Shabbat Goy: A bit of escapism called Eurovision

The country will share my lapse in taste.

May 28, 2010 22:27
'Israel douze points'

eurovision caricature 311. (photo credit: Pepe Fainburg)

I like Eurovision. There, I’ve said it. I feel better already. Perhaps it’s the unintended hilarity value of the songfest that grabs me. What’s there not to like about its unbridled eccentricity? Or its unwitting efforts to bankrupt entire national broadcasters?* Nothing about the yearly debacle fails to amuse: the Byzantine qualification process, the national voting, even the performances on the evening; the unabashed vulgarity of the performances, topped only by the often utter incomprehensibility of the songs – not surprising, given that more than once, competitors have chosen to sing in languages not known to any man on earth?

It’s a matter of taste, obviously. And since I’ve never knowingly been accused of having good taste, I suppose that the rather dubious pleasures that I derive from the yearly car crash masquerading as light entertainment can be discounted without further comment.

But that’s just me. How does one begin to explain the amount of interest generated in Israel by the competition each year?

It could be gratitude, given the contribution that Eurovision has made to “putting Israel on the map.” Of course, the original distinction for achieving this feat – assuming that one is happy to ignore the country’s preceding history – belongs to Tal Brody and the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, following their victory in the 1977 Euroleague.

A tough act to follow, one understands. But under the circumstances, Israel’s triumph the following year in the Eurovision competition must be considered as nothing less than reinforcement of this new-found position. Even if this honor fell to that seminal moment in contemporary songwriting, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.” Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose.**

Another possible explanation is the uncanny capacity of Israel’s entries to the competition to capture the zeitgeist of the times: the anxieties, hopes and fears of a small nation constantly besieged by enemies on all sides. Maybe.

Teapack’s 2007 entry “Push The Button” is an exemplar in this respect. Consider the song’s urgent warning about “crazy rulers” and their desire to “push the button”; contemplate this epochal moment in songwriting: “I wanna see the flowers bloom/Don’t wanna go kaput kaboom.”

Sadly, no one remembered to tell Kobi Oz et al that poignant and powerful sentiments must be accompanied by at least half-way-decent lyrics and arrangements: “Push the Button” failed to make it through pre-qualification, I’m sorry to say.

One argument that’s pushed quite frequently is the use of Eurovision as a tool with which to gauge Israel’s standing in the wider world.

For the mercifully uninitiated, the competition runs something like this: Each country’s entry is subject to a pan-European national vote, with each eligible country voting on a sliding scale from 12 points down to one. There is some evidence of what may euphemistically be described as “tactical voting,” with the Balkan countries giving each other the full 12 points at one end, and Greece and Turkey steadfastly ignoring each other’s entries – regardless of “merit” – at the other.

In Israel’s case, overall placement in the main competition often takes a back seat to careful scrutiny and analysis of voting patterns. This is usually summarized along the lines of “The British/French/Scandinavians didn’t vote for us because they are anti-Semitic.”

I see. (Apparently, Israel has over the years received more voting points from France than any other country. Make of that what you will.)

But all this is neither here nor there. The good thing – for me, at least – is I’ll be sharing my lapse in taste and good judgment with much of the country this weekend. I rather suspect that, deep inside, no one really takes the competition, or the competitors, very seriously, and that it is actually little more than a bit of harmless escapism.

Still on the topic of the music I like, I don’t particularly like any of the following: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Paul Anka. I used to like Seal, but that stopped when he started singing about kissing roses. Likewise Metallica, when they adopted ideas above their station and started to perform with a live orchestra. Likewise, I’ve never liked Elvis Costello very much. Too much of a geek for my taste.

This is relevant because out of the six, the first five – superannuated pop performers to a man – will be (as I write, this remains the case) performing in these parts this summer. The last was also supposed to sing for his supper in Israel, but then decided not to do so, canceling his concert at the last minute for various reasons connected to Israel’s troubled relationship with its next-door neighbors.

His decision seems to have worked its way under the skin of quite a few people, some quite high up – and not in what one might consider his natural constituency, either. Culture Minister Limor Livnat, for instance, declared that “an artist that boycotts his fans is not worthy to play in front of them.” Fighting talk, if a bit of a circular argument. But I’ll let that pass.

To be fair, it is easy to be cynical about the reasons Costello cited in his decision to cancel his concerts. I mean, it isn’t as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted over the last six months; but, on the other hand, the vehemence of the response to his decision does seem a little bit... overstated, perhaps?

The people doth protest too much, I think. It seems almost as if Israel needs Mr. Costello more than Mr. Costello needs – needed – Israel.

And when matters come to a head like this, over a singer whose best years are long, long behind him, I think it might be time to sit down and have a serious think about what’s going on. Or, alternatively, watch Eurovision and think about nothing at all.

*RTE, the Irish national broadcaster denies this, of course. But how else can one explain Eddie Friel’s classic “Dreamin’” other than as an attempt to ensure that they didn’t win for the fourth year on the trot?

**Incidentally, did you know that the great Shlomo Artzi tried – and failed – to win Eurovision? This fact has absolutely no relevance to this column. But I thought I’d mention it...

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