, well England really), and Eurovision is when they can prove it.  The Hump’s song was decent enough, and he sang it well.  There was also a key change, a dancing couple in the background, and a waterfall effect of pale orange light. Standard Eurovision fare.  The song was also incredibly dull, and the DC audience was pretty sedate throughout the whole thing.  This despite the fact that (1) we know who Englebert Humperdinck is in this country; and (2) we kind of like the UK over here in America.  It was no surprise that he came in second to last.  I bet every British person is secretly weeping inside.

The second entry was from Hungary, “Songs of Our Heart” by Compact Disco.  I was offended by his voice; he was like a Hungarian version of the douche rock epitomized by the posers of Nickelback.  My boyfriend agreed but added “with 80’s synth.”  The liveblogs of both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph compared Compact Disco to Savage Garden.  Welcome to the 80’s, Hungary.

Yet even the pain from Hungary could not compare with the sheer agony inflicted by Rona Nishliu of Albania.  If you ever wanted to know how Azerbaijan tortures its political prisoners, I suspect it’s by making those poor souls listen to Nishliu sing.  It wasn’t just awful, she actually sucked the enjoyment from the room.  Her song “Suus” was completely unmemorable so she had to make sure we remembered her somehow.  Ergo, she shrieked her way through it.  Seriously.  She shrieked into a key change.  And then she just abandoned the concept of key altogether like some unholy mixture of Eurovision and Arnold Schoenberg’s nightmares.  But there was more to her than just ear-murdering singing.  She also wore what appeared to be a basket on her head with a long braid that resembled a snake lying across her chest.  The DC crowd was openly hostile to her.  Unfortunately the DC crowd was not the European voters.  How this did not come in last place, how this even made the finals is a mystery to me that I can only assume has to do with bloc voting.  Instead it was in the top 5.  I weep for Europe.

Next up was Donny Montell of Lithuania whose real name is Donatas Montvydas.  He sang a song called “Love is Blind” and as Lithuanians apparently do not understand metaphor, he came out wearing a sequined blindfold.  It was a typical sappy Euro-ballad, but then he ripped the blindfold off and started doing some pretty nifty break dancing/gymnastics moves.  There were also pole dancers in a background display.  Don’t ask.  In any case, the DC audience loved it, wildly applauding and cheering.  It was the first song that they got into, and really it was the first song that truly showed what Eurovision was about.  This is not necessarily a compliment.

Bosnia’s entry, Maya Sar took the stage to sing her song “Korake ti znam.”  Bosnia was clearly going for class, but quite possibly at the expense of pitch.  I can only describe her outfit as “sparkle armor.”  She played the piano and sang, and then she left the piano and sang.  That’s about it.  There was little life to the performance, but it did mark the first appearance of the wind machine.  The DC audience was not into this one.

They were however into the Russian Grannies (not their actual stage name but how they will be eternally known) who took the stage next with their song “Party for Everybody.”  I wrote about them already, so I don’t want to spend too much more time on them, but I will say that everybody loved them in DC (with the lone exception of my boyfriend who despised them).   The DC audience was clapping and singing along with them.  I’ll say it again, the Grannies are a gimmick act, but it’s an original gimmick and a cute one.  The Grannies eventually finished second, but it was a very odd thing.  Almost every nation awarded them some points, but only Belarus gave them the full 12 points.  Has any second place team every finished with so few 12 points?  Make of that what you will.  I hope they made enough to build their church.

No one would seriously want to follow that, and that unenviable task fell to Gréta Salóme & Jónsi with their song “Never Forget,” which I have already disobeyed.  I do recall that they seemed like a creepy, Icelandic version of Secret Garden.  They got a good reception from the DC audience, but that was because there was an Icelandic family with small, cute, blond children at the front of the room waving their national flag.  One of my favorite Eurovision songs ever, Selma’s “All Out of Luck” was from Iceland, as is of course the genius that is Bjork.  Iceland actually does understand music, so this entry baffled me.  Next year I think they should send their volcano with the unpronounceable name.  I can’t imagine it would be worse.

After Iceland’s completely forgettable ballad, we got the first completely forgettable shake-it song of the night, Cyprus’s Ivi Adamou singing (in the finest Eurovision tradition of quality lyrics) “La La Love.”  She appeared to be dancing on Greek ruins alongside some very leggy and limber female back-up dancers.  This song got a fairly big response from the DC audience which surprised me because I did not think that the DC audience was the Greek voters in disguise.  (Yes, they got 12 points from Greece.)

La France.  I actually liked Anggun’s song “Echo (You and I)” when I saw it on YouTube.  Anggun has a beautiful voice, and to my shock there was actually some English in the song.  The song is tailor-made for gay bars and clubs all over Europe, and bonus! at the competition, Anggun was accompanied by hot, shirtless male gymnasts.  Anggun is a stunningly beautiful woman with a good stage presence.  The problem, and this is a big one that could not be overcome, is that her voice, while very pretty, was not big enough for the song. Given the production and the venue (and the wind machine), the song required someone with a huge Merman-like voice, and Anggun’s is very subtle.  Too subtle.  That was a fatal disconnect.  Also she represented France.

When I first caught a glimpse of Italy’s singer Nina Zilli, I thought she was Fran Drescher.  When I saw her on stage though, it was clear that she trying to be the late, great Amy Winehouse.  Big mistake.  Amy Winehouse was one of the great vocalists of the past decade; she employed a thoroughly unique sound married to a retro vibe.  Nina Zilli is none of those things.  What the hell was she thinking?  And by that point the DC audience was restless and I could not actually distinguish any song lyrics anymore.

