From National Pride to Global Kitsch: the Eurovision Song Contest

Philippe Le Guern (University of Lille 1)

 

Introduction

Placed under the supervision of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has taken place each year since 1956. This is a very successful event in terms of audience ratings: it has an estimated audience of 255 million households, that is to say almost 400 million viewers. Nevertheless, the EBU officials suggest that these figures should be considered very cautiously, because on the one hand, the audience research methods which are used in the different countries are not similar, and on the other hand because the collected data have to be balanced against the fact that a private broadcasting service may or may not exist along with the public broadcasting service. The contest is broadcast simultaneously in all the participant countries (24 in 2000) as well as in non participant countries outside the European broadcasting area: for example, the Australian channel SBS had an overall audience rating of 900 000 viewers in 1999 (8% of the market shares) from 6 883 000 Australian TV households. To be entered for the contest, each country must be a member of one of the UER organisations such as the ARD in Germany, the RTBF in Belgium, the RTE in Ireland, the ORT in Russia or the TRT in Turkey. The number of participants may vary each year, and the rules may be subject to change: an annual turnover, based on the points scored by each country in the preceding event, allows new countries to participate in the contest. The participation of European countries such as France, England, Germany or Spain, is guaranteed by a share system and the fee they pay is higher. Generally speaking, the most striking recent development of the contest appears to be the participation of eastern European countries ( Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Russia).

1. The reasons for success

The success of this TV program can be variously explained. Firstly, the contest is a yearly, regular and strongly ritualised appointment, "a hard-wearing classic" as Françoise Chirot wrote in Le Monde last February. In this respect, it constitutes a landmark in the collective memory associated to TV history, and thus becomes part of the social memory.

Secondly, its success is understandable because of the form of the contest itself. Similarly to "Jeux sans Frontières", the ESC pits neighbouring countries against each other. The latter are close to each other because they belong to the same geographical entity (the 2000 contest opened with a "Hello Europe", even though the reference here is to geography rather than politics or institutions) but also quite distinct from each other, inasmuch they are led to exaggerate the stereotyped features of their national identity.

This type of contest works on a dual principle of proximity and distance: on the one hand, each nation is put on the map through the media (and particularly the "smaller" countries : a 40-year- old Finish woman explained to me: "in the 70’s, mobilisation around Eurovision was strong in my country; we could thus be recognised on the European scene and export our language"). On the other hand it contrasts "us" and "them" and offers viewers the confirmation of well-established stereotypes as described by Berger and Luckman. The latter aspect becomes all the more obvious through an analysis of remarks made by commentators providing the voice-over for the contest in each country. "Each country has its own commentator. BBC 2’s Terry Wogan is a real star, offering tongue-in-cheek quips. He’s really the key to the program’s success and on top of that, he influences the way people vote. He can truly make or break a competitor!" (interview with the scrutineer). Besides, the contest brings together audiences that are geographically and socially heterogeneous but who engage in the same activity in the same instant. It brings to life one of those "imagined communities of viewers" described by B. Anderson, conjures up a collective identity, socialises each viewer’s singular experience by linking it to that of all other viewers, and creates affective links between them by offering a "home collective experience". The ESC enables each viewer to think of himself as belonging to a larger community: the "watch with" of media events "designed to bring together large chunks of national audiences". We may thus make an analogy between ESC and Dayan and Katz’s "confrontation" model that grew out of the Weberian model of rational-legal political systems. The aim of the latter model is to envisage how any kind of confrontation will follow certain rules. With the ESC, rules are a most important element in audience reactions. Ever since TV voting has been enforced (viewers vote instead of juries), there has existed a recurrent suspicion over votes that would betray obvious complicity between certain nations and thus reveal by homology the structure of political Europe. Likewise certain comments made on new countries entering the contest raise the question of the "acceptable" borders of Europe. More generally speaking, the contest may underscore or even reveal national or supranational stakes, especially when it ties up with the political agenda or a topical issue in any given country. We may take the example of the Breton singer Dan Ar Braz whose appearance in the 1997 contest drew attention to the recognition of regional languages and cultures in France. In her study of the ESC in the Israeli context, Dafna Lemish shows how the contest – and especially the appearance of the transsexual singer Dana International in 1999 – reveals questions that tie up with various public issues in Israel: what is the place of Israel within Europe? How can the country assert a cultural identity clearly distinct from the Arab world? How can the debate between religious groups and secular groups be envisaged?

