Letter from Thessaloniki

Let me tell you a fairy tale that James Thurber paraphrased back in the 1930s: «One afternoon, a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother.» And so forth, and so on, until the end of the story: «So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. Moral: It is not as easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.» That kind of parody reigned in the video clips on classical fairy tales which Estonian TV prepared the other night. It was a dream carried too far, a kind of a creepily perky fairy tale for previously unheralded Estonians to play host to Europe’s biggest song contest. Therefore «they decided to present a series of retellings of fairy tales» by contestants taking part at the 47th annual Eurovision Song Contest. At least that is what ET-1 TV commentator Daphne Bokota maintained. On Saturday, the Eurovision 2002 song contest in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, a country eager to establish its credentials as a mainstream European state, was won by Latvian representative Marie N with the song «I Wanna» which scored 176 points. Maltese singer Ira Losco came second with «Seventh Wonder» (164 points). Cyprus with «Gimme your Lovin» by George Theofanous made it to a respectable seventh position, while Greece came – after Turkey – in 17th place. Altogether, 24 countries took part in the pan-European song contest of camp, kitsch and incontestable cheesiness. Us patriotic Greeks watched to see if our hopeful could bring home the musical booty as Michalis Rakinztis, encased in black leather (go home, Michael Jackson!), had promised to do before leaving the country. But this year, alas, it was not to go our way. Although Michalis Rakintzis has already obtained some 16 gold and platinum records, in Tallinn he appeared as yet another victim of a globalization that has brought on a certain homogenization. Songs ain’t what they used to be any more. Because they must be instantly memorable in order to woo voters from across borders, melodies have to be as straightforward as possible, lyrics of the «la la la» school, and performers need to opt for one-word titles. His song, «S.A.G.A.P.O.,» was probably too sophisticated. Thus on Saturday, we heard the prize-winners from Latvia chanting: I wanna be the sunshine in your arms I wanna be the light from shooting stars I wanna be the Queen in your sweet lies I wanna be the love spark in your eyes Probably the Austrians overdid the straightforwardness with: Say a word and I’ll be there Say a word and I’ll be there Say a word and I will care Say a word and I’ll be there Say a word and I’ll be there Say a word and I’ll be there Say a word and I will care They got very few votes. Perhaps anticipating the perils of minimalism, the Maltese entry sang more complicated lyrics: Is it good? Is it bad? Am I simply going mad? Is it fiction? Or fact? Am I really losing tact? They got an enviable second place. Trilling melodic – incomprehensible to me – words such as «Mutsuzum, suskunum, durgunum Yorgunum,» the Turkish singer got one vote more than we Greeks did. One can only lament that there isn’t as much local distinctiveness as in the past. Some twenty-something years ago, Greece sent folk singer Marisa Koch with a distinctly Greek song. It’s a general phenomenon: Countries seem to be abandoning their ethnic origins and everything is becoming very, very American. Anyway, whose patria are we talking about? Some more questions: Well, all in all, how did it go for us this time? Why do countries not vote for us? Rhetorical questions never get answered, either in Tallinn or in present-day Athens. Every year you think it can’t get any worse; and every year you’re wrong. In a contest that looks desperately tired, old and in dire need of either a pension or even being laid to rest permanently, our song was not that bad after all. Say the magic word: S’agapo! Anyway, not just ours. Too many songs sounded really ’70s and ’80s. Predictably, the voting was full of idiosyncrasies and regional biases (including Greece and Cyprus giving each other the maximum 12 points). The Scandinavians voted for one another. As Daphne Bokota, the long-time Greek commentator noted, it seems the prize will stay within the Nordic countries from now on. Not because they are that outstanding, but because together they come to over six countries and they give top scores to each other and not to the others, while Sweden seems to dole out points to those poor ex-Soviet relations who need it. So do most of the ex-Yugoslav Republics such as FYROM, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course there are exceptions. If other countries vote (predictably again) for their «neighbors,» ours don’t. We got nothing from Turkey. Nothing from FYROM. Could it be that the latter gave eight points to Turkey just to annoy us? Incidentally, why do they allow political voting each year anyway? At least Greece and Turkey, long at loggerheads over the Aegean and the divided island of Cyprus, make no secret of their national juries’ refusal to back each other’s entries. Some countries are so pathetically predictable as regards who they would vote for that one wishes that jurors should first judge the music and then be told what country it was. But if we get rid of patriotism, what do we put in its place, if anything? Anyway, the level of music isn’t really the point in such contests, which are all about glitz and glam. Costume-wise, there was a lot to talk about. It seems that the greatest fuss was made over the three men representing Slovenia. Miss Marlenna, Daphne and Emperatrizz performed «Only Love» in high heels, red lipstick and glittering scarlet-stewardess uniforms. Sestre, or Sisters as they call themselves, is a gay transvestite trio. They stirred a Eurovision storm. There have been protests in the capital, Ljubjlana, with anti-gay and gay activists taking to the streets. Dutch Euro-Deputy Lousewies van der Laan of the European Parliament Public Liberties and Civic Rights Committee told Slovene TV how shocked she was when she was informed of the public debate. «I was very shocked indeed to learn that in Slovenia there is again a debate relating to sexual minorities. That the issue of gay rights is coming up, confirms to us that perhaps Slovenia is not yet ready for EU membership,» she said. Just as the Academy Awards are all about gowns, so is Eurovision too. FYROM’s contestant showed up in a Brunnhilde outfit, the winner from Latvia was dressed as a male impersonator, the Russians – who were called Prime Minister and who sang in English, yes, in English – were also doing a poor imitation of a ’70s US hit clad in aggressively tasteless white jumpsuits. And the quite freaky looking Croatian wore an S&M frock. (Her lyricist, we were informed, is married to a Panathinaikos football player.) Nonetheless, I personally did not find the contest to be a total waste of a Saturday night’s prime-time viewing. When in the mood, I like an old-style bubble gum disco. PS: Oh yeah… and isn’t it sad that Italy did not compete?