Ott Lepland took the stage to sing “Kuulu.”  It was a nice enough, generic power ballad that was completely boring and not special in the least.  The boyfriend said that is was actually Sarah Brightman’s “There For Me.”  Stealing other people’s songs, another fine Eurovision tradition.

I hated Norway’s entry “Stay.”  But I am also very conflicted because I love Norway’s singer Tooji.  Tooji may very well be one of the most beautiful men on the planet.  He’s also a trained social worker, which means he is either a really decent human being or an incredibly messed up one.  I really wish Tooji had not been saddled with such a hideous song.  It was so awful it hurt my feelings.  Apparently Europe agreed with me as Norway came in last place.  Again.  They hold the record.  Last place is something that Tooji did not deserve given the Albanian entry in this competition (happy birthday, Tooji).  My boyfriend tried to tell me the song was not as bad as I thought it was, but eventually even he admitted that yes, it was horrible.  Poor Tooji.

At this point we got our first look at the Green Room, which as my boyfriend pointed out, was neither green nor a room.  The presenter spoke to Englebert Humperdinck.  I always tune out the Green Room segments, because they are inane, and I don’t care.

Next up is the host nation.  On behalf of Azerbaijan, Sabina Babayeva (wearing all white) sang “When the Music Dies,” and the joke just writes itself.  Nevertheless, I will try (a la Daniel Tosh) to get in as many different jokes as I can.  When the music dies?  It was a mercy killing.  When the music dies?  By this point, the music is a zombie.  When the music dies?  After the Albanian entry.  When the music dies?  Every year at Eurovision.  Thank you; I also do Bar Mitzvahs.

Romanian entries are always the clear beneficiaries of bloc voting.  They are never good, but always fulls of of bells and whistles.  Every Eurovision gimmick imaginable (except for a decent song) has been tried by Romania.  They are always near the top though because the surrounding countries always give Romania high marks.  This year’s gimmicks included fire shooting from the stage, a moonwalking bagpipe player, and two female violinists who bent down backwards so far I thought they were doing a limbo competition.  I don’t actually recall the song “Zaleilah” because the band Mandinga was drowned out by all the percussion.  In DC, cute children were dancing to it, and the audience applauded, although by this point the alcohol was probably setting in.  The lovely Danish lady was dancing wildly.  Her waving flags threatened to put out the eyes of anyone who didn’t also enjoy the song.

The next song got the lovely Danish lady even more exited because it was her home nation’s entry.  “Should’ve Known Better” sung by Soluna Samay, or as I call her “Julie the Cruise Director.”  Julie wore a sailor’s hat and a jacket that looked like it belonged to a cruise ship captain who loved nothing more than giant shoulder pads.  Both the jacket and the hat were covered in soot and appeared to have been purchased from a Greek fire sale.  (Take that, Terry Wogan.  I can insult a Danish entry better than you can.)  The performance was like something on a cruise ship too.  My boyfriend, who loved Denmark (the country), also went crazy alongside the lovely Danish lady.  For my part I was not sure there was much to go crazy about.

It is well-known that Cyprus and Greece always give each other maximum points, which of course happened this year too.  It was less well known that this year they would share the exact same song.  Or that both the Greek and Cypriot entries were rereleases of every Greek Eurovision entry ever (except for Antique).  The Greek singer, Eleftheria Eleftheriou, was actually born in Cyprus.  She called her song “Aphrodisiac,” but really let’s just call it “Standard Greek Entry.”  Given the way Greece decimated the European Union’s economy, Ms. Eleftheriou is very lucky that this year’s competition was actually held in Asia.

Sweden.  Yes, this was the song that won.  Yes, this song was the odds-on favorite to win.  Yes, the Swedes are now tied for second place for most Eurovision wins with the UK, France, and Luxembourg(?!?) and are the likeliest to move into a solo second place in a future competition.  And yes, Loreen now stands proudly with her predecessors ABBA, Charlotte Nilsson, Carola, and the Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley boys (Herreys).  But none of that explains why “Euphoria” won.  Like the Russian Grannies, Loreen got the entire DC audience actively involved (not just the Swedes in the audience), clapping and dancing and cheering.  I was not a fan before the contest, but her performance was completely awesome, and it made me a convert.

After Sweden we got a brief interlude to remind that us Lys Assia, the first Eurovision winner, is alive and well, was in Crystal Hall, and has nothing else to do other than attend Eurovision every year.

Like following the Grannies, following Loreen was always going to be difficult.  Unlike Iceland who followed the Grannies, Turkey has a built in voting bloc so position mattered very little.  The DC audience loved Turkey’s entry, probably because the backup dancers formed a human boat with their capes (the song was called “Love Me Back” but there was a nautical theme, I think.  I don’t know.  Turkish entries are always bad.)  The band was called Can Bonomo.  Imagine someone put bats, the Village People, pirates, and Goths in a blender.  That was Can Bonomo.

My boyfriend was not a fan of the Spanish entry before Eurovision, but after Pastora Soler sang her song “Quédate conmigo” it became his favorite entry (he still says it should have won.)***  And I will second that it was an awesome song.  Soler has a gorgeous big voice and she commanded the stage.  The DC audience was rapt and gave her wild applause.  But it was also a fait accompli that she would not win because (1) the powers that be at Spain told her they can’t afford to host next year’s competition, which Soler repeated to anyone who would listen; (2) Spain has few natural allies; and (3) she sang in Spanish, and songs that are sung in English are far more likely to win the competition (which is why Ireland and the UK cleaned up in the years when nations could only enter songs in an official national language–and why neither Ireland or the UK has won since the rule was abandoned.)