1.2. Kitsch program and popular audiences?

Spontaneously, any sociological study of the ECS audience will focus on two variables : age and generation groups on the one hand, cultural standards on the other. At first sight the ECS audience would belong to older generations – hence less favourable to new cultural forms – and/or to the less culture-oriented groups – hence more interested in entertainment programs. Such prejudice would therefore limit the scope of the ESC as a purely entertaining program, and could be justified by the results of a survey showing that the contest is mostly considered a "kitsch" programme by younger people or those people with higher cultural standards. Consequently, the ESC seems to be doubly branded as belonging to TV entertainment and to the old-fashioned genre of popular songs.

However surveys show that ESC audiences do not necessarily correspond to the dominant representation we have of them. The French ESC audience for instance is characterised by its homogeneous ratings for each social and occupational category as well as age group: in each audience category, ratings are over 30%. The highest rating is for the 25-34 age group but fairly similar percentages are reached with the 15-24, 35-49, 50-60 and over 60 groups (average percentage being 32%). More remarkable still, the rating is 32.3% for the lower social and occupational category and 32.9 for the upper social and occupational category. Such data seem to contradict flatly the generally accepted idea (or « idée reçue ») that ESC audiences mostly belong to social groups with low cultural standards.

From such considerations on the contest itself and its audiences, several questions may be raised: what representations of national and European identities does the ESC convey through the award winners, their performances, the selection of songs, melodies and costumes? What patterns of social representation and identity does it reveal? In addition, what are the social principles at work in the shaping of those representations? In what way do they derive from specific – and possibly conflicting – interests embodied by various agents whose influence can be more or less directly felt – EBU, national TV channels, competitors, record companies, journalists and commentators, etc.? Finally, how do audiences react to those representations of "national" features? How can such a program be instrumental in the forging of collective identities or foster social bonds or become a political issue in any given country?

The following analysis is based upon a series of on-going surveys carried out in Israel and France since April 2000. They notably consist in interviews with EBU and TV channel officials, with members of French and Israeli ESC fan-clubs, with candidates for the national selection of year 2000, and with viewers. The study also draws on an analysis of several contests of the past together with literature produced about them: newspaper articles, TV and radio programmes, web sites. Besides we attended the final rehearsal performance for the latest French selection at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. Finally, we were granted access to the EBU archives and the post they have received about the ESC over the past three years (3000 letters or e-mail messages or so).

I.3 "Us and them", between tradition and modernity

The representation of national identities is built from cultural elements which can be revealed through the ingredients of a song as well as the competitors’ performances. The analysis of lyrics and musical forms show an obvious homogeneity of content and melodies. If we consider the 24 songs of the 2000 contest, we may observe that the themes are very much standardised. Two themes prevail: love, found in 16 songs, is ubiquitous but its treatment is extremely conventional. The other theme, found in 8 songs, deals with commonplace observations about our contemporary world. We can see that the songs’ frame of reference is particularly impoverished and largely stereotyped. A study of the lyrics over a longer period of time reveals that a strategy aiming at erasing national idiosyncrasies has been a constant feature of the contest: in 1968 for instance, the use of mumbo-jumbo (a chorus mostly made of "ma ma ma ma; bra bra bra bra and wem wem wem wem for the Norwegian competitor) or a chorus with a europhile overtone for the German one ("Vive l’amour, three cheers for love, viva l’amor"). More generally speaking, the lyrics often thrive on "universal" notions, thus largely lacking in precise context: love, seasons, family values.

