I Dissent

As you may know Christopher Hitchens died.  The media, particularly the liberal media, has gone into mourning.  Slate, where Hitchens wrote a weekly column, has gone over-the-top with its approbation.  I think there are over 20 memorials of some kind or another to Hitchens, all of which are glowing.  Frankly, I am surprised Slate hasn’t changed its design to a black background.  Slate is acting like a newly devastated widow.

Obituaries of the famous (excluding genocidal maniacs) are fawning by nature.  When the media loses one of its own, that’s all it can talk about it.  Remember how overboard the media went when Tim Russert died?  This is even more embarrassing.  The longer an obituary has to gestate, the more whitewashed it is.  Hitchens announced a while ago that he had terminal cancer, so the obituary writers had plenty of time to plan their purple prose.  (Do you think I am kidding?  Bob Hope’s obituary in the New York Times was written by a man who died before Hope.)

The whitewashing of Hitchens is particularly aggravating because in the rush to lionize him, his (many, many) sins have been overlooked.  No one wants to speak ill of the dead, but Hitchens committed some major sins, and they need to be brought up.  Obviously there is his unwavering support for the Iraq War and his dishonest attempts to justify it again and again whenever his previous attempts were proved illusory.  There is also his atheism, which ironically (perhaps too ironic for Hitchens to recognize) he pushed with the exact same kind of militancy and zeal as the evangelicals he criticized.

Hitchens was a pompous snob.  Despite his occasional Trotskyite leanings, he was very much a believer in a caste system and felt that he himself belonged in the upper caste (he very much ingratiated himself among the Washington elite.)  He spouted casual misogyny and homophobia whether or not he actually believed what he said.  His hatred of the Clintons was baffling and as fanatical as the Republicans who tried to bring down the Clinton Presidency.  And despite his loathing of the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalist groups, he often supported terrorism so long as they terrorized for causes he believed in.  A leftist terrorist for example could earn his sympathy and even his friendship.

Alex Pareene at Salon is the only person I have seen thus far who has dared to take on Hitchens from the left.  It’s hard to take anything in Salon seriously, but the truth is that Hitchens was no hero.  He does not deserve to be canonized just because people liked him personally and thought he was erudite.  Perhaps an astute observer might say Hitchens would agree with me.  Frankly, I don’t care.

[Update:  There have been some criticisms of Hitchens even if they are few and far between.  Not on Slate of course (the Slate style of publishing contrary articles solely for the purpose of being contrary clearly does not apply to one of their own, no matter how controversial he was), but on Gawker and on Salon.  These articles focus primarily on Hitchens’s misguided views of the Iraq War, and only rarely mention other sins.  (This post is better.)  Probably the longest criticism of Hitchens comes from that wet blanket of a human being Glenn Greenwald at Salon.  A lot of the points that Greenwald brought up were issues I mentioned in passing in this post.  Frankly it scares me that I agree with him, but since even a stopped clock is right twice a day, Greenwald too can made a valid now and then.  My consolation is my post was written and published before his so I cannot be accused of plagiarism.  Also, while post is relatively brief, one must slog through Greenwald’s novella/screed.  Given how second-rate a writer, thinker, and polemicist he is, that is no easy task.]



(The other day, I said I thought it would be really funny if someone sped up video footage of the London riots and played Yakety Sax over it.  It turns out I was right.  This is not to take away from the tragedy or horror of the problem.  It’s gallows humor.)

Anonymous v. The Westboro Baptist Church

It’s war.  Anonymous, the online hacker collective which has of late become something of an attack dog for Wikileaks and Julian Assange, has found a new target–the Westboro Baptist Church.  On February 16, 2011, Anonymous ordered the church to cease and desist all of its hateful activities.  It warned:

[Y]ou will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover.

The church simply responded “Bring It!”  I’m sure their private discussions were even classier.

Like all normal people everywhere, I have no love of the Westboro Baptist Church.  I am definitely in the minority of liberals (and probably lawyers of all political stripes) when I saw that I firmly believe that the church should lose its case currently pending before the Supreme Court.  But then again, I also believe that the First Amendment has been expanded well beyond all intention or recognition.

Anonymous, as a collective, does not seem to have any set goals other than to cause general anarchy and mayhem, although many of their activities, particularly of late, have a free speech bent–particularly with regard to Wikileaks.  Which is why this attack on the Phelps clan is very disturbing to me.  Although, personally, I would love to see the Westboro Baptist Church go down in flames, the fact that an online collective has decided what is good and what is bad, and (more importantly) has the power to do something about it, makes me uneasy.

The First Amendment does not apply here–it is a prohibition on government only.  One of my pet peeves is when people say, “I have the right to free speech” whenever someone tries to stop them from talking.  It’s not true, and they don’t.  The First Amendment limits the government’s power to act.  However, I can stop someone whose speech I don’t like by kicking him out of my home.  A business can stop him by removing him from its premises.

The reason that the First Amendment was created was the fear that good speech would be squelched because of its content by a bad government.  In 1789, only governmental authority could effectively use that power–hence the First Amendment was an attempt to stop the federal government from becoming a bad one.  As a result, speech of all content is protected–the government cannot say what is right or wrong, even when the voters want it so (or at least that is the theory if not always the practice.)

In 2011 things are much different because of the Internet.  Therefore Anonymous, by virtue of its members’ Internet skills, has the power to do what once only the government was able to do–prevent the speech of an individual or a group.  While the First Amendment restrains the American federal and local governments, it does not limit Anonymous.  There may be laws against hacking, but truthfully, no one can stop Anonymous.  Such laws only extend so far.  Anonymous is a worldwide collective whose entirety is not bound by any one code, even if select members are.

I confess to being uneasy.  We have entered a brave new world, and I am not sure I like it.

If any member of Anonymous wants to alleviate (or stoke) my fears, by all means please post in the comments.  Are my fears justified?

{edited 2/21/11:  It appears that the alleged attacks on the Phelps clan by Anonymous was a hoax.  Anonymous reasserted that it does support free speech, and stated it was not (yet) interested in the Westboro Baptist Church, which is reassuring.  Nevertheless, I hold by earlier comments about what would happen when an online collective that is not so in favor of free speech decides to strike a target of which it does not approve.}

Dissecting Nir Rosen’s Justification: Sexual Assault And The Blindness Of The Political Left

On February 11, Lara Logan, a CBS reporter, was sexually assaulted and beaten in Tahrir Square while covering the Egyptian riots against Mubarak.  She was rescued by a group of Egyptian women and the Egyptian army.  Both sides of the political aisle have issued disgusting comments about Logan’s tragedy–either personally attacking her, advancing a political agenda, or both.

The most shocking and now infamous of the comments came from the journalist Nir Rosen who wrote via Twitter: “Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson. Where was her buddy McCrystal.” and “Yes yes its wrong what happened to her. Of course. I don’t support that. But, it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.” and “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger” and “It’s always wrong, that’s obvious, but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention she’ll get.” and “Look, she was probably groped like thousands of other women, which is still wrong, but if it was worse than [sic] I’m sorry.” and “She’s so bad that I ran out of sympathy for her.”   Rosen tried to retract his statements, but the damage was done.  He “resigned” his position as a fellow at NYU.

On February 17, Salon, like the good little leftist rag that it is, gave Rosen a forum to publicly explain why he wrote what did.  Rather than apologize (or better yet, say nothing), he dug himself in deeper.*  His mea culpa made me dislike him far more than I did.  It revealed quite a bit about him personally and professionally–far more than he no doubt intended, and far more even than what his Twitter comments suggested.  He showed how flawed he is as a both a human being and a journalist.

