Looking For Looking

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: no one looks good with a mustache.  I have no idea what they were thinking in the 1970’s, but I assume it had something to do with drugs.  Mustaches make their wearers look like pedophiles, ethnic stereotypes, or in the most generous circumstances, kindly uncles.  There is nothing sexy about the mustache.

On the new HBO show Looking, Murray Bartlett plays Dom, a 39-year-old waiter entering a mid-life crisis.  Bartlett is an absolutely gorgeous man (do an image search for him; I’ll wait), yet for weeks, I did not realize how gorgeous because Dom sports a mustache.  Nor I did not realize that Bartlett played (the small but important role of) DK on Farscape, a show that I love.  I blame the mustache.

The mustache is one of only two issues I have with Looking.  My second issue is that there are only eight episodes, and I want more–all the more urgently as Looking has low ratings, and HBO has not yet renewed it.

Looking, based off of creator Michael Lannan’s short film Lorimer, centers around a group of gay friends in San Francisco.  Andrew Haigh, a writer, director, and co-executive producer on the show, had previously come to prominence with his film Weekend, which told the story of two gay men in Nottingham, England who hook up on a Friday night and spend the weekend together.  As Weekend is one of only a few truly great gay-themed movies, there was much anticipation about Looking.  Gay-centered television series are rare, and fewer still of those have been worth watching.  As such, expectations were heightened to unrealistic levels, especially for a show as subtle as Looking.  Unsurprisingly, the show has been trashed by many of the loudest gay voices in the room despite general critical approval.

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Ever since Lance Loud appeared on An American Family in the early 1970’s, gay men have had some kind of television presence.  In the United States this presence has been decidedly mixed, especially in contrast to the British.  The brightest star of gay television, Queer as Folk, was a terrific British show before it became a terrible American one.  The original Tales of the City miniseries was a Channel 4 production.  Showtime and Channel 4 co-produced the mediocre-but-watchable More Tales of the City, and Showtime alone produced the unwatchable Further Tales of the City.*  The problem with American gay-themed television (the discussion in this essay is specific to gay men rather than the full LGBT spectrum) is that shows try to be important and meaningful rather than good.  The two most prominent examples are Will & Grace (W&G) and the American Queer as Folk (QAF-A).

W&G was bitchy, campy, stridently pro-gay in message, reliant on exaggerated stereotypes, and startlingly sterile.  The reason for the latter, we were told, was that intimate physical contact between two men might irreversibly alienate those little, old lady viewers in Kansas and Nebraska.  Even though Will (the A-gay) and Jack (the camp queen) were virtual eunuchs, they were on network television (NBC) and were therefore changing hearts and minds.  This self-congratulatory canard always irritated me, never more so than when it was repeated by Joe Biden in 2012.  At best, W&G was a step sideways not forwards.  Yes, there were gay characters on television, but was it truly a net positive when the show was a gay Amos ‘n’ Andy?

In one important way, QAF-A corrected the sins of W&G.  Because it was on Showtime rather than network television, there was not only kissing between two men, but also copious, graphic, soft-core, man-on-man sex featuring the occasional, visible penis.  Forget the little old ladies in Kansas and Nebraska; QAF-A’s intended audience was gay men (and younger heterosexual women).  The characters of QAF-A were not any better developed than the archetypes–or stereotypes–of W&G; there were just more of them.  There was the (handsome) central character, unashamedly sexual and irresistible to all; the (handsome) geek best friend; the (handsome) newly-out kid; the (handsome) camp queen; the (handsome) ugly, self-conscious guy; and the older guy with AIDS–who died and was replaced by the (handsome) younger guy with HIV.

Although, QAF-A was acutely aware of the present,** in most meaningful ways the show’s outlook was a relic of an earlier era, specifically the 1980’s.  Where W&G revolved around a gay/straight friendship, QAF-A was tribal.  Despite the presence of supportive straight characters (such as the overbearing, fag hag mother), the heterosexual world of QAF-A existed to relentlessly oppress the gay community.  While it is true that QAF-A-era America was not nearly as good for gay people as it is now (DOMA and DADT were still in force, no state had marriage equality until late in the show’s run, George W. Bush was President), the us vs. them mentality of the show was akin to the anger of early AIDS activism and the street theater of ACT-UP.

