Review | Empire of Song: Europe and Nation in the Eurovision Song Contest by Dafni Tragaki (ed.)
Empire of Song: Europe and Nation in the Eurovision Song Contest. Edited by Dafni Tragaki. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.[xiv, 321 p. ISBN 9780810888173. $85.] Bibliographical references, index.
Reviewed by Kristina Nielsen
Each spring an estimated 125 million viewers tune in to watch participating countries compete in the Eurovision Song Contest. The contest consists of three-minute pop songs selected by participating countries, playful banter between the hosts, and video segments customized for each participating country. The new publication from Scarecrow Press, Empire of Song: Europe and Nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, offers a compilation dedicated to the scholarly analysis of Eurovision, with a focus on the political and social commentary deeply embedded in the show. These controversies are hardly new to fans of the show, fans that annually criticize entries and lament supposed voting blocs, but several of the contributions offer innovative ways to analyze and approach songs generally dismissed as hollow pop songs. While it is not the first book-length academic publication dedicated to Eurovision, a distinction that belongs to the 2007 publication, A Song for Europe, the latest publication still offers a useful contribution to the limited published research that exists on the contest.
The book begins with a brief forward by Franco Fabbri who introduces Eurovision history, followed by an introduction by the editor, Dafni Tragaki. The introduction highlights some general themes found in the twelve chapters that follow, including the creation of an “European identity” that is constantly in flux with shifting borders; the creation of a utopic, albeit temporary, vision of Europe through the Eurovision production; and the undeniable presence of politics within Eurovision. The chapters are largely independent of each other, and in spite of the editor’s attempt at connecting them thematically in the introduction they are often disjointed because of their thematic and geographic diversity. The collection is not organized according to region, theme, or any other structure immediately apparent to the reader. While four of the chapters explore broader Eurovision themes, the other eight chapters take the form of case studies or vignettes that offer analysis of a specific Eurovision entry or national topic. The collection is dominated by Nordic case studies with a total of four chapters dedicated to Nordic topics, while Italy, Turkey, Portugal and Ireland each receive one chapter. Eastern European countries lack in-depth studies, creating a considerable geographic blind spot in the scope of the book. In addition to the breadth of material the book attempts to cover, the chapters are often excessively ambitious in scope, forcing the authors to provide brief explanations for topics worthy of their own full chapters.
Philip Bohlman, Andrea Bohlman, Ioannis Polychronakis, Apostolos Lampropoulos, and Alexander Rehding contribute the four chapters that explore larger concepts in Eurovision. In the first chapter, Philip Bohlman analyzes the creation of national Eurovision songs and temporality in Eurovision, drawing heavily from Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of “chronotopes.” Bohlman identifies six different temporal divisions. Of these divisions some seem highly applicable, such as musical time and historical time, while others could use more explanation, including his analysis of cyclical time and performative/embodied time. Because of the placement of songs within time and space, Bohlman ultimately questions whether a Eurovision song might ever truly be designated as “ahistorical,” a question that is occasionally returned to in the chapters that follow.
In the second chapter, Andrea Bohlman and Ioannis Polychronakis examine the creation of the “live” component of Eurovision and the meaning it accrues through interpretation by fans and the media. It would have been interesting if they had included more discussion of how these interpreted meanings accrue and change over time. Bohlman and Polychronakis invoke a kaleidoscope metaphor in understanding the structure of the competition predicated on the annual continuity facilitated by the EBU with shifting parts formulated for each event. Their metaphor is useful in some applications but seems stretched in others, including their political analysis.
In the sixth chapter Apostolos Lampropoulos examines the Eurobody as affected by history, politics and queerness. Lampropoulos study on queerness is the most interesting component of the chapter. Here he analyzes two entries, Ping-Pong’s controversial entry in 2000 and Iceland’s overtly sexual 1997 entry. He also includes analysis of a sexually charged exchange during the 2006 Eurovision point tallying. He contends that queerness is a “non-menacing politics” in Eurovision. Unfortunately, because of the breadth of the chapter this subject receives much less discussion than it deserves given the regular challenges to heteronormativity in Eurovision.
In the twelfth chapter Andrea Bohlman and Alexander Rehding examine the difficulties in picking a song that meets both national and international criteria, as the songs must meet domestic music demands while simultaneously appealing more broadly across national borders. An important consideration is that the reasons a song fared well domestically may not be the reasons it fares well at Eurovision. They contend that “soft” politics are constantly at play in Eurovision and that it has always been political, offering the concluding thought that: “between the national and transnational, political musicians must tread lightly, dancing their way toward their neighbor’s douze points” (293). I found the analysis of the intersecting national and international tastes particularly thoughtful in its presentation.
The four chapters on Nordic countries written by Kirkegaard, Strand, Björnberg, and Tagaki contend with Nordic nationalism in Eurovision. In chapter three, Kirkegaard explores the notion of a “Nordic Sound” and the categorization of Nordic countries as a “specific area” within the Eurovision contest. Kirkegaard addresses a host of assumptions and problems, including a national disagreement regarding appropriate musical representation that resulted in Denmark withdrawing from the competition for ten years. She also addresses the history of divisions between the Nordic countries and their European competitors, and briefly touches on voting blocs. Her finding that divisions have shifted from North-South to East-West is particularly interesting and will hopefully be followed up upon in a later publication. Kirkegaard’s contribution in particular would have benefitted from being set in dialogue with a chapter examining accusations of voting blocs among Eastern European countries.