Next up, Germany.  As there were lots of Germans in the DC audience (again, held in the Austrian Embassy), Germany would always be popular at the Eurovision party.  While German pop music may seem like an oxymoron, since I have been watching regularly Germany has produced the highest overall quality of entrants.  Texas Lightning, Roger Cicero, and of course Lena have all represented Germany with varying degrees of success, but providing universally high enjoyment.  I almost always dislike the German entry prior to the contest, but once I see it on stage it usually ranks among my favorite entries.  This year a very cute, scruffy boy named Roman Lob wore a silly, woolen hat and sang a very nice song called “Standing Still.”  He ended up placing better than Lena did last year, but obviously not as well as she did the year before.

Malta got a surprisingly loud reception from the DC audience for reasons that I still cannot figure out.  I can only guess there are a lot of Maltese people who live in DC, but I did not see a single Malta flag.  It was a fun song, a very good Eurodance song that had people dancing and singing at the Embassy.  The singer was Kurt Calleja and the song was “This is the Night,” but to me he was a “not-Chiara” singer who sang a “not-Chiara” song.  One of these days I hope to see Malta host Eurovision.  Please make it happen, Europe; you gave it to Azerbaijan.

I refuse to put F.Y.R. in front of Macedonia as Eurovision insists on doing.  F.Y.R. stands for “Former Yugoslav Republic of” and it’s there because the Greeks get pissed off when they are reminded that Macedonia is not just the ancient Greek kingdom that gave us Alexander the Great.  Really though, after this year does anyone care about hurting Greece’s feelings anymore?  I bring this up because this is the only interesting thing about Macedonia.  The song,”Crno i belo” (sung by Kaliopi) began nicely enough, but got progressively worse.  Apparently Kaliopi is a big star in the Balkans, which would account for why she placed as well as she did.  Also, bloc voting.  Macedonia is always the bathroom break song.

Ah, Jedward, the bane of my existence.  Well, maybe that’s a little harsh… but just a little.  Jedward are a particularly no-talent pair of twins that Ireland sent last year and then sent again for reasons that probably have to do with not wanting to win Eurovision for an eighth time.  Jedward look like Justin Timberlake clones cross-bred with alien mutants from a Hollywood B-movie, and their space-age outfits only solidified that impression.  The DC audience went wild for Jedward for reasons that I cannot fathom.  For my own part, I wanted to boo them.  It’s the only entry I wanted to boo, and I had to suffer through Albania.  The song was called “Waterline” and it included a water fountain, which is an ironic touch for the land of fire.  At one point they made a heart with their hands, but given that they have made a big deal about how they have never kissed a girl, I can only assume that heart was a way to tell the world they love each other, much like those creepy Czech twins who did porn movies for Bel Ami.  At the end of the number, they stood in the middle of the fountain as it dripped water on them, giving us visual proof that Jedward is all wet.

Serbia.  Željko Joksimović tried to win the elusive Eurovision title that he just missed out on in 2004 (he came in second).  This time he sang a drippy ballad in his native language: “Nije ljubav stvar” which translates into the nonsensical title “Love is not an object.”  Joksimović came in third this year.  He was doing really well while Balkan states were voting, but once they were finished he fell behind the Russian Grannies.  I cannot remember the song for the life of me, although in my notes I wrote that there was a key change and some pyrotechnics.  Also the lovely Danish lady (who my boyfriend swears was not actually drunk, just Danish) was slow dancing by herself to the song, which was quite a feat. The audience liked it, but there was a definite Serbian contingent which skewed the balance.

Ukraine, much like Greece, always send the same song reworked.  It’s always a solitary woman singer (or a drag queen) singing a big song with a big voice about something completely incomprehensible.  This year they got Gaitana, a half-Ukrainian half-Congolese singer (and yes, it caused a stir in racist Ukraine) who has an amazing set of pipes much like the great Martha Wash.  She is also a drop-dead gorgeous woman.  The song is called “Be My Guest” and it is probably a good thing Gaitana did not win because Disney is a very litigious corporation.  If there is any fairness, Gaitana will get a contract to record in a country that would truly appreciate her voice and her talents.  We in America could use another soulful voice now that Donna Summer has left us.

Finally the last entry was Romania’s second chance from Moldova.  By this time I was completely bored.  Moldova, like Macedonia, is always uninteresting but get votes because it has many neighbors.  Pasha Parfeny sang “Lăutar.”  I have notes from this entry, but for the life of me I cannot remember why I wrote what I did.  Something about a guy with a small voice singing around female dancers in vinyl dresses.

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Instead of the half time show, which I cared absolutely nothing about, I wanted to tell you all the wonderful things in Azerbaijan which were shown to the audience in those clips that came on the screen in between acts so that the stage hands could set up for the next song.  According to this official propaganda Azerbaijan has the following things: art, tradition, polo (apparently played with golf clubs), cars and roads, horses, dancers, a boardwalk, swimming and canoeing, food (always a good thing), rugs, flames, buildings, bikes, folk theater, tea, mausoleums, oil rigs, horse racing, arm wrestling, camp fires, and homosexuals.  Okay, that last one was not intentionally featured in the clips.  You know what else wasn’t featured?  Human rights.  Also Armenia.