Before I begin this post, let me say upfront that–like many people–until this week, I had never heard of Nir Rosen.  Now having an awareness of who he is, I consider him a hatemonger, and I am glad his career appears over (although no doubt in a few months he will spew his bile again in the safe confines of leftist rags like Salon or The Nation.)  The lowest form of argument is the ad hominem attack, but because Rosen has made this all about himself, both through his Twitter messages and his non-apology on Salon, it is impossible to separate him from his arguments.

Lest it be said that I am hiding what was really written (as I am excerpting), here is Rosen’s explanation in full.  (I should also link to his mea culpa–and subsequent takedown by Anderson Cooper–on CNN.)

With 480 characters I undid a long career defending the weak and victims of injustice.”

From the get-go it an insight into Nir Rosen’s ego.  Tellingly, he does not begin with an apology or regret for his comments; he begins with the damage he did to himself.  “[T]he weak and the victims of injustice.”  That is an almost superhero-esque way of describing his own work, which, on any scale you choose, is of no consequence.

There is no excuse for what I wrote. At the time, I did not know that the attack against Lara Logan was so severe, or included apparent sexual violence. Even so, any violence against anyone is wrong. I’ve apologized, lost my job, and humiliated myself and my family.”

He says he apologized, although how he did so, remains unclear (perhaps on Twitter?)  Also, note the use of the word “apparent”.  It is a weasel-word adjective that can be used to cast doubt upon its noun.  Logan was apparently sexually assaulted.  Do you hear the lack of decisiveness?  “I didn’t see her raped, therefore it may or may not have happened.”  Instead of recognizing his failings, he talks about his own humiliation and his family’s.

But I, at least, don’t want to go down looking like a sexist pig. I am not. I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of the weak anywhere in the world.

My first comment would be “too late; you look like a sexist pig.”  But that’s a cheap shot without backing it up.  However, Rosen gives the ammo in his next sentence.  Notice how he juxtaposes the people he claims to staunchly support–women, gays, and the weak anywhere in the world.  It is very patronizing.  The weak need his help!  Rosen conflates “weak” and “oppressed”, and he insults those people he claims to support.  Women are not weak.  Gays are not weak.  They are however, oppressed.  Weak is internal, oppression is external.  The oppressed need allies to help in their struggle.  The weak need people to fight for them.  Rosen’s words are extremely telling about how he views the world–he is not an ally of the oppressed, he is a savior to the weak.  And women are among those he classifies as weak.  Ergo, he has to save them.  This is how he feels about women, and that is sexism.  You don’t have to personally oppress someone to be a sexist pig.  And as a gay man, let me personally assure Rosen that I am not weak.  (Of note, in his interview with Anderson Cooper he says that he is working on the harassment of women by security forces trained by the Americans.  In Rosen’s world, that harassment could only come from America and not from the men of Afghanistan or Iraq, but more on that later.)

This is not the first time my words have landed me in trouble. I have been challenged many times on my support of resistance movements and my support of engaging with America’s enemies, and I have never and will never apologize for those stances.

This is a deflection.  Nir Rosen is still not really apologizing.  Instead, he is conflating his horrific comments with his own brand of journalism (i.e. terrorists can do whatever damage they want to a larger power because lack of might makes right.)  He is making himself the victim, a victim of a conspiracy to destroy him for being a champion of the oppressed.  But he would, because Rosen loves victims.  He associates with victims, and now he has an excuse to join them.  For the record, these “resistance movements” as he calls them, are in fact, terrorist organizations–Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and, of course, Al Qaeda.  These groups, not coincidentally brutally mistreat women, gays, and the other “weak” people who Rosen allegedly staunchly supports.  But in Rosen’s eyes they are not American or Israeli, so it’s okay.

I continue to apologize for this comment because it in no way reflects the way I feel about women or violence. Sexual assault is never funny, and it is a terrible crime. I have apologized to Ms. Logan and her family, and to victims of sexual violence everywhere.

As far as I can tell, he has only talked about how ashamed he is and how his career has been destroyed.  I don’t believe he has actually in person ever said, “I am so sorry” and then stopped talking.  (He did not even bother to apologize to Anderson Cooper for making fun of him and suggesting that he too should be sexually assaulted when Cooper interviewed him.)  I am also fairly certain that Rosen does in fact believe in violence–so long as the people he supports are the violent ones (a la Christopher Hitchens, whom Rosen also hates.)  Just read Rosen’s Twitter feed if you can stomach it.  It reveals an anti-US, anti-Israel narcissist who champions not the weak or oppressed, but rather the terrorist and the purveyor of violence.  He also champions himself above all.  My personal favorite tweet is this–“If read [sic] my book and liked it, some asshole wrote a terrible review of it on Amazon, so feel free to respond.”

So why did I write it? It was a disgusting comment born from dark humor I have developed working in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Lebanon — and a need to provoke people.

Let me translate:  “I am a jerk.  That’s just the way I am.  I worked in war-torn countries, which excuses my jerkiness.”

I have a few think tank friends on Twitter, and we often banter about the morality of WikiLeaks, counterinsurgency and other issues. When I first heard the news about Logan, I assumed she was roughed up like every other journalist — which is still bad — but I was jokingly trying to provoke one of my think tank friends on Twitter, thoughtlessly, of course, and terribly insensitively. Stupidly, I didn’t think the banter between myself and a couple of other guys would amount to anything.

Basically, Rosen has said over and over again–although in the next breath he denies it–that if a journalist is “roughed up” then it is okay.   Anderson Cooper getting beat up is fine because that is happening all over, although maybe sexual assault is over-the-top (or it is if you get caught for making fun of a sexual assault victim.)  This also proves how stupid Rosen is.  Time after time, errant Twitter comments have become the focus of nation-wide stories.  He is not the first Twitter-buffoon.  Yet those idiots who write these controversial tweets are always surprised when they get caught.

Now, Twitter is no place for nuance, which is why I should have stuck to long-form journalism.

And yet, he still maintains a Twitter account.  Two more points about this: (1) his long-form journalism is horrendous, and (2) what could he have possible said in a long-form piece about a sexual assault other than “it’s horrible.”  What more nuance is there?

And I have been frustrated by the ideological opportunists who have used this ordeal for their personal gain. People whose words have helped create and justify war and genocide are now jumping onto this issue to attack me for my previous journalism (which, naturally, I stand by). People like Jeffrey Goldberg, who has blood on his hands, and now acts like he’s never heard of me, jump in and use the disgusting situation of Logan’s assault as a lever against a longtime rival. Others include Michael Totten, Lee Smith and Jim Geraghty of the National Review, who led the crusade against me. I used a horrible situation as a way to provoke some friends. They are using it to further their careers.

Whatever one thinks of the left/right divide or of the so-called crusaders whom Rosen names (and I do not think much of them), the ego that he displays is astounding.  First, none of them are furthering their careers; they are all very well-established (particularly Goldberg).  Second, while they may be scoring political points, but (1) Rosen gave them the opportunity, and (2) he is trying to do the exact same thing by turning himself into their victim.  Third, why is using Logan’s tragedy to “provoke some friends” any less horrific or more justifiable than to advance one’s career (even if that were the case)?  It seems to me, both are equally callous and deplorable.  Rosen neglects to mention that his provocation was done in a completely public medium regardless of the intent.  In other words, he was making fun of Logan in front of everyone, even after everyone knew she had been sexually assaulted.  Fourth, once again Rosen’s ego and narcissism are truly on display here at full strength.  Again he mentions his writing (which again he says he stands by).  Additionally he casts himself into the lone voice of truth against the bloody, genocidal right-wing media.  As much as I dislike Goldberg, I think he is spot-on in his takedown of Rosen.  More of Rosen’s narcissism: it really pisses him off that Goldberg genuinely had no idea who he was before his Lara Logan tweets.