Chapter five by Karin Strand presents a study of place, both mythical and actual, and its application in Swedish Eurovision songs. Strand probes the “lyrical world” created by the song texts, which she approaches as a “show in a show.” In particular, Strand examines the “Melodifestival” that selects the Eurovision entry for Sweden, narrowing down thirty-two songs to the one final contender. Two entries are studied in detail reflecting the challenges of balancing international appeal and national representation under the aptly named heading “National Specificity–European Belonging.” Strand also makes several interesting observations regarding the tactics employed to overcome the language barrier prior to the Eurovision rule changes, notably song titles that reference European history with “Waterloo” used as the prime example. This chapter complements the first chapter by Phillip Bohlman well and furthers the discussion of the significance of locality and time in Eurovision.
Chapter eight also studies Sweden, this time with a more specific examination of the “ethnic” and “national sound” ascribed to Swedish Eurovision entries. Alf Björnberg also contributed to the earlier A Song for Europe book, making this his second Eurovision publication. By tracing the rise of Swedish musical success that began with ABBA’s “Waterloo,” Björnberg proposes that the sound frequently interpreted as “national” and “Swedish” may instead be a sound of professionalism and commercialism. In retrospect, the analysis of Sweden’s difficulties with a string of struggling songs is particular poignant given Sweden’s recent win in 2012. This win coincides perfectly with the analysis in Björnberg’s chapter, as the winning song captured this blend of modern sound and professional production.
In chapter ten, Dafni Tragaki examines the symbolism of Lordi and their 2006 Eurovision victory. This band of masked monsters is analyzed in the ways that they challenge the dominant Eurovision pop song formula and simultaneously conform to a larger pan-European narrative. Tragaki argues for a “neomedievalist” interpretation of Lordi’s performance and claims that it creates and facilitates a larger mythical history accessible to European countries. I found the basis of her argument predicated on a shared European fascination with the medieval vastly overextended. This supposed fascination is the primary basis upon which Tragaki crafts her argument for Lordi as a pan-European symbol. Tragaki also does not fully examine the implications of Europe’s fluid boundaries in her study, defining Europe simply as “excluding what is not European” (248). It would have been interesting to probe why Turkey, a country with no discernible interest in a shared “neomedieval” narrative, still gave Lordi seven points in the competition. This and other inconsistencies may indicate the need to reevaluate her argument.
The four chapters on non-Nordic countries are very diverse in their content. In the fourth chapter, Goffredo Plastino explores the Italian Sanremo festival, which has a similar structure to Eurovision and experiences a similar dismissal as “bad music.” He probes the roots of Italian cynicism toward the festival, which he finds to be initiated and deepened by a genre of literature and cinema that creates fictional stories of duplicity and manipulation of the festival. It would have been useful if the author had included more instances of how this cynicism toward the Sanremo festival manifests itself within the arena of Eurovision, since the connections between the national and pan-European are sometimes vague.
Chapter seven presents a case study on national identity negotiation in Turkey in which the country’s 2003 winning entry by Sertab Erener is analyzed for its use of oriental stereotypes. Thomas Solomon explores the criticism and conflicting views on the use of these tropes as a national representation from the context of two “master narratives”: that of Turkish secular nationalism promoted by Atatürk, and one of “neo-Ottomanism.” Solomon formerly contributed to the A Song of Europe publication in 2007 where he explored the timing of Turkey’s 2003 win. A Song of Europe contained two chapters about Erener’s win, including one by Matthew Gumpert that also examined orientalism within the 2003 Eurovision performance. While Gumpert and Solomon offer different perspectives and analytical approaches to orientalist tropes in Erener’s performance, I still question why Turkey’s 2003 win was revisited in the latest publication in spite of the previous attention offered to the subject. Given the number of large geographic and topical voids currently existing in the published work on Eurovision, I believe the collection could have benefited more from examining a new topic that has not already received two dedicated chapters in a previous publication.
In chapter nine Luisa Pinto Teixeira and Martin Stokes add another interesting perspective on politics in the competition through their examination of Portugal’s participation during dictatorship of Antonio Salazar in the 1970s. Their study includes acts of protest, such as the protestor who got onstage in the 1964 competition in Copenhagen, as well as an excellent study of two songs by Zeca Afonso and Paulo de Carvalho that contain subtle and overt political messages. Stokes and Teixeira make a number of salient observations regarding how these musicians navigated the narrow political space allotted to them, including their ability to circumvent censors and convey their meaning symbolically. They cleverly convey the importance of evaluating each entry within its national context as well as its larger European context, since as they point out the historical importance of Portuguese Eurovision entries is often underplayed. This chapter promises to be a useful contribution for the study of political protest and censorship in music in addition to its contributions to Eurovision studies.
In chapter eleven, Tony Langlois examines correspondence between Ireland’s economic boom and Eurovision success. He finds that their period of greatest Eurovision success closely parallels the period of economic growth, but their recent losses also coincide with changes in demographics, thoughts about Ireland’s relationship to Europe, and their attitudes towards the EU. His inclusion of economic and demographic data creates a compelling case for his argument.
Ultimately, I find the amorphous structure and haphazard regional representation in the collection to be its largest weakness. In contrast to Eurovision: Empire of Song, the other Eurovision publication from 2013, Performing the “New” Europe, is divided into three larger subject areas to avoid this problem, a solution that might be considered for future Eurovision publications. Although the collection has a few notable weaknesses, it still offers a useful resource for those performing research on Eurovision or European popular music. No collection can be expected to contend with the full meaning of Eurovision, for as Bohlman points out, each song is, in fact, historical. Hopefully some of the questions raised in this collection that were only briefly touched upon can become starting points for further exploration.
European Broadcasting Union. “Eurovision Facts and Trivia.” Accessed 8 January 2014. http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/facts-figures.
Fricker, Karen and Milija Gluhovic eds. 2013. Performing the “New” Europe: Identities, Feelings, and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Raykoff, Ivan and Robert Deam Tobin eds. 2007. A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company.