The voting was kind of dull.  Loreen took the lead after the second country and never let go.  Once the voting got out of the former Soviet and Balkans blocs, Loreen only increased her lead.  She won with 372 points.  The best part of the voting was seeing Mr. Lordi in full monster regalia present Finland’s scores.  (He wasn’t very good at it, but it was amusing and in DC we appreciated the nostalgia and the subtle Finnish humor of having him present.)  The real battle was for second, and in the end the Grannies, the other favorite, edged out Serbia’s ballad.  18 of the 42 nations gave Loreen top marks.  Compare that to the next highest, a tie between Serbia, Albania, and Azerbaijan, who got douze points from only four countries.  Loreen completely dominated the voting.  By country number 37 or so, it was mathematically impossible to catch her.  Nikki from Ell & Nikki presented Loreen with an ugly crystal microphone trophy as the Swede star tried to compose herself so that she could sing the traditional reprise of her song.

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My final thoughts are about the nature of the contest itself.  Eurovision, despite its camp and love of the gays (from the West anyway) is perhaps the most conservative institution in Europe.  To wit, Eurovision has been around since 1956.  It has seen the rise of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Rufus Wainwright, the Ronettes, and the Ramones, disco, Dolly, Dusty, Dylan, Patti, punk, Aretha, Annie, Etta, soul, nu soul, Philly soul, blue-eyed soul, Northern soul, Sleater-Kinney, Sade, synth, house, heavy metal, hair bands, hair metal, hip-hop, Hendrix, hard rock, soft rock, arena rock, Gaye, glam, trance, techno, Tina Turner, Tropicália, Tapestry, folk, funk, Fela Kuti, Cash, Cohen, Karen Carpenter, Nico and Neko, Nina Simone, nueva canción, Motown, Madonna, Miriam Makeba, Michael Jackson, Jobim, Joplin, Bruce, Brill (Building), Brown, Bono, Bowie, Bjork, Bossa Nova, and a zillion other artists, innovations, innovators, and styles.  Eurovision steadfastly refuses to acknowledge innovation.  Even when those innovations are seemingly incorporated (such as Lordi), those songs still miss the forest for the trees.  They are all ultimately cheesy pop songs designed, like the modern American record industry, to be pleasing and inoffensive to the largest number of people possible.  One act alone was able to transcend that seemingly insurmountable handicap of being Euro-cheese, which is why ABBA is Eurovision’s lone gift to the world.

That is the real reason why, as much as I enjoy Eurovision as a spectacle, I am glad it is only once a year.  Sugar is tasty, but too much of it rots your teeth.

Footnotes: 

*  Like with almost everything about Eurovision, please assume that there are invisible quotation marks around pop stars–or in fact around anything that is complimentary of the songs (such as calling them songs).  Eurovision, is perhaps the purest distillation of Susan Sontag’s definition of camp from her famous essay in which she wrote the following:

Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

** I actually have no idea if that is proper French or not.  I don’t really care either.

***  He just watched Spain’s entry again and is furious that Soler didn’t win.  His exact quote: “They should have just stopped the contest right there and sent everyone else home.  Russia came in second? Come on.  Take away the oven and the outfits and just have the six women singing on stage then no one would have voted for it.  If Spain performed on a giant tortilla and had people dressed as tomatoes doing back flips it would have scored higher.  Europe is ridiculous.”

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Why I Love Eurovision

I admit it; I had not been looking forward to the annual spectacle/train wreck that is the Eurovision Song Contest.  Last year’s win by Azerbaijan depressed me, and all the 2012 entries that I saw either bored me to tears or caused me to shake my fist in rage.  We get it, Ireland; you don’t want to win.  Please don’t send Jedward anymore.  You know something is wrong when you start thinking Englebert Humperdinck is the best entry.

But then I saw this:

This is Russia’s 2012 entry, a group called Buranovskiye Babushki, and yes, they are old women (the name means Buranova Grannies according to Wikipedia).  The song, if we are kind enough to think of it as a song, is called “Party for Everybody” and it is sung not in Russian as one might expect, but in English (gasp!) and Udmurt, the Uralic language of the Russian republic from where the Grannies originate.  Whatever money the Grannies win will go toward building a church for their town.  And most likely we will never hear of them again.

Like the great “Wild Dances,” Ruslana’s winning entry from 2004, “Party for Everybody” has to be seen to be believed.  There’s something so unbelievably odd and endearing about it.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s all gimmick.  The Grannies stand in front of a smaller version of a traditional Russian oven (which I believe is called a pech) and bake muffins for the duration of their song.  The Grannies themselves are like the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir (better known as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) except that the Bulgarians are actually talented and sing beautifully weird and complex songs while the Grannies poorly sing a barely disguised Eurodance number with hints of the music from Tetris.  I don’t think the Grannies are worried about breaking into the American market.  And I am certain that the American market will not get Granny-fever.

And yet there is something so absolutely endearing about the Grannies.  First of all that they are old village women singing in the world’s biggest, showiest, tackiest song contest.  The disconnect is too marvelous.  Second that they are just so darn adorable.  How can you not root for old ladies in peasant garb?  And third and most important, at least for me, to get to Eurovision they beat a duet between Dima Bilan and a former member of t.a.T.u.  (I cannot say enough how much I dislike Dima and his horrible, wretched, ear-offending, winning song.)