So, given the opportunity here for some nuance, I feel I should explain the point I really was trying to make. Had Logan been a non-white, non-famous journalist, this story would have never made it to the news.

This is neither nuanced nor accurate.  The savage assaults of women in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and yes, the Middle East are very much in the news.  Do we (the American public) know all their names.  Obviously not, there are too many.  What makes Logan’s story into national news however, is not that she is a white, famous, journalist, but rather than she is a name and a face that millions of Americans already know.

So why all the focus on Logan? The U.S. media did not care when Egyptian journalists (or any other Egyptian) were being jailed. Only when pretty white people showed up did Egypt really start to matter, and then, they were preoccupied with the scary Muslim Brotherhood possibly taking over, or what would happen to poor Israel now that there was a “threat” of democracy in Egypt.

First, the U.S. media has in fact reported on jailed Egyptian journalists.  It is not in the news every day, that is true, but the world is incredibly big and lots of injustice goes on everywhere.  There media tends to focus on the latest and not decades-long stories.  That is the nature of the beast. Once the riots started, suddenly Mubarak’s oppression became news again.  The “pretty white people,” as Rosen derisively calls them, showed up because Americans wanted to know about the riots–not the other way around as Rosen believes.  And this dismissal of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the fear of democracy in Egypt shows an appalling lack of historical sense about the Muslim Brotherhood and revolutions in general–which almost never end in democracy.  And of course, it always comes back to Israel.  Israel is the bugaboo of the left.  Everything in the Middle East, in the entire world, revolves around Israel.  There is this delusion that if Israel weren’t there than the Middle East would be a happy conflict-free place.  The political left refuses to acknowledge what blatantly stares them in the face: (1) everyone in the Middle East hates each other, and (2) if Israel ever let down its guard, there would be a genocide of Jews on par with the Holocaust.  Israel’s neighbors can lose a hundred times, Israel cannot afford to lose even once.

“I really have been outraged by Logan’s stories in the past, which I feel have defended American imperial adventures that cost the lives of many thousands of people in the Middle East, glorified American special forces even while they were killing innocent Afghans, and praised Gen. Stanley McChrystal, while condemning her own colleague, Michael Hastings, of Rolling Stone (because he hadn’t served his country, she said). My resentment of Logan was because I felt she was a terrible journalist who supported wars that I had covered.”

And here we go.  He is not defending what he said, but he’s defending why he hated Logan.  It’s an implicit blame-the-(real)-victim.  He has to justify his dislike of her, which he has tweeted about prior to February 15th.  It’s a cheap way of trying to get himself sympathy.

Racist right-wing pundits can say whatever they want on serious platforms, Ann Coulter can call for more journalists to be jailed in Egypt at CPAC (and be met with applause) but I made a callous joke on Twitter, a medium far less serious (I thought), and an entire mob turns on me.

In other words, Rosen believes that he is the real victim.

It’s hard not to be cynical about many of the sanctimonious responses I have received. Especially when they come from people who support every kind of American war (or Israeli war), tolerate racism against Arabs and Muslims, and — while focusing on the plight of celebrities — ignore outrages like our scorched-earth policies in Kandahar. The attacks have aimed at ending my career, but my career will endure because my work stands on its own.”

Once again he manages to tout his own writing, as well as condemn both America and Israel.  Everything he writes is self-justification, a way of placating the leftist masses whom he knows will support him, as they do Julian Assange.  The last sentence shows exactly what a muddled wreck Rosen is–first he ruined his own career, then the right-wing journalists ruined his career, then they tried to ruin his career, now they will never be able to ruin his career.  What a progression in just a few short paragraphs.

I’m baffled by the fact that 1,000 new people started to follow me on Twitter. What do they expect to read? It’s a bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture and everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight first, to be at the center of the thing that’s happening, even if there’s nothing really there.”

This rings incredibly hollow.  People go on Twitter to communicate with the larger world and to follow celebrities–even if the only cause of celebrityhood is by being a controversial figure.  If you read Rosen’s Twitter feed from before the incident you would see that he is trying to reach a larger audience.  Now he condemns people for following him.  A cynic might even think his attacks on Logan were a cynical way of getting more Twitter followers.

I hope that one day people will believe me when I say that I did not mean it and that it does not reflect who I am. I hope that people will take time to read my work and understand that I have spent my career taking a lot of heat for defending victims of all kinds, not just Arabs and Muslims. And I hope Ms. Logan and other victims of sexual violence will one day forgive me for my terrible mistake.”

See now, here is the problem.  After reading his Salon screed, I believe that Rosen completely meant it, and it does reflect who he is.  He is a believer in the cult of victimhood, and that anyone who is poor and/or oppressed cannot possibly be bad, whereas nothing that comes out of America or Israel could possibly be good.  What’s more is that Rosen has only expressed remorse about how this incident has affected his own career and how he is viewed.  I believe that deep down Rosen is glad this happened to Logan.

What strikes me most about Rosen’s sob story is that although he while uses the word “apologize” four times, he never actually said that he is sorry or that he regrets what he said on a personal level.  What I see is someone who is sorry because his career has been destroyed, and because his sanctimony has been stripped from him.

The truth is that sexual violence toward women has always been as much a blind spot for the left as for the right.  Most recently, the Julian Assange case has shown the depth of sexism and downright misogyny that exists in the political left.  Should we be surprised that Rosen is a supporter of Assange and Wikileaks?  Just as Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore, two self-proclaimed champions of the oppressed, rushed to defend Assange, so too does Rosen rush to defend himself.

No matter how into equality they claim to be, men on the left (and some women too) have always pushed women aside.  The abolitionist movement split in two because so many men would not support women’s suffrage.  During the 1960’s student riots at Columbia University, female students were shut out of the leadership by the men.  They were implicitly told to go do women’s work, while the men led the charge.  Even in the early 1970’s heyday of the gay rights movement, the lesbians (and transgendered) were pushed out by gay men.

I am currently reading a book about the great William Brennan, possibly the most significant Supreme Court Justice of the 20th century.  For years he flatly refused to hire female clerks, despite being a champion of women’s rights.  Even after he hired his first female clerk in the early 1970’s it was years before he hired a second one.

Elected female leaders are few and far between, and two of the most significant (Thatcher and Merkel) are from the political right.

The truth though is that in politics, the oppressed do not matter so much.  Supporting oppressed groups is a way of jockeying for power between the political left and right.  The American political scene has, since the 1980’s (and especially since 1994), become all too similar to that of historical Latin American.  The Latin American left and the right had different opinions on many things, the role (and power) of the Catholic church in particular, but ultimately, they two sides were mirror opposites of each other.  They used the same brutal methods against each other and against their people.  Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and the military juntas of Latin America were from the political right.  Stalin and Mao were from the political left. The French Revolution ended the reign of the Bourbons but brought about Napoleon.  The Iranian Revolution replaced the reign of the terrible Shah with the even more terrible Ayatollahs.

I feel secure in saying that Nir Rosen does not regret his statements about Lara Logan.  What he regrets is that he will no longer be an effective mouthpiece for his political ideology.  And having seen his ideology, I can only be grateful.


*  Rosen’s apology generated hundreds of comments.  From the four pages of reader comments that I could stomach (out of many more), reaction has been split between (1) those who believe (as I do) that what he wrote was a self-serving way to attack the powers-that-be and (2) typical Salon foot soldiers who “forgave him” despite never actually being angry with him at all.  Salon‘s editor-in-chief Joan Walsh (whom I blame for the site’s steady decline in quality) did not defend Rosen exactly.  She sidestepped the condemnation by issuing a tu quoque argument on the equally vile comments coming from the political right.