However these preliminary remarks should be qualified. Other indicators of cultural idiosyncrasies are indeed at work, such as the competitors’ costumes or the song melodies. What they seem to hint at is a divide between those competitors who play on national stereotypes and those who wish to forsake any form of national singularity. It is a fact that "smaller countries" – particularly those of the Mediterranean zone – are more prone than "bigger countries" to capitalise on the stereotypes that are usually attached to their homelands.

Indeed, "bigger countries" (France, Germany, England) as well as newcomers (Eastern European countries whose media markets have recently opened to American productions) avoid the use of national clichés. In other words, representations of national identities as revealed by the ESC fall into two opposing categories that typify tradition and modernity. A significant example is that of the Russian competitor in 2000. She displayed all the features of western modernity: her looks were obviously modelled on the Spice Girls’, the tempo and melody of her song imitated the formula of today’s international hits, and her website was quite sophisticated…

An overview of the musical genres favoured in the contest allow four categories to stand out: "international popular songs", pop-rock, ballads and slow songs, folklore. Certain sub-categories may also be discerned such as a recurrent type of songs we could tentatively dub "neo-Abba".

A striking feature of ESC music is the wish to introduce new musical style (rap, techno…) but this always involves a shift from original models due to a certain amount of pastiche. Another trend of the contest lies in its becoming more and more "Americanised" as the number of Anglo-American tunes is on the rise. The "international popular songs" category is favoured by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries and Israel. In contrast, a few countries – France, Belgium, Romania, Spain – seem to go in for national musical styles. This divide may certainly be explained by several structural and conjonctural factors. France for instance has passed a law establishing quotas to promote the broadcasting of songs by French performers, and the same country is hell-bent on defending the principle of the so-called "cultural exception". On the other hand, a EBU official underlines that "it is very hard for Germany to select good composers for the contest because songs in German do not sell well on the domestic market. The cultural exception is therefore of little importance there". Another factor to be reckoned with is the situation of TV entertainment programmes which is dramatically different from one European country to another : they are markedly less popular in England than in Italy, France or Germany. German audiences for instances have a preference for "traditional folk music and dances that express the strong regional identity of the Länder". In such a context the choice of "pop songs", a genre greatly favoured at the contest, can also been explained because it allows a deft compromise between tradition and modernity. Just like some brands of rock music, the genre has become socially accepted. It has spawned quite a few revivals, aimed at younger generations whose social practices do not necessarily correspond to those of the original fans. The genre therefore bridges the generation gap, has the melodic attraction of hits and the respectability of classics.

1.4 Standardisation of language

Language is probably the most revealing aspect of the fragmented European area and of the power struggles which characterise it. When examining both the statistical frequency of languages used in the contest and the number of victories for each country, it is obvious there exists an imbalance between the various linguistic blocks. We are thus reminded that the contest – although officially egalitarian – nevertheless brings out and even creates a true power struggle; as we have already noticed about cultures in Europe, the gap dividing the "small" and the "big" countries is shown up even more clearly as when it comes to language.

Language

No. of songs

No. of wins

Country

French

143

15

France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Monaco

English

100

14

United Kingdom, Eire, Malta, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany

