The Olympics of Cheese

A Continent's Best Bad Music Battles It Out at Eurovision

On May 13, 24 countries will send dignitaries to Stockholm, as the Globe Arena hosts a landmark in European history. Tickets sold out in mere hours, and the organizers have threatened to hold a "sparkling and colourful event." With emissaries named Brainstorm (from Latvia) and Ping Pong (from Israel) invited, they may be right.

Though naive analysts might point to the 1957 Rome Treaty or the 1991 Maastricht Treaty as pivotal moments in the European unification process, smarter ones know that the true ground zero was April 6, 1974, when the obscure Swedish band ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest. So when Sweden's Charlotte Nilsson triumphed in 1999, exactly 25 years later, she commemorated that epochal night when ABBA redefined Europop as both an alternative to American rock and something exportable all over the world.

While Eurocrats have spent decades working out the kinks of a single market, since its creation in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has effortlessly established that garish pop music knows no borders. On paper it's all very simple. Each country begins by selecting a song. (Preexisting fame usually doesn't help, and very few established stars take the risk of entering.) The songs are all performed in the annual event, broadcast across the continent. The entire second half of the show is taken over by protracted voting procedures, during which each capital calls in points. The winning country plays host the following year. But this doesn't accurately reflect the glorious mess that is Eurovision. The contest shares with the European Union's governing body a taste for rules and guidelines shrouded in mysterious agendas, then adds to the mix even more mysterious issues of regional taste in crappy pop music. It's a lethal combination that can only lead to trouble—and fantastic, gripping live television.

To begin with, eligibility itself isn't obvious. Though only members of the European Broadcast Union can enter, they don't technically have to be European—Israel has participated since 1973. In addition, not all members decide to partake, and contestants don't even have to be from the country they sing for. Australian Gina G. once carried the British flag; tiny Luxembourg, always hospitable to musical mercenaries, has entered everybody from Greek Vicky Leandros to the Spanish act Baccara, who interpreted "Parlez-vous Français?" with a sexy accent suggesting that they themselves did not.

Rules regarding the number of performers allowed onstage or the language the songs can be performed in keep changing, and the scoring system has been altered seven times. Conspiracy theories about rigged votes and behind-the- scenes alliances are part of Eurovision lore, but most likely the foul-ups were due to basic ineptness. While politicians were busy cooking up joint nuclear concerns, Europe's technological shortcomings were tragically demonstrated as year after year the EBU struggled to maintain phone connections between dozens of international capitals. Technical mishaps usually resulted in a puzzled host blinking at the scoreboard and inquiring, "Oslo, was this three or four points for Ireland?" or "Ankara, I can't hear you." But ultimately, winning has never been the real point. Just as the Academy Awards are all about gowns, Eurovision is about geopolitical speculation, in-depth analysis of Maltese chord progressions, and fabulous Tirolean lederhosen.

In many ways, the contest is everything ol' classy Europe isn't supposed to be: gleefully stupid, chaotically disorganized, aggressively tasteless. Elegance succumbs to fashion faux pas and misguided gimmicks; way back in 1957, a Danish contestant showed up in a naval uniform. He's been followed by everybody from a Yugoslav duo bedecked in Renaissance Faire gear and a Belgian couple in cobalt blue flared jumpsuits to ABBA's conductor dressed up as Napoleon, leading his satin-clad troops to "Waterloo" (good thing France wasn't participating that year).

The songs easily match the outfits' high style. From the beginning, the competition has countered imperialist American rock with home- grown music capable of only two modes: torchy and frantic. Eurovision embodies Europop at its brazen finest, and its history is littered with gems: Sandy Shaw's creepily perky "Puppet on a String," the Spector-ish wall of sound of France Gall's Serge Gainsbourg-penned "Poupé de Cire, Poupé de Son," the crazed disco of Israel's army-trained Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta, the delicious confections of Buck's Fizz. (Unfortunately, the contest has never been broadcast in the U.S., so American pop fans have to make do with imported compilation CDs such as This Is . . . Eurovisionand herky-jerky RealVideo clips.) Because they must be instantly memorable in order to woo voters across borders and languages, melodies are straightforward, lyrics of the "la la la" school abound, and performers often favor one-word monikers—1982 contestants included Kojo, Chips, Stella, Bardo, Mess, Asha, Neco, Doce, Lucia, and Brixx. But few acts succeed in establishing a distinct identity, and a lot of people refer to them by their country's name, as in "Denmark rocked in 1989."

There's also the entertainment value of political concerns, like Austria uncharacteristically taking the high road and refusing to travel to Franco's Spain in 1969, or Turkey and Greece not always agreeing to share a stage. Influence in physical Europe means nothing: Economic powerhouse Germany has won only once, perhaps because of a propensity to lapse into disco romps about Mongol conquerors, as it did in 1979 with Dschingis Khan's "Dschingis Khan."

Sadly, some think Eurovision's glory days are long gone. Globalization has brought on a certain homogenization, and the songs don't have as much local distinctiveness as before. Technical progress has also seriously cut down on the endearing problems that regularly plagued the simulcast. But the contest can still throw the odd curveball, like Israeli transsexual Dana International's victory in 1998. So the show is as popular as ever, so uncool it's cool. This year the hip Parisian label Tricatel was approached by Hologramme—"four very nice young people," says the label manager, "who dreamed to enter the Eurovision, and could we please help them. And they had never sang before!" Inexplicably, Hologramme didn't survive the French elimination process.

Despite Hologramme's absence, Eurosong 2000 looks auspiciously dazzling. How could it not, when it's going to feature Estonia singing "I'll be an angel in disguise/'cause I'm 17 only once in a lifetime"? Best of all, the U.K.'s entry is provocatively titled "Don't Play That Song Again," which by the end of the evening may have replaced "Norway: null points" as everybody's favorite mantra. Once again, kitsch will overcome mad-cow disease and NATO disagreements to act as Europe's great unifier.

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