A Eurovision Guide For The Perplexed American Part IV

The Contestants (Continued)

Russia and the Other Former Soviet States: First we have to deal with Russia, because Russia is big, and the center of the former Soviet bloc (both in Eurovision and politics.)  Russia first entered in 1994, and every time Russia did not win, the Russians cried foul.  This is a very Russian reaction to pretty much everything.  In 1997, Alla Pugacheva entered the contest and only placed 15th.  Now, dear reader you probably have no idea who Alla Pugacheva is, but she is a legend in the former Soviet Union.  Forget Dusty Springfield, this was like Judy Garland entering Eurovision–and only placing 15th . . . to Katrina & the Waves (please, please, please stop laughing.)  That Alla Pugacheva is also a huge icon for Russian gays makes the Judy Garland connection even more appropriate.  At some point Russia decided it really wanted to win Eurovision, probably after it saw that Estonia and Latvia had already won.  In 2003, Russia sent in the big guns with t.a.T.u., the pretend-lesbian teenagers who had hit albums all over the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States.  Everyone thought t.a.T.u. was going to win.  They came in third.  Russia was pissed (in the American sense, not the British.)  A few years later (2006) Russia sent Dima Bilan, who I believe is physically incapable of performing a song without gimmicks coming out the yin-yang.  He played a white piano and midway through a ballerina rose out of it. He only placed second (the one good thing about Lordi’s victory), and again the Russians were pissed.  By this time though, Ukraine had also won the competition.  Two years later, Russia sent Dima Bilan back with even more gimmicks (such as 2006 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko skating in the background) and a lousy song that Russia marketed the hell out of to its neighbors.  You want to know how badly the Russians wanted to win Eurovision?  The entries were performed in English.  Once Russia won, the nation collectively lost interest and sent in more lousy entries, but this time without the Moscow marketing machine behind them.

As I mentioned before Estonia and Latvia had won in 2001 and 2002 respectively.  Their entries are forgettable.  In fact, pretty much every entry from the Baltic states has been forgettable except for one entry from Latvia called Wolves of the Sea, which has to be seen to be believed and one entry from Lithuanian that was so bad, I wished pain on the performers LT United.  The entire “song” was a mock-football chant: “We are the winners… of Eurovision!”  They lost.  (They were also jeered by the crowd, which never happens.)

Moldova has yet to do anything memorable, and the same would be said for Belarus if not for the spectacular bomb that is My Galileo.  Me, I love the song.  Once you understand the lyrics (admittedly no small feat even though the song is completely in English), you get that it’s actually a pretty clever pop song.  However, it is near impossible to understand on a first hearing (or second or third), so alas, the larger European audience missed out.

Ukraine, unlike every other former Soviet state, has had exceptionally memorable performances, none more so than its 2004 winner Wild Dances, sung by Xena the Warrior Princess Ruslana.  My words cannot do it justice.  Go ahead, and watch.  I can wait.  See what I mean?  In 2007 and 2008, Ukraine finished second.  Neither song was particularly good.  The 2008 one was a fairly innocuous and mediocre pop song called Shady Lady.  The 2007 song on the other hand, nearly caused an international incident.  It was performed by Andriy Danylko in his drag(?) alter-ego Verka Serduchka (it’s a little hard to tell, Verka does not look like a woman), and the song(?) was called Dancing Lasha Tumbai, which is gibberish.  The Russians heard a supposedly anti-Russsian message in the song, and (as always) they were pissed.

Switzerland: Switzerland was the first winner.  Lys Assia won with the song Refrain in 1956.  She then singlehandedly began another Eurovision tradition of former top-performers returning for a second (or third) bite at the apple when she returned in 1957 (8th place) and 1958 (2nd place).  For the next three decades Switzerland had almost no success, but then in 1988 in Dublin a French song c0-written by a Turkish songwriter (and a Swiss composer) was sung by a Canadian from Quebec wearing a ridiculous outfit apparently from Mars.  The song, Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi, won.  The singer was Céline Dion.

Malta: If you only casually watch Eurovision, you may be excused for thinking that Malta only has two pop singers, and the nation just recycles them.  If you watch Eurovision more than casually, you would know that Malta has far more than two pop singers, but they fall into two paradigms: (1) Chiara and (2) Not-Chiara.  Malta has placed second twice and third twice.  Chiara was only responsible for one of the second place finishes and one third place finishes, but for all intents and purposes there is no one else.  Without having met her or knowing anything about her life, I can say with absolute certainty Chiara is the best friend every gay man wants to have.  The 2005 edition was the first time I actually watched Eurovision and for the most part, I got exactly what I expected.  But then Chiara came on stage, in an elegant red dress and started singing Angel.  It was a beautiful song and a very simple performance.  It is a crime against nature that Chiara came in second to Greece’s generic Shake-It song.  2005 was actually Chiara’s second Eurovision; she had previously come in third in 1998 behind Dana International and the UK entry Imaani.  Chiara blessed Eurovision again in 2009 with a new song What if We.  However, in a year when both Chiara and Patricia Kaas brought their luminosity to the competition, the winner was Alexander Rybak.  It was almost enough to make me swear of Eurovision forever.  Why doesn’t Chiara do better?  Malta has no neighbors.

Portugal: Portugal is quite possibly the most mediocre country in Eurovision history.  There are no highs and few lows, but by and large Portuguese entries have in no way distinguished themselves ever.  Which is not to say they have all been bad or even mediocre.  I loved the 2008 entry and I have a fondness in my heart for the 2009 song too.  Otherwise I cannot remember any other Portuguese entry.  The strangest thing about Portugal though is that thus far the Portuguese has not formed a bloc with their neighbor/frenemy Spain.  Although Spain always got support from Andorra, they have never gotten (nor given) full support from Portugal.  This is why neither Spain nor Portugal will ever win the competition from hence forward.  What is most tragic about Portugal’s tepid songs is that the Portuguese gave the world fado, one of the finest and most dramatic musical traditions in recorded history.  Yet, as far as I can tell, Portugal has never sent a fado song to Eurovision.  If I were in charge, I would send a fadista, dressed all in black with only a Portuguese guitar for accompaniment as he or she sang (voice dripping with saudade) as though shouting headlong into the winds of fate.  The audience would be transfixed, the competition would be elevated to a level previously undreamed of, and some crap from Eastern Europe would win.

The Balkans (minus Greece) and Central Europe: I honestly have nothing to say here.  Serbia won (deservingly) in 2007 with an ethno-ballad, Hungary had a fabulous entries in 2007, and Slovenia sent in strong entries in 2001 and 2007.  The highlights of 2007 aside, this is far and away the worse region for Eurovision songs, particularly Macedonia (or as it is referred to at Eurovision, F.Y.R. Macedonia.)  It’s also the strongest bloc.

Israel: The last nation I am going to talk about, and one that I have a special fondness for.  When I went to Hebrew school, I learned songs that I always thought were Israeli folk songs.  It turns out that they were Eurovision entries that placed well.  My favorite of these songs was Gali Atari & Milk and Honey’s song Hallelujah, which won the 1979 competition.  It is a song that is so cute and sweet that it makes you want to (metaphorically) hug it and pat it on the head–all the more so after you see the performance.  Seriously, it’s cute.  This was actually Israel’s second win at Eurovision, a repeat victory.  The year before Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta won with A-Ba-Ni-Bi. It’s a nifty little song with aspirations of disco, but not nearly in the same class as Hallelujah.  A-Ba-Ni-Bi continues the strain of silly titles that runs throughout Eurovision; it is an Israeli Pig-Latin equivalent (the Bet Language) and the title is part of the song’s chorus, which translated from both Hebrew and the Bet Language to “I love you.”   A-Ba-Ni-Bi is “I”.    After the joint victories of 1978 and 79, Israel did not win again until 1998 with Dana International which I talked about in a previous post.