German

87

2

Germany, Switzerland, Austria

Flemish

57

3

Netherlands, Belgium

Italian

45

2

Italy, Switzerland

Serbo-Croat

39

1

Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia

Greek

21

0

Greece, Cyprus,

Spanish

36

2

Spain

Swedish

34

2

Sweden, Finland

Norwegian

34

2

Norway

Portuguese

29

0

Portugal

Finnish

28

0

Finland

Danish

21

1

Denmark

Hebrew

20

3

Israel

Turkish

12

0

Turkey

Icelandic

5

0

Iceland

Polish

5

0

Poland

Slovenian

4

0

Slovenia

Estonian

4

0

Estonia

Hungarian

3

0

Hungary

Russian

3

0

Russia

Slovakian

2

0

Slovakia

Luxemburgish

2

0

Luxembourg

Maltese

2

0

Malta

Romanian

1

0

Romania

Arabic

1

0

Morocco

Breton

1

0

France

Gaelic

1

0

Republic of Ireland

Lithuanian

1

0

Lithuania

Several remarks can be made about this chart : the 797 listed songs selected for the ESC have been sung in 30 different languages. Only 11 languages out of 30 led to a victory; two languages, French and English, represent two thirds of all victories. No song in English and only 4 songs in French got zero (Belgium 1962, Monaco 1966, Switzerland 1967, Luxembourg 1978). We can also remark that Switzerland whose contenders performed songs in five different languages (French, German, English, Italian and Romansch) won only once (with a song performed in French by a Canadian singer, Céline Dion, in 1988). In Belgium, language is a particular issue since the Walloon and Flemish communities are so closely interlinked: an unspoken agreement specifies that the choice of the language will alternate. However, the ESC has sometimes amplified the rivalry, as pointed out in the following anecdote reported by the Eurovision scrutineer: "Once, the Flemish presenters wished "good luck to Belgium" in Flemish and it caused a scandal!" Finally, the presence of regional languages (Breton, Gaelic) remains quite exceptional even though it testifies to the increased importance of regionalist movements in several Western European countries as well as to the importance granted to regions within the European area.

Consequently, it is quite clear that French (at least until the early 90’s) and English hold an overwhelming superiority over the other languages. In his analysis of Alex Taylor’s European review of the papers on France Inter, Christian Le Bart quotes a comment from a Dutch editorial which can constitute a valid example: "Foreigners obviously think that our language is too odd to grant us their vote" (March 3, 1999). Rather humorously, this judgement underlines the actuality of a linguistic hierarchy which, on the face of it, seems in keeping with the objective social structures prevailing in Europe (French and English are for example the official languages of all important international sporting events). Moreover such a judgement is also legitimised by EBU regulations which stipulate that only the two above-mentioned languages may be used for the public announcement of the contest results). Dafna Lemish, in the survey she carried out with Israeli candidates to Eurovision and TV viewers, draws the same conclusion. We therefore seem entitled to apply Bourdieu’s comments on legitimisation and universalisation of a national culture to the ESC: "The cultural and linguistic unification goes together with the imposed use of the dominating language and culture and the rejection of all the others into disgrace (dialects). When a particular language or culture achieves the status of universality, the others effectively bear the hallmarks of peculiarity".

One current means to get round the domination of English is to use phrases which can be translated into any language or to "sprinkle" English words in carefully chosen passages of the song (chorus), as we can see from the German song of 2000 :

"Ladies and gentlemen

Ladies put your patsche hands together

For the sensational super sack of German television

Stefan Raab

Oh mein Gott! Es gibt ihn wirklich! Ooh…

(…)

(chorus) Wadde hadde dudde da (x 5)"

Besides, with English becoming the "‘natural’ language of Europe" in recent years, French is clearly less in use. In the 2000 contest, 14 out of 24 contenders chose English, among whom the Netherlands, Estonia, Romania, Norway Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Latvia and Austria. In addition, out of the last ten winning songs, 5 were in English while the last victory of a French song dates back to 1977 (Marie Myriam).

2. European identity or globalisation? The structural conditions of cultural union

On the face of it, the contest specifications may seem to treat all competitors on an equal footing from the formal and symbolic point of view. "The main difference between a sporting event and a cultural show is to be found in the rules of the game. Contrary to what happens at a sporting event, the way music is appraised does not have to meet objective criterions. The winner is not a song with specific features in terms of harmony, tonality or orchestration." The EBU rules – and that is one of their main characteristics – aim at guaranteeing equal opportunities for all countries. Says the president of the French ESC fan-club: "The ESC is quite important for smaller countries since it represents a rare occasion to be on an equal footing with larger nations". The rules obviously emphasise the importance of the TV voting procedure in their article XI. This article is the longest in terms of the recommendations it sets forth: 3 pages out of 21. The recommendations bear on technical aspects ("Participants shall provide 32 telephone numbers, ending with figures from 01 to 24" / each country should work hand in hand with the main national telephone company, etc.) but also on ethics ("The telephone network shall allow all callers to get through wherever they call from in the country" / "In each country, the rate to place a call and vote shall be identical for all", etc.).