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Given that the there were varied and strong opinions about W&G and QAF-A, it should come as no surprise that there are varied and strong opinions about Looking.  The most complex and sustained criticism of Looking is that the show is boring.  One hears this from many corners, but the loudest voices have been at Slate, specifically from the gay men at the Outward blog, who enjoy taking potshots at the show (some sillier than others).  This “boring” complaint however, needs to be unpacked.  Looking is indeed slow and deliberately paced, which I enjoy; others might not.  But the cries of boring from Slate are disingenuous; their true complaint is not about Looking‘s artistic merits but rather an anger that they do not see themselves reflected in the show.

Before addressing this anger, I want to defend the show’s stylistic choices.  Looking is heavily influenced by Weekend, which in turn is indebted to the Richard Linklater masterpieces Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two movies which are very slow, very deliberate, and very dialogue-heavy.  The movies may not be for everyone, but the boy-meets-girl love story is still universal.  Weekend changed boy-meets-girl to boy-meets-boy but proved that a movie with a gay love story at its center can also be universal.

Looking too strives for the universality of its predecessors.  (The show makes its Before Sunrise and Weekend connections explicit in its fifth episode “Looking for the Future.”)  Patrick, Agustin, and Dom are gay just as Jesse and Celine are straight, but that does not mean only gays can enjoy Looking or only heterosexuals can enjoy Before SunriseLooking aggravates its critics because it lacks fidelity to the tropes found in other gay television shows such as the closet, coming out, camp, marriage equality, AIDS, politics, and homophobia, even as some of these topics were addressed in “Looking for the Future.”

It is precisely because Looking’s focus lies elsewhere that the gays at Slate dislike it.  Take for example Tyler Lopez, who wrote that, “Looking somehow eschews any acknowledgement of advances in LGBTQ equality, presenting San Francisco as a dreary post-DOMA dystopia where gay men worry more about foreskins than politics.”  One might ask what exactly is so dystopian or dreary about gay men living openly, honestly, and untroubled as gay men?  Or why discussions related to sex and love, as opposed to politics, are frivolous?  Does Lopez seriously believe there is more of an obligation for a show to be didactic than to strive to be a work of quality?  Finally, what exactly is so wrong with a Virtually Normal universe in which gay people have successfully assimilated into society?

Assimilation is, of course, the looming yet unspoken fear lurking behind the “boring” complaints.  Distaste for assimilation lies between every line of the most infamous hit piece on Looking, Bryan Lowder’s caustic review on Slate.  Undeniably, Lowder is very well-versed in queer culture, a rarity these days, even among gay writers.  He also has a fine appreciation for camp, so much so that he wrote a sixteen part treatise on the subject, in which he incisively tore apart what had been the seminal work on the subject, Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.'”

Lowder, perhaps as the defender of camp culture, takes it upon himself to play the contrarian to the overarching narrative of gay assimilation.  He has therefore written critically about what the LGBT community embraces, for example Tom Daley and Jason Collins, same-sex marriage (multiple times), the boycott of Barilla pasta, Steve Grand, and (although I cannot find it), Weekend.  Given this history, it should come as no surprise that he dislikes Looking.  That, of course, is his right, but I find his reasons for disliking the show more interesting because it says less about Looking and more about the seismic changes to gay culture–changes Lowder clearly resents.

Lowder begins his review with a complaint on the artistic merits of the show: “Looking is so boring, so utterly flat in terms of narrative or characterization, so in need of occasional pauses in which to perform a few jumping jacks to bring one’s heart rate up to resting, that I would opt out entirely if we gay men—or at least gay male culture critics—weren’t contractually obliged to watch.”  Lowder is no doubt trying to be clever; perhaps it is his attempt to achieve that perfect queeny snap.  His cleverness fails him however; his barb was uninspired, and he himself acknowledges that his real problem with Looking “does not stem from aesthetic disagreements, at least not entirely.”

