There are two main reasons for the importance of the song “Dschinghis Khan” in the history of the annual Eurovision song competition, which marks its 60th year this week in Vienna. The song was the source for the entry of absurd trash into the contest years later, and even more important, it changed my life. Until I watched the proud gang of German clubbers dressed up as Mongolian warriors screaming “Hu! Ha!” music was not a central interest of mine. “Dschinghis Khan” excited me so much that when they appeared on the stage for Eurovision in Jerusalem in 1979, I started to obsessively search for other bands who dress up, it didn’t matter what. I got to the Village People and then quickly to Kiss – and that is how I started listening to rock, and later punk, and the rest is history that happened in dingy alternative clubs.
But it all started 24 years earlier, in the fall of 1955, when the members of the new European Broadcasting Union met to plan a television event that would demonstrate the broadcasting abilities of the multinational institution in the new medium. At first they considered a circus or dance program, but in the end they decided to hold a song contest in the spirit of the San Remo Music Festival in Italy. What followed, as everyone knows, is six decades filled with a number of true pop gems, several bizarre groups that would have gotten lynched anywhere outside of Eurovision, an endless amount of choreography and arrangements bordering on the criminal, and of course the mountains of trash - which include quite a few songs that won the competition.
Eurovision is divided into three eras: The first was the golden era, when the competition was considered a serious event and European countries sent professionals to compete, many of whom were already major stars at home, along with their best composers, conductors, directors and musicians (all of whom, without exception, wearing screen-shattering hairdos). This era lasted from the late 1950s to the 1980s, when we received the ultimate synthetic pop hit of Eurovision: “J’aime la vie” from the teenage Belgian sensation Sandra Kim.
The second era saw a bizarre and trashy deterioration in musical quality, with an emphasis on ethnic-pagan-shamanism. Its roots were in the song “Nocturne” by the Norwegian Secret Garden, which won Eurovision in 1995 with the sad, folk-gothic song in a Dead Can Dance fashion. This ethnic wave was influenced by the gradual weakening of the hegemony of the state television channels all over Europe, and by the collapse of communism, which doubled the number of countries participating in the contest.
I have no scientific way to prove it, but we can say the pop tradition, or chanson of Western Europe, received a bizarre twist in various dosages in Eastern Europe, which expressed themselves in a flood of idiotic songs, even if they brought with them a wonderful step up in the trashiness of the costumes and arrangements. This wave reached its peak with the victory of Ruslana from Ukraine in 2004 with the song “Wild Dances” and the wardrobe of Conan the Barbarian. This is when the dam burst and everything spun out of control. This wave ended with “Hard Rock Hallelujah” by Lordi, the Finnish heavy metal ensemble dressed up monstrously, which won the contest in 2006.
Then the present era began, the worst of them all: The era of European Idol. The collection of Eurovision songs this year, released as an album before the competition, is impossible to listen to. It is filled with identical songs by people, some of whom make the Israeli contestant – Nadav Guedj, winner of the reality show contest “Rising Star” – sound, for a moment, like an inspired artist. The only ray of light in this era is the few pop dance moments with some type of contemporary connection, such as “Euphoria” from Sweden’s Loreen.
In the endless ocean of vagueness and vapidity, it is easy for those preserving the spark of the trash era to win it all, and that is what happened last year with Conchita Wurst, and I challenge readers to hum even a single lyric from his dramatic, but forgettable song. You would think that Wurst had closed the circle on the global understanding of Eurovision as an accessory of gay culture that came about with the victory of Israel’s own transgender Dana International in 1998. Wurst and Dana even cooperated in a tribute performance to Eurovision held in London, where they performed Abba’s “Waterloo” (winner in 1974) together. The difference, except for the fact that Dana is a transgender and Wurst is a drag queen, is that Dana’s song was a big hit and put the contest back into public awareness after years of growing viewer apathy.
After listening to the well known hits in “The Official 60th Anniversary CD,” I will be iconoclastic and declare that Cliff Richards’ “Congratulations,” which only came in second place in 1968, is a miserable song. But the collection is full of songs that are eternal musical classics in the real world outside Eurovision: “Volare” by Domenico Modugno (third place, 1958); “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son” (winner in 1965) by France Gall, representing Luxembourg with a Serge Gainsbourg song, probably the best number in the history of Eurovision; and “Puppet on a String” by Britain’s Sandi Shaw (winner in 1967).
Here we enter the Seventies, and the Eurovision contest really starts to rock. Abba’s “Waterloo,” which wiped the floor with Israel’s Kaveret in 1974, was the launching pad for what became one of the greatest pop groups in history. But look at the list of consecutive winners: “Ding-a-Dong,” “Save Your Kisses for Me,” “L’oiseau et L’enfant,” “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” “Hallelujah,” “What’s Another Year,” “Making Up Your Mind,” and “Ein Bisschen Frieden.”
What does not come out on the CD is that the 1979 and 1980 contests were filled with wonderful songs; most of them much better than those in the official collection. The 1979 contest was held in Israel and included “Satellite” by Sweden’s Ted, “Socrates” from Greece by Elpida; “Colorado” from Holland; Tommy Seebach’s “Disco Tango;” and of course the Spanish song “Su Canción,” which lost out to Israel’s “Hallelujah” at the very last minute.
Israelis did not pay too much attention to the songs of the 1980 contest, held in Amsterdam, because Israel did not participate that year even though it was meant to host the show – and missed out on a historic opportunity to host two years in row because of budgetary considerations.
Except for the heavy handed winning ballad “What’s Another Year” by Ireland’s Johnny Logan, there were a number of really bit hits – first of all the ironic song “Euro-Vision” from the Belgian new wave electronic group Telex, but also the excellent power-pop of Tomas Ledin from Sweden, a star in his own land, with “Just Nu!”; Ajda from Turkey with “Pet’r Oil;” the beautiful “Amsterdam” of Maggie MacNeal; and the hit of the children’s song festival, “Papa Penguin” by the twins from Luxembourg Sophie and Magaly, who were accompanied by a seeming pervert dressed up as the Antarctic avian. Let’s see if you can find something as original and entertaining as those songs this time around.