'De-doo-bop-a-lula' as the bombs rain down

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GEOPOLITICAL significance of the Eurovision Song Contest has often been ignored by columnists. This is probably because of middle-class snobbery and a belief that the competition entries consist of little more than an Esperanto chat-up line from Club 18-30 holidays - 'Hola]' or 'Loff me tonight]' or 'Yes] Yes] Yes]' - screamed to a four-bar rock beat.

It is true that the Eurovision Song Contest - the 37th staging of which takes place in Ireland on Saturday - is seriously misleading as a guide to the development of music: most of the Nineties songs obey the compositional protocols of, at best, the Seventies. But the entries offer a useful annual clue to the political temperature of Europe. Just as the insides of an animal can be routine to a butcher, exotic to a cook, and exciting to a soothsayer, so the Eurovision Song Contest can be as revelatory as a copy of the Economist, if only you know how to use it.

Although its original motivations are now as muddied as those of the Olympics, the yearly festival for the tone-deaf was intended, when set up in 1956, as an annual celebration of post-war European unity. Quite how a competition might promote coherence was never properly explained, but some pun on the idea of 'harmony' may have been intended. Unfortunately, the first crop of jolly songs delivered in spangly costumes coincided with Suez, the escalation of the Cyprus crisis and the crushing of the Hungarian revolt. So the Eurovision Song Contest became a compilation of Western European music. Subsequently, however, the Eurosongs have faithfully reflected the unities, tensions, optimisms and pessimisms that have tarnished the idea of a united Europe. This has been true far beyond the most obvious applications of extra- musical politics, like the habit of France and Britain and Greece and Cyprus to give low scores to each other's entries.

During the period of high international tension and nuclear gloom of the late Seventies and early Eighties, a large proportion of the entries would either contain the word 'Peas]' (international lyric-ese for the absence of war) or be performed by teenage girls with guitars, their moony ballads expressing sentiments like 'Shine, Mister Sun]' or 'Pussycats Don't Kill Each Other]' Typical of the Cold War Eurosong was Belgium's 'Laissez Briller Le Soleil' (Let The Sun Shine), while Norway represented the nuclear-enviromental strain with 'For Var Jord' (For Our Earth).

From the 1989 and 1990 contests onwards, in the period of Gorbymania and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a noticeable reduction in the number of pleas for 'Peas'. The beat was still monotonous, but the lyrics were upbeat. France, it is true, was represented by an 11-year- old girl in 1989, but she was singing 'I Stole Life]', a post-nuclear celebration of survival. Belgium's effort of that year hymned having come 'Door De Wind]' (Through The Wind]) and Norway gloried in 'Venners Naerhet' (The Closeness Of Friends), while Denmark promised 'Vi Maler Byen Rod' (We'll Paint The Town Red.)

By 1990, the songs were so positive, so joyous in their anticipation of a united Europe, that it was possible to envisage their release on a compilation album called Jacques Delors Entertains For You. Finland's ditty was 'Fri]' (Free]), Austria's 'Keine Mauern Mehr' (No Walls Anymore), while Italy's 'Insieme: 1992' (All Together: 1992) was an EC anthem waiting to happen. Even Israel, which had an almost unbroken history of 'Peas' songs, broke out that year with 'Shara Barechovot' (Singing In The Streets). In 1991 Germany was urging 'This Dream Must Never Die'. The Gulf War was too brief to resurrect 'Peas' songs.

So what can we read between the lyrics of 1993? Well, the pan-European ballad has faded out. Only Italy comes close with 'The Sun Of Europe', and suns, remember, set as well as rise. Portugal, similiarly, speaks of 'Nightfall In The City'; Greece has gone all nationalistic with 'Greece, Land Of Light'; Iceland perhaps hints at wider Scandinavian referendum questions in 'You'll Know The Answer'; and Israel, improbably, offers the first post-modernist Eurovision entry with a group called Shiru singing a song called 'Shiru Sing A Song'. Where the circa 1990 entries were happy ballads of collaboration, the moods of this year's Eurotunes are retreat, introspection and confusion, once again playing the Continent's wider song.

I can sense some of you resisting this thesis. What, you object, can the Eurovision Song Contest, with its silly ditties, tell us about the crisis of former Yugoslavia? As far as you are concerned, the closest the contest has come to a commentary on history was Abba's 1973 winner, 'Waterloo', with its lines: 'The history book on the shelf/Is always repeating itself.'

Take a close look, though, at Bosnia-Herzegovina's entry for this year's contest. You may think this is a sick joke. But, if it is, it isn't mine. The annual Eastern European play-off for participation in Eurovision - one consequence of the fall of Communism - has sent to Ireland this year entrants from Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia. The Bosnian entry - unveiled in Sunday's BBC 1 preview of the 1993 contestants - is promoted by a rock video in which a greatcoated singer wanders around the bomb damage in Sarajevo, occasionally interrupted by a duo of understandably unglamorous-looking female backing singers, who jump out from behind doors and Jeeps and sing the Bosnian equivalent of 'De-doo-bop-a-lula'. The song's title translates as 'The Pain Of The Whole World'.

I suppose that the writing and entry of this pop song is - as with those Balkan athletes who dodged snipers on their training runs for last year's Olympics - an attempt to cling to normality (in as much as the Eurovision Song Contest represents normality). I understand that a hit record in the West might be a good way for the performers to escape from the rubble of their country. But it is this song that heralds the collapse of the Eurovision Song Contest under the weight of the difference between its vision of European harmony and the reality of European history. If Smith and Jones or French and Saunders had come up with a sketch called 'The Bosnian Entry To The Eurovision Song Contest', the BBC switchboard would be jammed with accusations of bad taste, of frivolity towards history. But the thing is real. It should also be mentioned that this year's entry from the Netherlands is - pointing this out, you feel like a bosun saying 'Er, captain, I'm not sure what an albatross looks like, but . . .' - entitled 'Peace]'. And the entry from Norway consists of - here the captain narrows his eyes and says, 'Oh, God, it is an albatross]' - a 16- year-old girl, not actually playing a guitar but backed by one, crooning a rueful number called 'All My Thoughts]'. So, if Mr Major or Lord Owen is looking for a little distraction on Saturday night, they might prefer not to tune in to the Eurovision Song Contest. In one more way than you already thought, this year's entries virtually guarantee you a bad time ahead.