What really bothers Lowder is his belief that Looking is “a show that amounts to a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights.”  Lowder continues that, “the show eschews elements that might be seen as artful or entertaining and instead depends on the peculiar idea that gay audiences should find ‘joy’ in watching gay characters move from one (maybe slightly stressful) quotidian situation to the next.”  Lowder dismisses these so-called “quotidian situations,” by saying:

All these issues have been openly discussed within the community for decades now, with a level of nuance and intelligence that, frankly, seems hopelessly beyond the kind of grown gay men who, as we see in upcoming episodes, have nervous breakdowns about foreskin or titter like teenagers at an institution as venerable as the Folsom Street Fair.

His conclusion is that, “[i]n attempting to escape the dreaded ‘stereotype,’ Looking has run headlong into something worse—a cynical tokenism, a gay minstrelsy of another kind.”  In Lowder’s view, the characters on Looking are sops to a straight world (and a gay one) that refuses to accept gay men who do not ‘act straight’.  Previous generations of gay activists protested stereotypes such as the self-loathing queens of Boys in the Band, the BDSM leather serial killer of Cruising, the hedonists of Queer as Folk (American and British), and, most dreaded of all, the effeminate, camp sissy who found his widest audience as W&G’s Jack.***  Lowder, an opponent of gay assimilation, upends those old activists; he rejects the ‘straight-acting gay’ by tapping into the activists’ same primal fear: what will straight people think of us?

Yes, straight critics and viewers seeking liberal cred will find an easy tool here; Looking is, after all, gay without any of the hard parts (dick included), gay that’s polite and comfortable and maybe a little titillating but definitely not all up in your face about it. And in that, the show may represent the greatest victory to date of those who strive not for the tolerance of queerness in straight society, but for its gradual erasure as we all slide toward some bland cultural mean. Beneath the modern platitudes like love whoever you want and all families are beautiful, there’s a quiet, insidious demand that you blend in as quickly as possible. Don’t harp on the struggles of coming out beyond gay meccas, don’t complain about rampant homophobia and increasing gender policing, don’t lament the ongoing health crisis in your community—that stuff is too old-fashioned, too dramatic. Because some gay people can get married now, we’re past all that. And anyway, it gives your so-called allies a case of the sads.

You see, released in this moment of assimilation, Looking cannot just be a show about a specific circle of gay men; it is also unavoidably a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look—butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.

Whereas previously, generations of gay men feared that straight people would reject us for thinking we are different from them, Lowder worries that straight people will reject us after realizing we are different.†  Lowder does not actually think Looking is boring; he thinks it is dangerous because it gives straight people a false sense of security.  In effect, Lowder inverts the assimilationists’ old argument and uses it against them.

Ironically, in making his argument Lowder proves to be as judgmental toward assimilated gays as he believes they are toward his beloved camp culture.  Lowder rejects out-of-hand as unworthy and oppressive any portrayal of gay life that is not a stereotype, particularly the queen who has “already sashayed on over to the isolation of Logo.”  He never entertains the possibility that there exists gay men who are like the characters on Looking and that they should be able to see an honest portrayal of themselves.  No, they are a fiction invented to appease the straight world.

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Others have taken also issue with Lowder’s criticism of Looking, but I have not yet seen anyone examine the culture clash fueling his vituperative attitude toward the show and gay assimilation.  Without engaging this background, any response to Lowder is only half complete.

Lowder, though in his mid-20’s, is a throwback to an earlier era of queer men whose culture was almost exclusively camp.  Perhaps the one thing that Lowder and Sontag agree on is that camp culture is largely the domain of gay men.  These are the gay men who worshiped Judy and Liza; who quote All About EveWhatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest at length; who says things like, “Mary, please!” or “Get her!” to and about other gay men; and who will ensure that once the parade finally passes by Madonna, she–unlike Norma Desmond–will still have an audience to wave to.

