Saturday, December 20, 2008

Toward a Euroculture Pt. 2

Everybody wants to live in the Europe of the Eurovision Song Contest. It's garish, arbitrary, democratic, and sexy.

The contest is the most successful of the European Movement's efforts to introduce the concept of Europa ├╝ber alles into popular culture. Europe Day, on May 9, is not as celebrated as the various national holidays. But on the second to last Saturday in May, the Eurovision Song Contest draws millions of viewers from across the continent, who phone in their votes for best cheesy song.

Frenchman Marcel Baison created the first contest in 1956. A Europe-wide celebration of televised pop music could help to forge a continental identity, but it was also a marketing opportunity. For a while there were language restrictions in order to preserve some idea of authenticity, but these concerns have been dropped. Also, there are no nationality requirements, so it was perfectly fine for Canadian Celine Dion to win for Switzerland in 1988.

Acts have recently tended toward the ridiculous in order to distinguish themselves. Fifty-one countries have participated at least once, stretching far beyond Europe's geographical borders. Special priority, though, is given to the four countries who pony up the most money for the event: the UK, Spain, Germany and France.

The sound of Europop emerged in 1974 with the triumph of ABBA's "Waterloo." On the first morning of my last trip to Paris, I heard this song as I woke up jet-lagged in a youth hostel in the 15th arrondissement. This is as good a candidate for a European anthem as "Ode to Joy." It commemorates the end of European unity through militarism and announces a surrender to the binding forces of love.

Last year, with the event scheduled to broadcast from Belgrade, riots swept the Serbian capital following Kosovo's declaration of independence. But the event prevailed, with beefed up security for the Albanian, Israeli and Croatian delegations. The contest went off without incident, and Russia's Dima Bilan took home the prize with an earnest-but-animated rendition of "Believe." Maybe trashy pop music can function as a panacea.

2009's event will take place in Moscow, in keeping with the custom that the previous winner's home country gets to host the contest. This presents problems, and not just monetary ones, since the resurgent Russia has criticized NATO presence in its midst and apparently will not consider membership in the European Union. The proceedings this year will emit a miasma of geopolitical intrigue that is sure to heighten interest.

Only soccer tournaments can claim the sort of supranational appeal that Eurovision does. It's the closest that the one billion Europeans have come to cultural communion. Of course, culture will follow economics. When financial borders have been as permeable as they are today for a whole generation, then a sort of European identity may emerge.