Global eyes and Eurovision

I went to mock and maybe I did not come away converted but I certainly came away chastened for my prejudice. Eurovision – which had always been somewhere in the wallpaper of our lives, with its annual collection of insipid and earnest never-wills mimicking pop has-beens – suddenly rocks. Well, maybe it doesn’t quite rock, but it howls, it stomps, it shakes, it strips, it bellows mournfully, it dresses up and dresses down. Its participants, like those suddenly touched by the Holy Spirit, speak many languages but all understand each other through choruses that are always full of love, desire, fire, forevers, and yeah, yeah, yeahs. Universal understanding has come not through divine inspiration but through a phrase book concocted by someone plundering the mindlessly repetitive repertoire of pop in the English language. It was irrelevant whether singers performed in their own language, or, with an eye on the main chance, sang in English: Most of the lyrics were meaningless in any language. But the best thing about the Eurovision song contest last Saturday was that it was pure old escapist entertainment, with the added excitement of a talent contest and the spice of serious nationalist hopes and aspirations. The mindless song contest was good for being nothing but a mindless song contest. (God, how early middle age makes such insipid and earnest fools of us as the rage of youth fades into the need to forget about the world’s grief once in a while.) It was not about what is going on in Iraq or the Middle East. It was not about our new prime minister off to present his credentials at the White House. It was not about the preparations for the Olympics or the way in which public works contracts are awarded. It was not about pain or suffering or anger or resentment. It was a pure and simple competition in which the performers wanted to do well for their own fame and fortune and for the greater glory of their country. And the wonderful thing about it was how seriously so many people took the show. Illustrative of this was the national obsession that suddenly overtook the Greeks. For once, the Greeks did not take the Eurovision song contest seriously and so they sent the most serious contender they had – someone so intrinsically non-serious that he became the star of the show. Sakis Rouvas, who had been seen as a very handsome boy but hardly a serious artist in a country that prides itself as being full of serious artists, was in his element. There is a Greek saying that no-one is a prophet in his own country, meaning that he is not taken seriously by his compatriots while others bow before him. We saw this in all its glory as Sakis Rouvas, heartthrob of countless Greek teens, hit the Eurovision contest in Istanbul. First of all, we were struck by how professional he was. His song may have been so bubble-gummy and sticky that it would have been banned in Singapore, but Sakis and his two go-go girls performed it so well that what came across was the image of a pro. And we, a nation of amateurs who take ourselves so seriously, suddenly bowed down before someone who does actually work very hard at being good at something. The late great painter Yiannis Tsarouchis famously said that in Greece you are what you say you are, and these are words that should be engraved on the national coat of arms. But Sakis, as if he had come here from outer space speaking Greek (because Greece is not only the center of the world but the navel of the universe as well), showed that he can sing and dance and put on a show. So suddenly we were in awe. And suddenly we forgot the controversy over the fact that state channel ET had spent a lot of time and money and raised a lot of young people’s hopes by holding a national talent contest to choose the performer for this year’s European contest only to call on Sakis in the end. Sakis, like de Gaulle meeting the call of Free France, rose to the occasion, heeding the cries of the motherland. And, for all their jaded sophistication and endless cynicism, the Greeks loved him. They forgot the fuss over the abortive contest, they ignored the fact that the lyrics of «Shake It» were in English (along with some Latin declarations of love). Here was someone who made the Greeks look good. And, to top it all, the fact that Greece not only had a chance to do well in the contest but also appeared to have a good horse in the race, suddenly got our competitive spirit up. And the Greeks like nothing more than a competition. They take them so seriously that they very often avoid them. But once the flag is down and the hare is haring around the track we are all climbing on the railings, baying for blood – or gold or whatever. If it weren’t for this competitive instinct, the Greeks would not have gone to Troy to bring back the trophy wife that Paris stole from Menelaus, they would not have devised the sporting competitions that have come down to our age in the form of the Olympics, they would not have written great tragedies in pursuit of a prize that was no more than a goat. If the Greeks were not so competitive, they may not have survived so many thousands of years. But they did, and every time they got the opportunity to sail into new worlds, they managed to exceed themselves, adding to the long roster of Greek glory. Well, Sakis’s shaking his well-muscled body in Istanbul was not the same as Jason coming back with the Golden Fleece and a fatal squeeze, nor Mike Dukakis being a candidate for president of the United States, but we felt that we certainly did have a horse in this race. And so we took it as seriously as Sakis did. The wonderful thing – the thing that only those fortunate enough to watch at least part of the show could see – was that there is a whole new continent out there that also takes the Eurovision song contest seriously. Where did all these countries come from? There were 36 of them voting and 24 competing, as not all had qualified. (This was the first time there was a semifinal to keep things at a manageable level.) We have been hearing and reading about European expansion and just on May 1 the European Union took in 10 new members in its greatest single expansion. But there are a lot of countries out there that are still not part of the EU and they are very keen to show that they are as good as anyone else. So as the old powers of Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, Italy (which did not even compete in this contest) contemplate being big fish in a much bigger pond, there are enthusiastic nations that had been suppressed for several generations suddenly taking the stage in the best dress their national designers can design, with their best choreography. And their audiences take things seriously. The tackiness and frivolity of the contest suddenly takes on a new meaning because the people who are competing are serious about it. They realize that in the great morass of news and events that take place every day, this is one of the few chances that their nations have to tell the rest of the world that they are there. And this earnestness has a way of purifying those who come into contact with it. We saw this in the way the Greeks suddenly warmed to Sakis and to Eurovision in general. The contest was alive because we willed it to be alive. And for one night, Europe was chattering away about performers that most people had never heard of and countries that they hear about once in a decade. And the citizens of these nations were empowered to give the thumbs up or down to our contestant in the ring, and our feelings went up or down according to the whims of the Viking descendants in Vilnius. And, like someone who usually drives to work and for some reason finds himself on the subway, we looked around and saw our neighbors and friends from foreign places. Greeks were stunned when Albania gave them the maximum 12 points, and Greece gave Albania 10. The Turkish group, called Athena, got six from Greece while the Turks gave Greece 10. And so on and so forth. The birth of the Eurovision contest was probably aimed at something a little like this in the ancient times of the mid-1950s when there were a handful of state television stations in Western Europe. Now the universe is expanding, and Sakis is riding the wave. He came third but he warmed our hearts. Now, if we deal with serious issues in the same way, Sakis will truly have shaken some sense into us.

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