In the 19 years between victories, Israel had two consecutive second place finishes in 1982 and 1983, both songs I learned before I already knew before I learned they were in Eurovision.  The first was Avi Toledano’s Hora which is a good enough song.  The second was Ofra Haza’s Chai, which is fantastic, not least because of Ofra Haza’s perfect voice (although if it sounds a little like Hora, that is because Avi Toledano composed both songs.)  Chai means “alive” and the song–which was performed in Munich, Germany–is about how she and the people of Israel (which can be translated as either the State of Israel or the Jewish people) are still alive.  It came in second, but it should have won.  Ofra Haza was one of Israel’s greatest talents, and very deserving of her international fame.  Sadly, she died of AIDS in 2000.

Of all the competing nations, I do not think any have sent either the number of well-regarded pop stars or as much overall talent as Israel has.  Looking over a list of Israeli entries, I see a bunch of names that would be familiar to me even if I knew nothing about Eurovision.  The list includes Ofra Haza, Shlomo Artzi, Avi Toledano, Rita, David D’Or, and Achinoam Nini (Noa).  In 2009, Noa entered the competition with Mira Awad, a gifted Israeli Arab singer.   They sang a well-meaning but ultimately very bland “message” song.

Final Thoughts

Thus ends the Eurovision Guide for the Perplexed American.  Watching the contest is a fun way to spend half a day, and allegedly alcohol makes it better, although I have yet to test that theory.  I suggest watching it with a group of friends who are very critical and catty, but who also love camp.

There are always rumors that some American variation of Eurovision will come to these shores, but nothing ever comes of it.  There are two reasons for that: the first is that states don’t have the intense history and competition with one another that European nations do.  The second is that Eurovision is completely commercial free, which is wonderful from a viewer’s point of view and awful from a network’s point of view.  Commercials would make an already long and drawn out competition even longer and more drawn out.  Therefore it is probably for the best that we leave Eurovision to the Europeans (and company) and just watch it once a year so that we may mock that most gaudy and delightful spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

FInally, my fellow Americans, if you have any questions or comments either about Eurovision or the videos that I linked to, please leave some comments, and I will do what I can.

A Eurovision Guide For the Perplexed American Part III

The Contestants

A caveat: there is no way that I can comprehensively discuss every contestant from every nation that has competed.  Frankly, you would be bored if I did; most of them are not interesting.  Nor can I discuss the unique characteristics that each nation brings to Eurovision: most of the competing nations have fairly interchangeable styles.  This is especially true with the Eastern European nations and the Balkans (minus Greece) who have yet to get a handle on the camp spirit of the competition.

UK: We start here because it is just the most fun and the most interesting.  The British pretend not to care about Eurovision, that it’s beneath them and that it is something to be made fun of.  On the other hand, they desperately want to win again even if they won’t admit it.  No one complains louder about bloc voting than the British.  Although they have won five times, the UK has placed second more than any other nation, proving that in Eurovision, as in football, England is bound to lose.  As in football, they are also sore losers.  Terry Wogan, the radio broadcaster who for years famously provided sardonic Eurovision commentary for the BBC finally gave up because of bloc voting.  Graham Norton now does the commentary, proving that even in its darkest times, Eurovision will still be a source of gay camp.  UK entries of late have veered so dangerously close to parody that there is no doubt they deserve to inhabit the bottom slot.   Although they only finished second-to-last in 2007, the worst entrant by far was Scooch, whom I shall never mention again.

Despite its recent run of bad form, the UK has won the competition five times.  Sandie Shaw was the first to win in 1967 for Puppet on a String, a song she has always hated but will never be able to escape no matter how desperately she tries.  She also pioneered the concept of the gimmick by singing (as was her wont) barefoot on stage.  I know; I’m shocked by that audacity too.  Then Cliff Richard came in second with Congratulations, which is one of the songs Eurovision loves to pimp even though it came in second.  He lost to Massiel of Spain, who sang “La La La” (yes, I know, but the titles get worse), and he has never gotten over it.  In 1969 Lulu was one of four winners.  Her song was Boom Bang-a-Bang (see.)  Then came the 1976 triumph of Brotherhood of Man, who are like ABBA but for those who think ABBA is too hardcore.  In 1981, Bucks Fizz (named after the drink) won with Making Your Mind Up, a performance most famous for the two men in the group ripping off the skirts of the two women, revealing . . . shorter skirts.  Finally in 1997, Katrina & the Waves (no, seriously, don’t laugh) won with Love Shine a Light.  Although England has produced some good songs (emphasis on some) since 1997, they have also turned in a bunch of turkeys, with Jemini receiving the dreaded nul point in 2003.  In the past seven years they have come in last place three times.  In that time the best UK showing was in 2009 when Jade Ewen screeched her way to fifth place with a song written and played by none other than the schlockmaster himself, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber.  As with the World Cup, every year the British/English go in expecting to win, all evidence to the contrary, and every year their inflated hopes are dashed.

Ireland: The record holders for most Eurovision wins with seven, including three in a row in the early 1990’s.  Ireland was punished for inflicting Johnny Logan on the continent (twice), as hosting the competition that many times in close succession nearly bankrupted the country.  (Full confession: I don’t completely hate Johnny Logan.)  It was rumored that alcohol was freely supplied to the Irish entrants just prior to the performances in the years following Ireland’s run of victories, so that the country could recover.  In good times, Ireland does not perform well at the contest whether they send in good entries (last year’s song, sung by former winner Niamh Kavanagh) or bad ones (Dustin the Turkey in 2008).  As Ireland is now facing dire financial straits, expect the vengeful Eurovision gods to smile kindly on the Irish entry.  Everyone knows that the Irish hate the British, except apparently the Irish and the British, who routinely reward each others’ entries with maximum points.

Germany: Germany had one of the absolute strangest entries of all time with Dschinghis Khan (name of the group and the song), but no success.  Then in 1982, sweet 17 year old Nicole sang sweet song Ein bißchen Frieden en route to sweet victory.  The Germans, being German, decided that this was the key to winning Eurovision and used the same songwriter in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2003.  Needless to say that none of these entries won.  In 2006, the Germans started doing something shocking: sending good and original(ish) songs to Eurovision, most notably Texas Lightning’s No No Never (a pop country western tune) and Roger Cicero’s Frauen regier’n die Welt (a pop swing.)  Neither won, although both could have, and Texas Lightning should have.  Then in 2010, Germany sent Lena Meyer-Landrut with a very catchy song called Satellite.  There were no gimmicks, no costumes, no dancers, and no pretense.  She won.  To quote critic Anthony Lane’s take on the song in his brilliant New Yorker article (June 28, 2010), “[T]his was the first time in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest that any song has reached out and planted so much as a toe in the country known as cool.”  The Germans, being German, are sending Lena as their representative again this year.  The Germans give most of their top marks to Turkey, probably because that large Turkish population inside Germany votes.

France: Although France has, like the UK, won the competition five times, in the past few decades they have been severely handicapped because, quite frankly, they are French.  In the early 2000’s they put forward some good songs (and singers) and placed in the top 5 a couple times.  In 2009, they did something completely shocking for Eurovision; they entered an honest-to-God artist named Patricia Kaas, who is internationally renowned for singing a sort of jazz/pop/chanson mixture.  This is the equivalent of Dusty Springfield representing the UK.  France was telling Europe that they were taking this contest very seriously.  The song was amazing and the performance was one of the most powerful I ever seen, Eurovision or no.   And I don’t speak a word of French.  Patricia Kaas should have won, but the French have no neighbors who like them, and she only came in 8th.  The next year France sent in Jessy Matador to tell Europe they were done taking the competition seriously.  One other thing you should know about France–the French are fiercely proud of speaking French and get really pissed off when another language (i.e. English) is thrown into the French entry.