In spite of all such precautions, the growing influence of the English language, the format of songs, etc. become tools of power and shape the contest. A hierarchy is thus brought to light together with a restriction in the artistic forms.

We should not try to account for that by some sort of Machiavellian plot or calculations to help larger countries win. The real reason behind such a situation lies in the ESC rules themselves and in a mesh of various factors that coalesce: EBU regulations, economic and symbolic value of the contest for the EBU, relative importance granted to such a programme by TV channels according to their specific interests, selection procedure of competitors by each nation, weight the audience is allowed to carry in the voting procedure, influence of comments during and about the contest (journalists, radio presenters…), etc.

2.1 Voting: a structuring system

A most telling sign of the pressures exerted on the ESC is the voting system: since the contest is supposed to be "egalitarian", the results should show a non-homogeneous distribution of awards (total number of victories for any given country) and a (relative) scattering of the votes (granted by one country to another). Such unpredictable indicators should be enough to assert the "openness" of the contest. The latter, being a long-standing event (43 from 1956 to 1999) and involving many countries, certainly offers the diversity required for statistical surveys.

Relying on an analysis of the vote structures, Gad Yair and Daniel Maman have brilliantly highlighted how the contest creates or recreates infra-European groups. Their study draws on a sample of 18 contests from 1975 to 1992 involving 24 contending countries. Since Monaco, Malta and Iceland missed several contests, the average figures used took only 21 countries into account. It should be noted that the study does not take into account the opening of Eastern Europe or the ever-changing regulations concerning the voting system (including the TV voting procedure used as of 1998).

The study shows mainly that votes are not granted at random but rather follow a statistical pattern. Its main feature is the great discrepancy with which countries give and receive votes. The greater the discrepancy – expressed as an average number of votes –, the further apart from each other those countries are. We thus see that Cyprus grants Greece an average 9.75 points (the maximum total being 12) while Greece grants the former an average 8.33 points. Let’s now offer a contrasting example: Norway grants Turkey an average 0.60 point and gets 0.80 from the Turks. It also seems that certain countries get votes from many other nations while others have a rather limited number of privileged "partners". In the end the analysis brings to light a Europe structured in three main blocs plus one (a so-called residual bloc):

- the Western bloc including 8 countries: England, Ireland, France, Israel, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.

- the "northern" bloc with 4 countries: Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Germany.

- the Mediterranean bloc with 6 countries: Cyprus, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Italy and Spain.

- the residual bloc: Finland, Austria and Portugal.

All data confirm the hegemony of the Western bloc countries. The relational structure that prevails in the contest and accounts for the domination of the major Western nations can be described as follows: all the nations belonging to the Western bloc vote for their Western fellows. This pattern is rarely broken: it prevailed in 14 of the 18 years analysed in the study. Within their own group, Western countries reciprocate more than other blocs (even if we may observe outstanding asymmetries: England often vote for Ireland but this does not work the other way round. However, a look at the distribution of votes for each country will show that England and Ireland offer a most similar pattern: they very nearly cast their votes for the same nations and prove to have similar preferences). Countries from the "Northern" group tend to vote rarely for Mediterranean countries and the reverse is true. In the latter group, "internal" reciprocity is little developed: forming a less coherent geographical ensemble, they tend to favour (including in terms of votes) the songs with a traditional or folk touch. As Yair and Maman have very clearly shown, out of a potential total of 10 points weighted by the number of nations inside each bloc and taking into account an average of 18 countries, the results are as follows:

 

 

West

North

Médit.

Residual

West

4.18

2.99

2.42

1.61

North

3.74

4.35

1.93

1.59

Médit.