What Lowder refuses to recognize–even if the insinuation is the eight hundred pound, pink gorilla in his queer culture think pieces–is that his beloved camp is the culture of oppression.  Camp served as a means of communication and identity for gay men in bad times, which was most times.  That is why much of camp is about the covert, the unintended, and the subversive.  Yet oppression cannot always be at the center of one’s communal identity, especially in the face of acceptance.  Camp is repellant to many gay men because of its inextricable association with the bad, old days.  For these men, camp is something to escape not embrace.

Lowder’s first essay in his series on camp is titled “Camp is not dead.  It’s alive, well, and here to stay.”  That Lowder even has to defend camp’s existence is a clue that his opponents have been largely successful in shunting it to the side.  Of course Lowder is correct; camp is not dead because concepts cannot be killed.  Nevertheless, the conception of camp has been altered by assimilation and mainstream acceptance, and now the gay communal perception of camp has shifted from a positive to a negative.  A queer culture that previously had no alternatives except camp or closet is being outnumbered by a new majority with many alternatives.  Looking is self-consciously not camp, which is why it is both threatening and horrifying to Lowder.  He is fighting the rearguard in the battle against assimilation, and it is a losing battle even if he cannot admit it outright.

The marginalization of camp culture is tragic.  Much great art in modern history is a product of or bettered by camp.  Camp is also a lot of fun, which is something assimilationists refuse to recognize.  Marginalization however, is inevitable–even natural–for two related reasons: (1) the expansion of the visible gay community; and (2) the rise of a new generation of gay men.  Due to expansion, the gay community has become so multifaceted in recent decades, that the monolithic gay community has been shown up for the myth that it is.  In earlier times, camp had largely, but not exclusively, been the domain of an affluent, educated, urban, urbane, white, gay, male culture.  That was the dominant gay male culture simply because if such men were not out exactly–although many were–they lived in glass closets.  Camp was the culture of those who could not or would not hide and who suffered for it.  Therefore, this practically homogenous gay community was “the gay community” simply because they were visible.  As it is now easier to be openly gay in much of the country and in many more walks of life, a larger number and percentage of out gay men both within and outside of that demographic have the luxury of rejecting camp.

The second reason why camp culture is fading is due to generational replacement.  In gay life, as in the world at large, each generation rejects what the previous one held dear.  Take, for example, Judy Garland, the quintessential gay icon.  On Towleroad.com, the question was recently asked about whether Judy still matters, and the animosity aimed at her in the comments section was stunning even for Towleroad.  For older generations of “Friends of Dorothy,” Garland was a figure of enormous importance.  Her career in general and “Over the Rainbow” specifically were at the very heart of gay culture, never mind camp.  The are rumors that the rainbow flag, the symbol of the LGBT rights movement, was inspired by “Over the Rainbow,” and of course, the Stonewall Riots began the night of Garland’s burial.

Yet, a large portion of at least two generations of gay men either know little about Garland or reject her entirely.  It is not hard to explain; whereas Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, etc. court gay fans, Garland rarely (if ever) acknowledged hers.  Garland’s lack of acknowledgment is important insofar as it starkly contrasts to the present day where it is okay–even expected–for mainstream superstars to openly love their gay fans and speak out for gay rights.  Ergo, young gays who might have turned to camp to participate in the cultural dialogue reject it because it is old and because they have been embraced by mainstream culture.‡  Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” may not be a good song, but its positive message to young gay boys is overt.  Compare that to “Over the Rainbow,” an objectively better song that will be covered for decades (at least) after “Born This Way” is long forgotten.  There is no specifically gay message in “Over the Rainbow,” but it spoke to gay men so they infused their own meaning into it.  Young gays do not need to do that anymore, and camp is robbed of its purpose.