In a year with a good (or at least better) song selection, I may not have had this much affection for a gimmick act that is stubbornly non-musical.  Nevertheless, we are stuck with what each country enters.  As of right now the Grannies are my favorite. Having said that, I reserve the right to change my mind.  Not that it matters; living in the US, I cannot vote.

And now for my shameless plug.  Any Americans who are thinking of watching Eurovision for the first time but have no idea what is going on, here is my guide:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

And my thoughts from last year’s contest.

Eurovision is the opposite side of the coin of European football.  Whereas the latter tears people apart and promotes tribalism (despite what Sepp Blatter wants us to believe), Eurovision is the real way of bringing everyone together for a night of good cheer and harmony.  At least until Greece and Cyprus give each other 12 points.  Again.

Paula Deen, Who Do You Think You Are?

This is the review that will get me into trouble, so read it at your own peril.  Feel free to disagree with me, but be warned that I am not publishing abusive comments. 

This is the final episode of Who Do You Think You Are.  Paula Deen is the perfect celebrity end the series because she more than anyone else encapsulates the essence of the show.  Who Do You Think You Are is often a deeply cynical show that masks that cynicism with melodrama, emotion, and a veneer of Americanism.  My distaste for the show goes well beyond the “mistake” from last week’s show.  In this third season, even the most genuine stories seemed a little more fake, a little more over-the-top, and a lot more manipulative in a way that the UK progenitor is not.  Worse, I often felt like I was watching an extended infomercial for Ancestry.com rather than a quality television program.

For her part, Paula Deen masks a deep cynicism with a similar geniality, melodrama, and folksy Americanism.  Her simple persona disguises a much more complicated person.  This is a woman who created a cooking empire out of nothing, but completely manages to hide her business savvy behind a veneer of ignorance and homespun humility.  But don’t be fooled; when Paula Deen faces adversity, she claws her way to the top–and it ain’t pretty.  Two examples.  First, when Deen was attacked by Anthony Bourdain about how unhealthy the food pushes actually is (hypocritical for Bourdain to lament), she turned it into a class war of attrition and following tornado-like levels of blow back, Bourdain felt sheer terror.  Second, is a little bit more complicated, because it is about her diabetes, which is a touchy subject.  I’m not one of those who (like Bourdain) blames Paula Deen for the obesity epidemic in America; she was entirely correct that she is a chef not a doctor.  Nor do I think she was under any obligation to reveal that she suffers from Type 2 Diabetes.  However, I do find it extremely cynical that she revealed she had diabetes solely so that she could be the (well-paid) celebrity spokeswoman on behalf of a diabetes drug.  Perhaps she was doing research about diabetes as she claimed, but more likely it seems like she was trying to find the right pharmaceutical company.

None of this has anything to with this week’s show per se, but the combination of show and celebrity made it hard for me to believe that anything was genuine.

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The show began in Savannah, Georgia where Paula Deen is introduced (naturally) cooking for her family because we need reminding that she is a chef.  And also she loves her family.  Deen lost her parents in her late teens/early twenties, so she never knew much about her family.  Her mother, Corrie Paul Deen (Paula’s name derives from her mother’s maiden name), came from Albany, Georgia, where Deen was also from.  One of Corrie’s sisters still lives there.  That is where Paula began her journey–a visit to her aunt Peggy Ort.  Aunt Peggy told Paula the name of her father (John Larkin Paul) and his father (John Little Paul), and lo and behold she had a photocopy of the latter’s death certificate.  Throughout the season, the opening family scenes have felt staged, but this one is perhaps the most disingenuous.  We all begin our searches by talking to our relatives, but it is beyond belief that Deen’s aunt just happened to have a copy of the death certificate lying around.  She might as well have just said, “Here’s your first clue; enjoy the scavenger hunt.”

John Little Paul’s death certificate told Deen that he was born in Georgia in 1860 and his parents were named W.B. Paul and Eliza (Batts) Paul.  With this document, Paula traveled to the State Archives at Morrow, Georgia to find out more.  Looking at the 1870 Census (Ancestry plug 7 minutes in), she discovered that John Little Paul (was it Little or Liddle?) was living with a John Batts rather than his parents.  My first guess was that this was his grandfather, and of course that was correct.  (Interestingly enough, it also looks like there was a sister who was there with him and a 14-year-old black servant named Margaret Batts who was never mentioned once.)  Because the researcher was able to find W.B. (William B.) and Eliza alive in 1870, he surmises that young John was sent to live with her relatives so that he could go to school, which doesn’t make all that much sense as W.B. and Eliza lived in the same town as John Batts.  A quick trip to the 1850 Census reveals that John Batts was indeed the father of Eliza Batts, which makes him Deen’s 3rd great-grandfather.

Now at this point given that John Batts was listed as a planter and he was wealthy, it was pretty obvious to me that he was a slave owner prior to the Civil War.  But the show does not address that yet.  Rather we learn that John Batts was a judge and a legislator in both houses of the Georgia Legislature just prior to the Civil War and was named a delegate to support John C. Breckinridge who was ardently pro-South (and pro-slavery) in the 1860 election.  You know the election that brought us Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  In other words, all the evidence pointed to the fact that Batts was ardently pro-slavery and a proponent of secession.  Every once in a while it looked like Deen had a clue about it, but then she went back to playing dumb.  It was not until a researcher showed her an actual document (in this case the 1860 Census) that proved that Batts owned slaves that she finally recognized that her ancestor was less than sterling.  In fact, he owned 35 slaves.