3.52

2.16

3.63

1.94

Residual

4.02

2.71

2.52

1.00

 

A first explanation of the hegemony of the so-called Western bloc – working hand in hand with the simultaneous homogenisation of the contest – can be found in a series of historical, linguistic, cultural and political factors outside the contest. The political complicity or close affinities between countries – ubiquitously mentioned in viewers’ testimonies – translate in actual fact through reciprocity of voting: Turks casting their votes for Yugoslavs – and reciprocally – then for Bosnians (another Islamic country) from 1992 onwards, etc. Such examples that suggest the influence of political bonds on voting are numerous. However the factors at work in the constitution of blocs may be quite distinct from one to the other. According to Gad Yair the Western bloc emerged essentially from a common history as well as converging political and economic interests. The cultural factor would be less decisive. We may also suggest that this bloc offers the greatest linguistic and cultural diversity. The countries that make it up are therefore likely to rally votes from many different other nations. Israel for instance is a Mediterranean country on the map, but the situation is not so clear-cut from the linguistic and cultural point of view, with both Western and Southern influences.

A second explanation to the reshaping of Europe by the ESC is linked to voting procedures. Each country has a voting reservoir of 10 points shared out among several competitors. Thus, if we keep in mind the above-mentioned bloc pattern and the general principle of reciprocity, it is plain to see that the ratio of the number of votes available for each bloc to the number of countries in each bloc is quite unequal. The upshot is that peripheral blocs export their extra votes: a 4-strong bloc with 10 votes apiece will be in a position to export 7 votes each. Yair and Maman (1996) show that "the Western bloc has to export only 30% of its voting reservoir whereas the Northern bloc must export 70%, the Mediterranean 50% and the Residual 80%" (p. 16). Now, we know that most "surplus" votes go to the Western bloc since the other blocs do not readily reciprocate, hence the domination of the major Western countries we could almost describe as "automatic". It also appears that the only hope of victory for "smaller" countries lies in their capacity to attract the surplus votes of other blocs, hence their tendency to give up their specific features so as to espouse dominant (Western) traits: global culture, use of the English language. In the process they promote dominant cultures, thus tightening the very bonds they wish to free themselves from.

 

2.2 Playing the game: competitors from their selection to their adjustment to the demands of the contest

Another factor is decisive in the growing standardisation of the contest: the selection procedures that induce more or less directly the (hopefully successful…) adjustment of competitors to the demands of the contest. The would-be competitor is made tame by a casting-like selection procedure involving endless briefings. To understand as clearly as possible the final "products" seen on stage at each ESC event, it is essential to take into account the selection procedure and the "apprenticeship" artists have to go through. The two aspects actually work hand in hand: you are all the more willing to learn as you are likely to be selected. Likewise your chance to be selected is all the greater as you are willing to learn, the practical result being your adjustment to the demands of the contest. Such an adjustment feeds on obedience and illusions about the value of an event with a relative importance and legitimacy.

In some way, most competitors play the part they are expected to. This is all the more true of smaller countries which are led to internalise the parts they can take on or how far they can go. On the contrary, it is to be noticed that the very few competitors who dare break the ESC rules and conventions (parodic songs, lyrics out of step with the norm, post-modern performances) come from the "bigger" nations. It is just as if the "smaller" countries were not allowed any distance, thus underscoring the respectful bond they have established with the contest. In this respect, by crossing the bounds of acceptable behaviour, the German contender of 1998, Guildo Horn, is a rare occurrence of an attempt to point out the pressure exerted by the ESC regulations. Clad in a long cloak, accompanied by a group bearing a parodic name ("the Orthopaedic Stockings"), bouncing from the stage onto a balcony overhanging the audience, Guildo Horn cast light on the EBU officials’ lack of openness, thus revealing some of the specific interests which guide organisers only too keen to protect their capital of reputability ("capital réputationnel"). As the current scrutineer explains: "such people as Guildo Horn have gone too far; they should be few and far between because they don’t come up to the average European viewer’s expectations. Moreover, it doesn’t help me to organise the contest and to renew it".

