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Anthony Lane has a witty and terrific essay about the Eurovision Song Contest in the current issue of The New Yorker. Sadly, it’s not available online, except to subscribers. The poor man actually traveled to Oslo to cover this year’s Eurovision event. Lane writes about the ultra-cheesy but ultra-popular pan-European institution, and ponders one of the great mysteries of our era: Why is pop music from continental Europe so excruciatingly awful? Excerpt:
The music that Eurovision honors and enshrines is the music you still hear from one corner of Europe to the other. “J’Aime la Vie,” which won in 1986, and which wa sung by a girl later revealed to have been thirteen, was a hit way beyond its native Belgium, and last year’s “Fairytale” repeated the process, conquering the charts in eight European countries. But here’s the rub: European pop sounds like Eurovision pop even when it’s not from the Eurovision Song Contest. The stuff you hear i the back of Belgian taxis, on German radio, in Sicilian bars, and in the lobbies o Danish hotels: it was all created by the great god of dreck, and Eurovision is his temple. P.J. O’Rourke, surveying the dancing at a club in Warsaw in 1986, deplored what he called “the tragic lack of black people behind the Iron Curtain,” and there is no doubt that, had Motown opened up a branch in, say, Bratislava, Europe would have been a happier landmass. But the want of taste runs deeper than that — deeper, even, than the puzzling way in which pope loses every trace of kick and soul when sung in anything but English. There is, and should be, something cheesy in all good pop, but hat Eurovision delivers is flavorless processed cheese, as if it were produced not by musicians but by a cultural subcommittee of the European Union, convened in a back room in Brussels. It wasn’t that I sat there, in Oslo, longing for the Supremes or the Stranglers or R.E.M. That would have been too much to ask. I was longing for the Bee Gees.
How is it that a continent with such a rich musical and cultural history is so drecktastic when it comes to creating modern pop? You might also ask why it is that a country as rich in culinary resources as the US produced for so long Budweiser, Wonder Bread, Folger’s coffee and sliced American cheese as representatives of its mass culture. But look, we’re changing. Our people are learning to love good beer, good bread, good coffee and good cheese, and it’s getting easier to find all of that here. Within two blocks from where I sit now, in my Philadelphia home, I can walk out and buy beer, coffee, cheese and bread comparable to any I could buy on the Continent. We are discovering how to make great artisanal food. But can the Europeans ever learn how to make good pop music? If not, why not? Perhaps that’s because creating good food — not inspired food, necessarily, but good food — is a matter of technique, and following a recipe. But you cannot produce good pop music by following a formula.I dunno. Thoughts? I think “the tragic lack of black people” is probably the main factor, but the UK had no black people (in the American sense; not West Indians) either, yet they produce superb pop. If it hadn’t been for Elvis as the Bridge Between Two Worlds, would America have belonged to Pat Boone, and would we be Eurovision’d too? Help! We need a Unified Theory of Bucks Fizz (the 1981 Eurovision winners — see the abomination below, but be warned: it will suck the life right out of you):Here’s a link to Eurovision’s YouTube channel — a hathosfest if ever there was one. It’s like aural Thomas Kinkade. UPDATE: Folks, please get one thing straight: I’m not including British and Irish pop here, only pop from Continental Europe. If I have to read one more comment about how the existence of excellent Britpop disproves my thesis question, I’ll break into an off-key chorus of “Fernando.”