Spain:  Spain, always the sick man of Europe, is undoubtedly the weakest of the Big Four, and has only done slightly better than Italy.  This is not to say that Spain has produced nothing lasting in Eurovision–far from it.  They did send Julio Iglesias in 1972, and in 1973, Mocedades came in second with Eres Tú, a song that was a top 10 hit in the United States.  Spain also won 1968 and 1969.  The former was Massiel’s La-La-La (the song of Cliff Richard’s nightmares), and despite the idiotic title, the song is actually quite controversial.  Massiel was not the original singer; it was Joan Manuel Serrat who wanted to sing the song in his native Catalan.  The Franco government refused this request and when Serrat refused to sing in Spanish, the government gave the song to Massiel.  La-La-La beat Congratulations and the British have never forgiven that.  There were rumors that Franco fixed the competition in favor of La-La-La, but that is, to date, mere insinuation, probably to make Cliff Richard feel better.  Spain also won the next year, but that was the year of four winners when the UK, France, and the Netherlands also won.  Spain used to get a lot of support from Andorra which no longer participates, but otherwise is not part of an Iberian bloc (more on that when I discuss Portugal).  There are substantial factions in Spain, mostly Catalan and Basque, who want to secede and form their own separate countries.  If Spain ever wants to win Eurovision again, it should let them.

Benelux: This is something you will never hear again.  Of the Benelux nations, Luxembourg has been the most successful.  Luxembourg won five times, most famously with the Serge Gainsbourg classic Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son (1965) sung by France Gall, a legitimately brilliant song by a legitimately brilliant songwriter (although France Gall was scarred by her association with Gainsbourg.)  Luxembourg last won in 1983 with a forgettable song that beat Ofra Haza’s classic Chai.  In 1994 Luxembourg decided they would never, never return.  So far they have not.  The Netherlands has won four times.  In 1975, Teach-In won with (*sigh*) Ding-A-Dong.  The Netherlands has spectacularly underperformed since then.  They have only made it out of the semifinals once, in 2004.  Since then the Netherlands have not been in a final, which is fine because the entries have been dreck.  The Netherlands however, looks like a Eurovision giant when compared to Belgium, which finished dead last eight times, and won once in 1986 with the shoulder-padded Sandra Kim, the Chinese gymnast of Eurovision entries, who was all of 13 years old when she competed.

Nordic Countries: There are five nations in the Nordic bloc: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark.   Technically they should not be grouped together because they are quite different, but you don’t need to know that.  With the exception, of Iceland, they have all won at least once.  Iceland’s chances for victory have actually been harmed by its fellow former Vikings. Icelandic entries placed second twice, the first in 1999 with the incomparable Selma, who should have won (she lost to Sweden’s Charlotte Nilsson who sang a song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Waterloo.)  Yohanna also came in second in 2009 (she lost to Norway’s Alexander Rybak, which was awful, but which I will discuss in great detail below.)  Regardless of Iceland’s lack of wins, it can still feel superior to its fellow Scandinavians (and yes, I know that that’s not the proper term) because it has Björk and they don’t (they also have Sigur Rós, but once you have Björk you don’t need anyone else; Denmark had Aqua for a summer, but Björk is eternal.)  In 2006, Iceland sent in Silvia Night, a popular foulmouthed, narcissistic, Icelandic television host who is allegedly singlehandedly responsible for corrupting Iceland’s youth.  Silvia Night is also fictional and was a clearly a gag entry, but the Europeans were not laughing.  Her press conference (starts at 3:37) is a hoot.  The Greek audience (who thought that she has disparaged them at rehearsals) booed her off-stage which led to a pretend meltdown, including a rant about the entries from Sweden (former winner Carola), Finland (Lordi), and the Netherlands (Treble).

Only Sweden can out-pop star Iceland.  Sweden is the reigning champion of the Nordic pop because, well… ABBA.  They have also won the competition three other times, although none of their other winners has been anywhere near as enduring as ABBA.  Both Carola and Charlotte Nilsson (Perrelli) have attempted winning more than once, but multiple success was not in the cards for either of them.  Then there was the Herrey’s, who won the competition with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, perhaps the worst title of all Eurovision winners.  After ABBA, Sweden realized that it did not need Eurovision because it could produce music that a worldwide audience would not make fun of, hence such gems as . . . Ace of Base, Roxette, and Europe.

Norway has won three times, and yet still may be the worst Eurovision nation ever.  Norwegian entries have come in dead last 10 times (a record) and finished with nul point four times (also a record.)  Even Norwegian winners have been somewhat off, and that is not an easy thing to say about a Eurovision song.  The first, Bobbysocks, are fairly unmemorable, but the next one was Secret Garden.  You have heard a Secret Garden song, because you have heard Josh Groban ruin You Raise Me Up.  (Admit it, you thought they were Irish, right?  Well, actually only the violinist is; the pianist/composer is Norwegian.)  Secret Garden won with a song called Nocturne, although calling it a song is somewhat generous.  It is a piece of music that has a 24 word lyric (sung at the beginning and the end) because otherwise it would not be a song under Eurovision rules.  It was a novel way to get around the Eurovision ridiculousness aura.  If a song is mostly solo violin, you cannot complain how dumb the lyrics are, right?  Ireland had won the competition the three years prior to Secret Garden, and would win the year afterwards.  Norway interrupted that streak with . . . an Irish violinist playing faux-Celtic music.  Here is my theory: having not punished the Irish enough for Johnny Logan, the European audience intended to punish Ireland again, but got confused by Secret Garden, whom they collectively thought was the Irish entry.  It was not until they were all in Oslo the next year and very cold that they realized their mistake and went back to punishing Ireland.  (My boyfriend loves Secret Garden; you should know that.)

In 2009, Norway inflicted Alexander Rybak on the world.  Rybak’s song Fairytale is so painful that it hurts my feelings.  It also set a record for scoring the most points in a Eurovision contest.  Rybak threw every gimmick in the book into Fairytale.  It was more gimmick than song.  He pretended to play violin (apparently he is trained) and sang very badly.  He was born in Belarus, which was played up so that the former Soviet bloc would vote for him.  In the days following his victory, the European media gushed on and on about how talented he was and how he would break into even the American market.  I laughed and laughed at that.  Time has proved me right.

Finland is like Norway-lite–slightly fewer lows and not nearly as many highs (nine last place finishes, one nul point.)  In 2006, just before Lordi won, the Finns were ashamed of their entry.  Afterwards, they were proud.  Lordi went on and on about how they broke down the prejudices of Eurovision and proved that other types of music could win.  The next year Serbia won with a traditional Eurovision ethno-ballad.  That’s some change right there.  Finally, Denmark won twice, although I had no idea about that first win until I started writing this post.  Denmark has had neither the extended highs of Sweden nor the dramatic lows of Norway and Finland.  In 2000, Denmark won, and in 2001, the competition was held in Copenhagen.  2001 was a remarkably good year in terms of quality.  The good news for Denmark was that its placed well.  The bad news was that the Danish entry came in second to a horrible Estonian entry (the only really bad entry in the top ten or so.)  But Aqua performed for the audience, so yay!  A few years ago, Denmark sent in a drag queen, so the Danes definitely understand the gay camp vibe.