A third contributing factor in the cultural unification process is to be found in EBU regulations themselves and in the importance attached to the contest within this institution. The investigation we led at the EBU headquarters enabled us to acknowledge the prominent place given to the contest and its representations in the culture of that organisation. The person in charge of TV drama and entertainment programmes told us that most discussions and meetings – including those with a totally different agenda – focus on the contest: " In a 7-hour meeting, 2 hours will be spent speaking about it". The scrutineer also remarked that "everybody in this organisation has got their own opinion about the contest and no TV committee meeting can be held without our speaking about it!". The importance of the contest can be explained by several factors. On the one hand, the 1956-born ESC is a key element of EBU’s memory: it is linked to the very foundation of the organisation (1950) and it is decisive in establishing and promoting its identity that remains shaky. This lack of a clear public image is often mentioned by various EBU officials and the vice-chairman sums it all by saying: "Our image is so fuzzy in the UK that the only EBU event known to the general public is the ESC".

The contest is a symbolic show-case and induces opinions and power struggles: according to the former scrutineer, "the ESC is for EBU and most of the persons in charge of it a kind of necessary evil. Nobody really knows where to put it. They would like to suppress it but they can’t". Three arguments are put forward to explain the bad reputation of the ESC: on the one hand, its cost ("between 4 and 5 million Swiss francs"/ "it’s very expensive and the financial spin-offs are not obvious : it’s an incentive for tourism but broadcasters never see a penny "). On the other hand, competitors are considered second-rate (" we would like to have famous singers but the record companies won’t be associated with the contest. When Mestari signed with Universal, the radios could only broadcast her if they didn’t mention the ESC"). The final argument is the language issue. It not only affects the very identity of the competing countries ("those who want to win sing in English in lieu of their native idiom. The issue has been discussed by the EBU. The Germans were in favour of English; Slovenia attaches great value to a sense of diversity and identity but the Germans succeeded in changing the regulations") but also the EBU’s own identity (the EBU has many different nationalities among its employees) and the way it operates ("Up to the end of 1999, the EBU technical literature had to be translated into French and English"). Taking into account all those elements (the role of the scrutineer within the EBU and the specific stakes of a contest considered a "necessary evil"), we may understand why the EBU officials are under duress and consider therefore the modernisation of the contest and the ubiquitous presence of English as possible answers that many won’t support. ("Our interest often clashes with that of fans. They are nostalgic of the past and don’t want the contest to evolve. The orchestra is a great tradition but it’s very costly compared to playing a tape. But that’s a bone of contention with fans if we decide to do without the orchestra".)

If regulations are modified in order to allow the candidates to "sing in the language of their choice" (article VII, § 2), the idea is less to encourage the emergence of "minor" languages on the international scene than to enable many countries to choose English, a decision supposed to allow the best singers to take part in the contest: "take the Scandinavian countries, 90% sing in English. If they are made to sing in their own languages, we’ll deprive ourselves of a most – often the most – interesting part of their production" (interview with the scrutineer). When we take a look at the Top National Sellers (December 1998) for Sweden, Denmark and Norway, we see that the Top Ten songs in these countries are sung in English and are for the most part imported. The situation is rather different for Finland since 4 songs are in Finnish in the Top Ten.

This linguistic standardisation is not without a major drawback: the audience might indeed lose interest in a contest in which identity issues are becoming less and less significant. The answer to that has been to introduce new regulations on the national selection procedures which tend to involve the audience. Here is how the reference group chairman reacted: "Guildo Horn’s participation in the German pre-selection of 1998 created an intense national discussion on the country’s true culture. Having him representing the country abroad, is that a disgrace? Or the first international sign of German humour? Because of this controversy, the pre-selection show of 1998 was more successful than any other pre-selection show over more than ten years. With Guildo Horn in Birmingham, the ESC Final had the highest ratings of all TV programmes in Germany of the year" (Jurgen Meier-Beer, interview conducted by e-mail messages).