I want to state here and now that I do not believe Paula Deen is a racist, nor do I think she is pro-slavery.  I believe that she is genuinely upset by the idea that one of her ancestors owned slaves.  I could even grudgingly admit that perhaps she, a many-generation Georgian, could delude herself into believe that nowhere did she have slave-owning ancestors (although I do believe that it is disingenuous that the thought never crossed her mind).  But I could not believe for one instant that little speech she gave about how if she could go back in time she would try her very hardest to convince John Batts to renounce slavery.  Does this woman possess absolutely no sense of history?  John Batts’s entire wealth depended on his exploitation of human labor, and it took a terrible war and hundreds of thousands of deaths to end America’s original sin, which John Batts very eagerly committed.  I don’t think for a moment she really believed that she could talk anyone out of anything, but was rather trying to assuage her own guilt, a guilt that is perhaps understandable, but really undeserved given that she was born over eight decades after the Civil War ended.

Possibly because going farther back on the Batts family tree would not be very interesting to Who Do You Think You Are (the information is there, I checked), Deen focused on how the Civil War impacted Batts’s family.  There is a little voice over about how she wanted to find this out, but I suspect that this is where the research led the show and Deen’s desire to find out about the Batts family was directed by the researchers.

John Batts was too old to fight in the war, but his son William was just the right age, and sure enough William enlisted as part of the Twelfth Georgia Regiment.  Deen was fortunate to come across extremely well-written letters (that sadly Ken Burns did not have enough time to fit in his wonderful documentary) from William to his family.  First a letter to his father in June 1861 posted from Richmond.  William had not seen the front, and he hoped the war to end in two months.  Five months later, in a letter dated November 28, 1861 and written from the battlefront, William had a much more jaundiced view while adjusting to the harsh conditions of the battle (and sounding a bit like a poor little rich boy).  The final letter came from May 1862 from a hospital in Virginia.  William had been injured badly, but not badly enough that he could not return to the battle.  That was the last letter from William.

On August 9, 1862, William’s commanding officer S.G. Pryor wrote to his wife and mentioned that William Batts was killed in combat and buried as a soldier.  Without a coffin.  Pryor referred to him Batts as “Billy” and from that moment on, Deen also referred to him as Billy, as though she were an intimate rather than someone she had just found out about.  And indeed she seemed to feel that he knew him all her life, emoting like a bad actor about the tragic loss of such a young boy.  Her overreaction only increased after reading a letter from Pryor’s wife who wrote about how the Batts family coped, and particularly about John Batts who took the loss very badly.

After the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began, Batts formally requested a pardon from then-President Andrew Johnson, as did all the wealthiest (and most politically active) Southerners.  (This is where we got our second Ancestry plug.  Deen went to Fold3, which had been Footnote.com before the Ancestry juggernaut swallowed it up and turned it into a military records only site.)  Batts swore he freed all his slaves and employed them at a fair and proper wage.  This assertion went unchallenged by Deen and her researcher, but I wonder if it is true.  White Southerners may have been forced to free their slaves, but that did not mean they did not exploit them, all the more after Reconstruction ended Union soldiers were not there to prevent the creation of Jim Crow.

Following the war Batts did okay financially, but he appeared to have been hit hard by the Depression of 1873 that affected the cotton planters.  By 1875 Batts had nothing left, and on May 18, 1878 he shot himself in the head with a pistol.  His family had worried that he might attempt suicide because he had been depressed for some time.  Deen was absolutely shocked, and put on a show that suggested that she was terribly upset by his suicide. She claimed that her heart broke for John Batts and bet that had “Billy” survived, he could have prevented his father from committing suicide.  Ladies and gentlemen, meet Paula Deen, Historical Psychologist.

Now granted John Batts is not my ancestor, but I was far more ambivalent when I learned about his suicide.  Far be it from me to wish death upon anyone, but this man is no hero.  He eagerly exploited the labor other human beings, and he no doubt felt he had the right to mistreat them in any way he saw fit.  As a judge and a legislator he enable, abetted, encouraged, participated in, defended, and protected a system designed to keep men and women enslaved simply because of their color.  He was responsible for the destruction of families, if not on his own plantation than on the ones that he protected in his official capacity.  He helped to create a war that tore his country apart, destroyed his state, and took the lives of so many–including his own son.  And why?  To protect slavery.  Because at its essence, the Civil War is about slavery, full stop.  This whole Lost Cause/states’ rights argument came from the post-Civil War writings of the guilty who wanted to justify their racism by turning themselves into tragic heroes.  Any other explanation is pure hokum.  So no, my heart does not break for John Batts.

Deen made one final stop, to the land where the Batts plantation once existed.  In a voice over she told the camera that she hoped to find some remnant that the Batts family once lived there (as her car drove alone Batts Road).  Sure enough she found some bricks, and came to the conclusion that it was a kitchen.  What a coincidence that a celebrity chef should find a pile of bricks and believe it to be a remnant of her ancestor’s ancient kitchen.  Where slaves cooked the family’s meals.  Let’s not delude ourselves.

Back in Savannah, Deen met up with her sons, and greeted them as though she had been in another country for months rather than in a different part of the state for a few days.  She tells them that they are “deeply, deeply vested in this beautiful state.”  One of her sons (I don’t know which one) asked her if she would cook them dinner, and she said she would as they walked into the sunset.  Because she’s a celebrity chef.  In case you forgot.