Greece/Turkey/Cyrpus: For the purposes of Eurovision, these are actually one country.  Turkey and Greece send in virtually the same song every year, and they are both usually “Shake-It” songs.  Greece’s entry gets the nod only because it is the song that usually rhymes “fire” with “desire” (seriously, watch for that), and because perennial entry Sakis Rouvas is hot.  Cyprus exists solely to give Greece douze points.  You think I’m kidding?  In 2006 when the competition was held in Athens, as soon as the hosts announced that Cyprus was the next nation to give scores, the (very nationalistic) Greek audience roared with approval.  This was before Cyprus announced its scores.  Turkey won in 2003.  Greece won in 2005.  Turkey’s winner was unmemorable.  Greece’s winner would be unmemorable except that she was part of Antique, the duo that represented Greece in 2001.  Antique came in 3rd and was really good–my favorites that year.  Coincidentally, Antique was not exactly Greek.  Both members were born and raised in Sweden to Greek parents.

To Be Continued

In the last part of this series, I’ll finish my run through of nations and entries, and give some final thoughts.

A Eurovision Guide For The Perplexed American Part II


It’s the new year, which means one thing: Eurovision is only a few months away.  Well that’s not all the new year means.  In fact, Eurovision is probably one of the least meaningful things about the new year.  Nevertheless, come May 14, the eyes of over 100 million will be turned to Dusseldorf, Germany to witness the gaudy, tacky, fabulous spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

Americans, if they have heard of Eurovision (and if they have it is usually the result of having friends who are either gay and/or European), are under the impression that it is an international version of American Idol.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This misconception is quite slanderous and must be eliminated as quickly as possible.  Therefore, my dear fellow Americans let me guide you through Eurovision, so that come May 14, you too will look forward to spending six or so hours on the Internet watching cheesy pop song, camp performances, and bloc voting.


The Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 and has chugged along continuously since then.  First thing is first: Eurovision is not like American Idol (or its British originator Pop Idol, or any other national spin-off.)  Those shows are all about the singers who go through round after round singing already established hit songs in a variety of genres.  Eurovision is a song contest; ostensibly the singer and the performance do not matter (this is theory of course, the reality is far different.)  As such, each nation sends one song that is sung before a European-wide audience.  The song has to be original, although most are derivative of the latest American pop.

To those who love Eurovision, it is an honor to represent one’s country.  To the British, it is a big joke.  The vast majority of performers will never be heard from again.  There are exceptions however, although exceedingly rare.  Certain performers have gone on to worldwide fame after Eurovision–so much so that even Americans know who they are.  Off the top of my head, I can think of five: Nana Mouskouri, Julio Iglesias, Olivia Newton-John, Céline Dion, and, of course, ABBA, whose song Waterloo is the unquestionable highlight of the contest’s entire history.

Eurovision songs are almost completely unmemorable.  Which is not to say that they are altogether awful.  They aren’t.  In fact, some are quite fun.  Still, most are bad.  There are the few however that do rise up to become something more.  Waterloo obviously; even if you don’t know that song, you know it.  Eres Tú was famous around the world in the early 1970’s despite not winning.  And then there is the Italian number Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu, which actually came in third, but became a mega hit (including in the United States) as Volare and covered by a multitude of different singers.  Like Waterloo, you’ve heard Volare even if you think you haven’t.

More Background

Eurovision is broadcast by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).  This is important to know because one of the first questions that non-Europeans (and some Europeans) asks is, “Why does Israel compete?  They’re not Europe!”  While it is true that Israel is not a European nation, it is a member of the EBU.  Eurovision is open to all members of the EBU, which also includes the Caucuses (Asia) and the Middle East (Asia and Africa).  While Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey enter each year, the Middle Eastern nations do not.   Lebanon almost entered once, but withdrew when it found out it would have to broadcast Israel’s entry, as per competition rules.  Morocco entered only once, the year that Israel did not.  Since then, no other Middle Eastern nation (Israel aside) has entered the competition.

Language used to be an extremely controversial subject at Eurovision, although it is not anymore.  Eurovision stubbornly presents the competition in both English and French, but the truth is that English dominates the competition and has for decades.  Ireland won the competition 7 times; the United Kingdom won 5 times and come in second place 15 times.  From 1977 to 1998, entries could only be sung in the submitting nation’s official language, or one of them if the nation had more than one official language.  (This was the so-called ABBA rule, because ABBA sang Waterloo in English three years earlier, and that made people upset.) In that time period, the UK and Ireland won 8 of those competitions, and placed second too many times to count.  No other language had anywhere near as successful a track record.  Since 1999 participants sing in the language(s) of their choosing.  In those 11 years, every winning song but one been performed at Eurovision in English or partially in English (2004).  Even that lone non-English winner, Serbia’s 2007  “Molitva”, was later recorded in English.  The truth is that the English language has dominated the competition for most of its existence, because that is the closest thing the world has to a universal language.

The Competition

The competition used to be a one-night affair, but it has simply gotten too big since for that given how many countries now compete.  Now there are two nights of semifinals and twenty semifinalists will make the grand final.  The twenty progressing semifinalists will be joined by five entries who automatically qualify for the final: the host nation and the so-called “Big Four”–the UK, France, Spain, and Germany.  The Big Four are the four biggest contributors to the EBU, i.e. they are the nations that make competition possible.  This year there will be a Big Five because Italy, another major EBU contributor, is returning for the first time in 13 years.  The whole Big Four/Five pisses off the other nations, particularly in Eastern Europe, but you know what, they don’t pay the bills.  The Eastern European complaints are actually fairly minimal; instead they take out their aggression in their voting, which we’ll get to later.

Most European nations compete in the contest, although some do not.  As I said, this year will be Italy’s first appearance in over a decade.  This year will also mark Austria’s first appearance in a while (they are only coming because the contest will be held in Germany.)  Other nations have stopped competing for reasons such as lack of interest (Czech Republic), financial hardship/lack of funding (Andorra, Monaco), or their own poor results (Luxembourg).  Liechtenstein wants to compete but it is not yet a part of the EBU.  Maybe in the future.

And then there is the voting.  One of the great joys of Eurovision, especially for the non-European, is the voting process.  It is also one of the most frustrating things about the competition.  In the early days, a jury from each country awarded points.  Now national audiences across the continent call designated numbers to vote for their favorite song.  They cannot vote for their own entry.  They have fifteen minutes to vote following the end of the competition.  (If enough people do not vote, a nationally designated jury decides.)  Then one-by-one, in a tedious yet mesmerizing process, each nation that competes in that year’s Eurovision, whether in the final or not, announces the ten songs they awarded points to: 12 (douze points) for the most top vote getter, 10 for the next second highest vote getter, then 8 points down to 1 point.  Each nation’s scores are announced by a vapid television personality or former Eurovision entrant, and the dialogue goes a little something like this (we’ll use the UK as an example):

Television Announcer:  Hello [Host City], this is London calling.  Greetings, Europe!  It’s been a wonderful competition, the best ever!  Here are the United Kingdom’s scores.  [The bottom seven are updated automatically rather than being read out.  This saves a lot of time.]  8 points to . . . Greece!  10 points to . . . Sweden!  12 points to . . . Ireland!  [Cue shot of excited Irish singer(s) celebrating and waving the Irish flag.]

The greatest humiliation for a Eurovision song is the dreaded nul point, or no points awarded by any nation after all the voting has concluded–dead last with a vengeance.  It is a feat that is rarely achieved, but the threat is always around the corner, particularly to those nations who have no natural allies in the voting.

After the winner is announced, he/she/they/it(?) goes back up on stage to collect the trophy, squeal in excitement, wave the national flag, and then reprise the winning song while the closing credits role.  When the song is over, we are (sadly) free for another year as we await the next competition which will be held in the country that just won.