Looking is representative of these larger shifts.  For the first time, gay men have a show which reflects how absorbed into the mainstream they have become.  The characters are not classical archetypes; rather their normative experiences are colored by the fact that they are gay.  This is a huge victory for assimilationists, and it is threatening to cultural arbiters like Lowder because their hegemony over the culture is ending.

For my part, if this means good storytelling with interesting characters, then I do not fear the change.  But please, no more mustaches.

Footnotes: 

* The original Tales was superior for many reasons, not the least of which was Marcus D’Amico as Mouse (Michael Tolliver).  The clean-shaven D’Amico was replaced by Paul Hopkins who sported an authentic 1970’s-style porn mustache.  While Hopkins more closely resembled the book description of Mouse (and therefore author Armistead Maupin), again, mustaches never make anyone look good.

** One particular incident stands out for me.  In 2001, Andrew Sullivan was publicly identified as the poster of an anonymous personal ad seeking condomless sex, which, in fairness to Sullivan, clearly acknowledged his HIV+ status.  This was back when we were all still supposed/allowed to hate him for his support of the Republicans and his criticism of the gay left. (This was also before George W. Bush announced that he favored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was Sullivan’s come-to-Jesus moment.)  In January 2002, an episode of QAF-A, subtly titled, “Hypocrisy: Don’t Do It,” introduced a gay, conservative writer who railed against wanton, gay, sex culture, only to be discovered at a bareback party.

***  In the last two decades, the culture has added another stereotype, the ‘straight gay,’ a handsome man who lacks stereotypical gay mannerisms.  Eric McCormack’s Will in W&G and Justin Bartha’s David in the short-lived The New Normal were classic straight gays as are the characters in Looking.  Before Looking this character existed primarily to set up the jokes of his more flamboyant partner thereby making the straight gay the straight man.

† This is a common fear that all minority groups have when they know the majority is watching them, perhaps most famously encapsulated by the phrase, “But is it good for the Jews?”

‡ This is not universal by any means.  Although the new generation of gay men is coming out to far more acceptance than previous ones, that is of little comfort to those individuals who are rejected by their families and communities and who face possible physical or emotional trauma.

Major Eurovision News

Dana International is back!  Yes, everyone’s favorite transsexual pop icon is back in her milieu, and representing Israel again.  Her song is a good dance/club song called *snicker* “Ding Dong” (which is not to be confused with Teach In’s “Ding-A-Dong” from the 1970’s.)  I’m sorry Lena; I love you and all, but Dana is Dana.

Pure gay bliss.

Eurovision champions and top finishers have a habit of returning for another bite at the apple.  This has been going on since the beginning, and I’m uneasy even when my favorites come back.  Only Johnny Logan has won twice.  Usually the second (or third) time is a poorer finish.  ABBA (wisely) never returned.

An Open Letter To Lady Gaga

Dear Lady Gaga,

Love you, really I do.  You’ve done more for LGBT equality than all of the Gay Inc. organizations combined.  I don’t begrudge you any of your success, and I even bought a few of your songs on iTunes.  Unlike the other pop princesses who pay lip service to LGBT rights, you actually do something about it, and that’s commendable.

I just listened to your new single Born This Way, and yes, it is going to be the new gay anthem to be played in gay dance clubs for the next five years at least.  I am sure it will also play in gyms across the country (including mine.)  But Gaga, between you, me, and the millions of other people who have noticed this already, your song already was a gay anthem back in 1989 when it was called Express Yourself.  Please stop ripping off Madonna.  It’s been pretty obvious for some time; I was just too polite to say something.

If you start dancing in front of burning crosses, kissing a saint, and giving yourself stigmata while a gospel choir sings in the background, I may have to reconsider our relationship.

With love,

Solitary Muser

Great Idea For A New Act

This one is going to be hard to pull off, but I think it’s worth it.

We get Cher to go back on tour.  I don’t know how we get Cher to go back on tour, but it is absolutely essential.

Then we get a Cher drag queen to go on tour with Cher.  They sing songs together, banter etc.

The act is called . . .

Cher and Cher-Alike.

 

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

Introduction

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.

History

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.