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I feel like I should say something about the demise of this show even though I have already written about it.  But I come to bury Who Do You Think You Are not to praise it.  This show stopped telling history and started selling it like a product.  That approach is something I deeply resent, which is why my reviews, which were intended to be an attempt a literary deconstruction ended up being largely savage diatribes.

Ancestry has hinted that this show will continue in another form.  For my own part, I cannot imagine watching anymore of this show so long as Ancestry is in charge.  Most likely I will not be reviewing them any more either, although I will miss the hits I have gotten on this blog whenever I posted a new review.

So thank you for sticking with me.  Perhaps one day we will get the genealogy show we deserve.  Until then, British and Australian episodes of the show are available on YouTube.  And for any newbies, researching your family tree, your own personal history, is entirely worth it.  It’s a rewarding experience that will give you countless hours of frustration and pleasure.

A Happy Anniversary

Written on May 17, 2012

Today marks the 8th anniversary of the first same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts which began on May 17, 2004.  I was there for those first ones.  It is one of my happiest memories, and I am truly proud to have been witness to that moment in history.

When the Supreme Judicial Court announced its trailblazing Goodridge decision near the end of 2003, it was like a bomb went off in the country; Massachusetts was ground zero.  Suddenly gay marriage was all over the newspapers and therefore at the forefront of both national and local political debate, not to mention dinner tables everywhere.  2004 would eventually have disastrous consequences in the national election for supporters of marriage equality and the nation at large–the nadir before the inevitable climb upward.  But that was still half a year away.  In Massachusetts however, immediately following Goodridge the tension was palpable.

Given how liberal Massachusetts seems to outsiders, and that in the in eight years since marriage equality is now entrenched, it is easy to forget that the LGBT community nearly lost the battle.  It was scary at times.  The invective tossed at the LGBT community by (1) then-Governor Mitt Romney; (2) the conservative Democrats and the Republicans in the Legislature; and (3) the usual homophobic hate groups was astounding in its blatant viciousness.  Add in certain segments of the media, the Catholic Church (embroiled in its child sex abuse scandal, yet showing off an audacity that comes with a self-imposed moral authority), and large swaths of the electorate, and it felt like the gay community was surviving a siege.  There were days when I could not turn on the television or read the newspaper for fear that I would start crying.

The Supreme Judicial Court in Goodridge set a six month deadline for the Legislature to take action or else same-sex marriages would automatically begin.  The deadline date was May 17, 2004, a bit of symbolic timing.  I have no idea if the Court intentionally chose May 17, 2004 because it was the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, but I would like to think that the Justices knew and acted with that message in mind.

As May 17th approached, city halls around Massachusetts put out the word that they would not open early; no matter how momentous the occasion, it was business as usual.  The one exception, naturally, was the People’s Republic of Cambridge, which proclaimed that it would open up at midnight.  No one was going to out-progressive Cambridge.  On May 16th, I made the mistake of watching television, and the coverage of the political debate depressed me.  I wanted to hide in my room, but I thought to myself that I should go to Cambridge City Hall to bear witness and be a voice of support.  I felt it was the least I could do.  It did not cross my mind that other people would be there too.  After wavering back and forth a few times, around 10 at night, I took the T from my Brookline station into Cambridge.

In hindsight, I cannot believe how naive I was.  Thousands of people lined the street from Central Square to Harvard Square as Cambridge City Hall became the sight of the largest wedding party in Massachusetts.  This was about 10:30, and the crowd only increased as it got closer to midnight.  Somehow, despite the crowd, I ended up very near City Hall next to a man with a gigantic rainbow flag and a middle-aged, interracial, lesbian couple who complained that the only wedding song gay men knew was “Chapel of Love” (they were correct).

I texted two of my friends who lived in Cambridge and told them where I was.  Both of them, heterosexual men for the record, immediately left their home to join me.  One of them found me right away, but the other was missing in action for quite some time.  Thanks to the man with the gigantic rainbow flag and the magic of text messages, my missing friend was able to find us.

See, even though there were 10,000 happy, joyous celebrants, the loathsome members of the Fred Phelps clan oozed up to Cambridge to protest with their “God Hates Fags” shtick.  From atop the hill where I stood, we all noticed them, but rather than being the focus of ire, we saw them as ridiculous figures to be laughed at.  After all, there were about 50 of them and 10,000 of us.  And all 10,000 of us had better things to think about than their impotent rage and attention-seeking behavior.  My missing friend however, accidentally wandering into the Phelps protest thinking it was the celebrants.  “After all,” he said to me, “there were all these women holding hands.  What would you think?”  Bright boy that he is, he soon realized his mistake.

As midnight approached more and more videos cameras appeared from media outlets from all around the world.  Then in the distance, police officers in riot gear marched down Massachusetts Avenue.  They turned and walked up the stairs leading to City Hall.  “Wouldn’t it be awesome if they all went into City Hall and got married to each other?” my friend asked me.  Alas, they did not.  But they were the honor guard of sorts, lining the steps as those first same-sex couples went in.

One of the clerks came outside and said something about how people might want to go home because this would take a while.  “That’s okay,” shouted a man in the crowd, “we can wait.”  And then we sang yet another round of “Chapel of Love.”

When the first married couples finally came out they were pelted by showers of rice (and yes, “Chapel of Love” again).  I was standing at least six rows back from the City Hall stairs, and for the next two days I shed rice from my hair.

I did not get home until somewhere around 3 in the morning even though I had to work the next day.  Who wants to leave a party?