The Votes

This voting is far more democratic than it was in the past.  The dark side of this voting however, and the subject of much controversy, is the voting blocs.  Certain nations are reliable votes for one another.  The most historically famous example of this is Greece and Cyprus.  The Nordic countries also have historically voted for one other.  However, as the competition expanded in the 1990’s and 2000’s (i.e. opened to the former Communist nations) there have become some very large and pronounced voting blocs.  The former Yugoslavian republics–despite loathing one another outside of Eurovision–are one example, and occasionally this includes the entire Balkan region (Greece, Turkey, and Romania.)  The biggest bloc though is the former Soviet Union: Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic nations, the Caucuses, Moldova, and Belarus.  The Baltics are not as reliable (they may go with the Nordic nations at time), but they are reliable enough.  Poland also often votes with the former Soviets.

Starting in 1999, only bloc nations won the competition.  For years, Western Europe, especially the UK, has been grumbling about bloc voting.  The voting recently changed, sort of.  National audiences still vote, but the popular vote is only 50% of the total.  The other 50% comes from a jury of “music professionals,” whatever that is.  Although this has not completely blunted the effects of bloc voting, it has eased it somewhat.  Last year, the competition was won by Germany.  It was the first time that one of the Big Four won since 1997 when Katrina & the Waves (don’t laugh) won for the UK with “Love Shine a Light.”  (Note: the concept of the Big Four did not exist until 2000, which makes Germany’s win last year all the more stunning.)  Germans took this as a sign that Europe has finally forgiven them for World War II and likes them again.  Eurovision voting is serious business.

The response to the claims of bloc voting is that the Eastern European nations as a whole, take the competition far more seriously than the Western European nations do.  They see Eurovision as a chance to prove that they are also Europe, and it drives them crazy to no end when they see the Western European nations (1) look down on them and their entries; and (2) send in obvious second-rate music.  The Eastern European nations feel ignored and slighted, and they have a point.  After all, they know our music, but when was the last time you listened to Bosnian pop?

Eurovision and Pop Music

The truth is though that for the most part (although not universally), the real Western European talent knows better than to go to Eurovision.  Losing can only kill a career, and frankly, so can winning.  The UK in particular has been a polestar of brilliant singers and bands that went on to world-wide fame, and in some cases (e.g., the Beatles), changed the direction of rock and pop music forever.  While in the early days the UK sent in some of their big bubblegum pop stars (Sandie Shaw, Cliff Richards, Lulu) internationally and/or artistically acclaimed artists like Dusty Springfield were not exactly dying to go.  The same is true of Ireland.  The post-ABBA Swedish pop that has broken into the American market, the ultimate test of hitting the big time, has done so without Eurovision.  So it is no surprise that nations with a rich and vibrant tradition of internationally acclaimed popular music do not take the contest quite so seriously.

Even now the prevailing winds of pop music shape Eurovision.  For decades it was common to see an ABBA-esque entry or two (or three, or four) every year.  It seems that nations have finally gotten the message that ABBA was a one-off, but now they (tragically) imitate whatever is big in America, and the bigger the spectacle the better.  Even when Finland sent in their “heavy metal” entry Lordi (whose 2006 win I am still bitter about), it was really just a watered-down, apolitical, pop-version of GWAR–and Kiss and Alice Cooper.  As original as Lordi thought it was, there is nothing new under the sun; the music and the gimmick had been around for decades.  It was just new to Eurovision.

Every nation has its own means of selecting its Eurovision entry.  Either there is some kind of national vote (like an Idol-esque show or a national mini-Eurovision like Sweden’s Melodifestivalen) or the winner is selected by a panel.  Another way in which popular culture has infiltrated Eurovision is the Idol-effect.  At the beginning of this post I said that American Idol (and its European variants) was completely different.  That is true, but a growing number of countries have used their versions of Idol as a way of selecting Eurovision entrants.  It makes sense to do that, and it is a natural fit, although it does set the focus on individual singers rather than on groups.

The Gay Spectacle

There is no way around it–Eurovision is complete and utter camp.  That is the joy of watching.  Eurovision is a tribute to belting, key changes, ridiculous outfits, outrageous gimmicks, gratuitous background dancers, cheesy choreography, hot shirtless guys, scantily-dressed ladies, wind machines, and above all a gay sensibility.  One of the reasons that the change in Eurovision has been somewhat painful in the last decade is that the gay sensibility is being slowly drained away, although some would disagree with that assessment.

Eurovision has not always been gay, but as the contest became more outrageous it bred a campiness that attracted the attention of a continent-wide gay audience whose influence in turn made the competition all the more fabulous and popular.  Through the years, the gay subtext was somewhat covert; it was usually apparent in the outfits and the fans. In 1996 however, the gates were flung wide open with Gina G’s Ooh-Ahh . . . Just A Little Bit, which also made the US Top Ten despite not winning.  Although there is nothing overtly gay per se about the song, Gina G made no secret about who her target audience was; she appreciated them the way that Madonna did in her heyday and Lady Gaga does now.  The next year Paul Oscar, an openly gay former-drag-performer-turned-pop-singer was sent by his native Iceland to Eurovision.  He wore eyeliner, sang about hedonism, and was surrounded by four beautiful women in dominatrix outfits.  Think Adam Lambert in a faux-glam, Bob Fosse nightmare.  Despite being surrounded by women in skimpy outfits dancing around him, there is no doubt that there was an overtly gay sensibility to Paul Oscar.  The song however, was not great and finished near the bottom.

The next year the gay sensibility triumphed over the continent as Israeli transsexual pop-icon Dana International won the competition in Birmingham, England with a high-powered dance song called (what else?) Diva.  It is one of Eurovision’s finest moments.  What had been hidden in subtext was now very much at the center, and although Dana International was a T from the LGBT, it was nevertheless a gay triumph.  It was made all the sweeter by the fact that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community went berserk, ranting about the immorality of Israeli society and of Eurovision.

From a personal perspective, the first time I heard of Eurovision was in 1998 just after Dana International won.  I did not see the show, but the news caught my eye.  The next year, I was in Israel for a semester abroad.  Although I did not attend Eurovision (and sadly had no television) I was very much aware of it.  Unsurprisingly, Dana International was also the headliner at Tel Aviv Pride that year.  Before I left the country I bought her album.

The gay sensibility has receded at Eurovision.  It is not that there have been a lack of gay entrants (Harel Skaat, who represented Israel in 2010, is openly gay) or a lack of camp sensibility–Oscar Loya, the openly gay (American) half of Germany’s 2009 entrant Alex Swings Oscar Sings, performed on stage in skintight silver pants, clearly patterned after a disco ball, all the while stealing from Cab Calloway.  (To ratchet up the camp level, Loya performed with burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who stripped down to a dominatrix lingerie complete with riding crop.)  In 2007 there was even a lesbian sensibility–Marija Šerifović, the Serbian winner.  If she is not a lesbian, then she is the butchest straight woman I have ever come across, and the performance was like foreplay in a lesbian porn movie.

Nevertheless, the gay sentiment is definitely being drained from the competition because the camp sensibility is being drained.  There is a depressing uniformity to the competition.  It’s all spectacle, but it is neither earnest enough nor self-aware enough to rise to the level of camp.

Additionally, the more often it is held in Eastern Europe, the more of a backlash there is against LGBT fans.  Already there have been problems, most famously in 2009 when the contest was held in homophobic Moscow.  Although we will be spared that this year in Germany, eventually it will boil over again when the contest goes back east.

How An American Audience Can Watch Eurovision

Although Eurovision is not on American television, it can be streamed on the Internet through Octoshape.  It’s not wonderful, but unless you go to Europe or any EBU affiliate nations (like Australia) it’s the only way to see the competition live.

To Be Continued…

The next part of this series will introduce you to the major players in Eurovision and some of the more famous/infamous entrants.  Just a heads up, if you can’t find it a link to the video in the next post, I have probably already linked to it in this one.