Conclusion

Do the results of the 2000 contest finally refute the (tentative) conclusions of this survey? We can notice that many observers didn’t expect the victory of Denmark and generally speaking the respective ranking of the various competing countries. In an article issued on the web (www.songcontest.nl), the chairman of the largest Dutch fan-club writes: "First of all, I would like to congratulate the Olsen Brothers with their enormous victory in Stockholm. I really think that almost no-one expected them to be the winner of the 2000 contest". This acknowledgement is confirmed fans’ forecasts on the Internet just before the contest: on May 3rd, 2000, 787 votes were recorded on the "songcontest.nl" website ranking Denmark in the 20th position (England 3rd, France 14th, Israel 7th). The discrepancy between the forecasts and the actual results (Denmark 1st, France 23rd), the ranking of the Northern and Eastern blocs, the unexpected good ranking of several countries that traditionally do not do well and the very poor one of normally dominant countries, all seem at first sight to refute the main structures determining the votes, the ranking and the resulting shape of Europe. Actually, what we are witnessing is not so much the decline of Western bloc countries but the confirmation of a growing trend: all competitors tend to adopt a universal style, that is to say international pop songs sung in English. The success of the Olsen Brothers in 2000 can thus be partly explained by several features of their song, their performance, the way their symbolic capital is perceived (their age – the Olsen Brothers are in their 50’s – the ostentatious use of guitars makes the duet look "authentic" and situates the two singers between a rightful "well-established rock" and a "commercial rock" which turns out hits on an industrial scale): "This song is beautiful (.) It’s a brilliant victory for veterans who were the oldest in the contest. Age doesn’t matter when songs are good (.). Their looks are old-fashioned but they sing well and they are experienced. They’ve been singing together for a long time (.) A nice folk ballad (.) It will be a great European hit. Two guitars only, two guitars and a nice song, that’s what it takes to win the ESC".

Nevertheless, an analysis of the content of the winning song brings to light two main features: it brings together different musical genres such as rock, folk, international pop songs (this especially shows when analysing the structure and orchestration of the song: the use of guitars, vocoder, synthesised sounds and gimmicks such as "Deep Forest"). In consequence of which, the song bridges the gap between age groups by becoming a source of aesthetic and symbolic references for a large audience in terms of age and also probably social scale.

If used to assess "popular" tastes, the ESC leads us to do away with great homologies between musical genres, TV entertainment and social groups. Those homologies systematically associate "entertainment" with an old audience with low educational achievement levels. However, to consider the TV voting procedure spontaneous would be to jump to conclusions. We would then risk forgetting that audience reactions to the ESC are largely a product of past rankings and that their musical tastes depend mostly on the more widespread musical genres whose uniformity The Top National Sellers point to. Further research should – and will – go into the subject in greater depth by looking at the results of the TV voting in all countries and also at the features of voting audiences.

 

Footnotes

1. Françoise Chirot, Le Monde, 12 février 2000, p. 18.

2. Peter Berger et Thomas Luckmann, La construction sociale de la réalité, Méridiens Klinsksieck, 1986.

3. Terry Wogan, Is it me ?, 2000, BBC Worldwide

4. Daniel Dayan et Elihu Katz, La télévision cérémonielle, PUF, coll. La politique éclatée, 1996, p. 125

5. Daniel Dayan et Elihu Katz, La télévision cérémonielle, PUF, coll. La politique éclatée, 1996, p. 139.

6. Dafna Lemish, «'My kind of campfire': The Eurovision Song Contest and Israeli homosexuals» (under review).

7. Philippe Le Guern et Dafna Lemish, «Du kitsch et des jeux ? Entre sentiment national et culture globale, le Concours de l’Eurovision de la chanson », paper presented at the meeting of CNRS research program entitled ; The question of European identity, Rennes, France (to be published).

8. Pierre Bourdieu, Raisons Pratiques. Sur la théorie de l’action, Seuil, 1994, p. 116.

9. Gad Yair, «‘Unite Unire Europe’. The political and cultural structures of Europe as reflected in the Eurovision Song Contest», Social Networks, 17, 1995, p. 147-161 / Gad Yair et Daniel Maman, «The persistent structure of hegemony in the Eurovision Song Contest», Acta Sociologica, 39 (3), 1996, p. 309-325.

10. The French contestant for the 2000 ESC edition.