The next day was business as usual.  I walked to work, and made sure to pass Cambridge City Hall.  By this point town and city halls around the state had been performing marriages for four or five hours.  In Cambridge were a few supporters lying on the grass yelling congratulations at every gay or straight couple that left the building, but for the most part it was pretty quiet.  Nothing really to see.  The headline of Cambridge’s local newspaper read “The Sky Did Not Fall.”

The mundane morning may have actually been even more important (if less momentous) than the night before.  Nothing was out of the ordinary, indeed the sky had not fallen.  All that was different was that marriage was open to more loving couples.  As such, passing a constitutional amendment to prevent some of those couples from marrying would be more difficult.  It was because of this ordinariness (and the difficulties in getting the state constitution changed) that pro-equality forces eventually succeeded in beating back the proposed amendment.  Since that time, marriage equality has come to Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Iowa, Washington, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.  Maine and California had it and lost it (and will no doubt get it again).  There are encouraging signs in New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, and Rhode Island will join the club shortly.

In eight years that is an awful lot to be proud of.  And I saw the beginning.

The End Of Who Do You Think You Are

As I predicted weeks ago, this is indeed the final season of Who Do You Think You Are, at least as currently know it.  NBC has decided not to renew the show.  For the amount of money it no doubt costs, the network got very little return.  And given the sloppiness in research that was glaringly apparent in this past week’s episode, I cannot say I totally disagree with the decision to cancel the show.

On the other hand, Who Do You Think You Are is one of my favorite shows, and when it is done right I get tremendous pleasure from watching it.  I also love watching episodes of the UK version on YouTube, and I really wish I could them on DVD.  I am sad, and I hope that maybe another network will pick up the show, and maybe that will be an improvement in quality and a variety of guests.  If not, there is always YouTube.

Who Do They Think We Are?

In my last review of Who Do You Think You Are, a commentator who was as troubled by the episode as I was posted on my blog that she found a glaring error in the research (thank you, Vivian, I am in your debt).

To recap:  Jason Sudeikis found that his grandfather Stanley (b. 1915) was living in Chicago with his mother Michalina “Emma” (Bielska) Sudeikis and her brother Walter in the 1920 Census.  Stanley’s father, also named Stanley, was nowhere in sight.  But in Connecticut there was a Stanley Sudeikis who lived with his wife Mill and their daughter Lillian.  The conclusion…bigamy.  In 1930, that rapscallion Stanley Sudeikis was living happily with his wife and another daughter still in Connecticut, while Stanley Jr. because of his absent father began a path toward alcoholism and early death.  Stanley Sr., now of Connecticut, was found to be the son of Joseph Sudeikis, who died in a mining accident when Stanley Sr. was but a young boy.

It’s all wrong.  The Connecticut Stanley is not Jason’s great-grandfather.  In the 1930 Census, Stanley Jr. is living with both his parents, Stanley Sr. and Emma.  In other words, the two adult Stanleys are different people.  Moreover, Stanley Sr. of Chicago was living with his family in 1920.  How do we know?  Stanley and Emma had another child in 1921, a daughter Michalina.  For reference, here is Stanley Jr.’s birth certificate.  (Note that his mother was using the name Minnie at the time).  Apparently this daughter did not survive until 1930 because she was not listed on the  1930 Census (which, as we see, doesn’t mean with certainty that she died, but it is entirely probable).

The other glaring problem is that according to the 1930 Census, Stanley Sr. was born in 1896 and immigrated in 1913.  The Joseph Sudeikis who died in the mine died in 1901 and immigrated in 1884.  There is no way that they were father and son.  Jason’s episode was full of mistakes.

So there are two ways to look at this discrepancy, the kind way and the cynical way.  In the kind way, researchers made mistakes and led Jason (and the viewers) down the wrong path.  It’s embarrassing but it happens.  Genealogy often leads us on wrong paths.  For example, people who are not experienced tend to assume that the Ancestry.com hints are gospel.  The truth though is that they are just guesses based on algorithms, and I have rejected at least as many as I have used.

The cynical view though is one that I am praying is not correct.  I said last week that it is an open secret that more celebrities are researched than aired, but I am wondering if the real secret is that the open secret is a lie.  This season in particular I thought that there was some chutzpah is calling the guests “America’s most beloved celebrities” since so many of them are unknown to the population at large.  I also noticed that this season many of the guests had connections to NBC; by my count, 7 are or had been regulars on NBC television shows.  They may be more.  If you go through other seasons you’ll see that many of the other guests also have connections to NBC, not least Executive Producer Lisa Kudrow.  In other words, while promoting Ancestry and Apple, the show is also promoting NBC.

In the cynical way of looking at this faulty research, Jason Sudeikis’s story was not interesting, but he needed to be on Who Do You Think You Are to promote NBC.  Ergo the researchers fudged the facts and fabricated a more television-friendly past.

If the kind hypothesis is correct, then the researchers owe Jason Sudeikis an apology.  If the cynical hypothesis is correct, then the researchers and Sudeikis owe that apology to the viewers.

I Have Nothing

Manchester City just beat Queens Park Rangers 3-2 to win its Premier League title, and first league title in 37 years.  It was a dramatic at-the-death victory to edge hated rival Manchester United on goal difference.  Perhaps it was the only way that City, who has alternated between powerhouse and sideshow all season, could finally pull out the title and prove that the Blue Moon has indeed risen.

I have no words to describe this, because no words could describe the amazed open-mouth gape that still plays on my face.  Everyone do a celebratory Poznan in honor of City.