Bad songs, they say so much

The Eurovision Song Contest is losing its power.

Izabo (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘Good evening, Europe! Can you hear me?’ These words, yelled as if the presenter were trying to make contact with viewers throughout the continent without the aid of a microphone and the good auspices of the European Broadcasting Union, have finally lost their appeal.
There: I’ve said it. I am a cured Eurovision Song Contest addict. When the emcees in Baku, Azerbaijan, screamed out the question last week, as I’m sure they did, I could safely reply: “No. I can’t hear you; I’m not listening.”
But it’s not easy.
It’s not easy admitting a former fondness for Europe’s annual pop contest, whose music provided the soundtrack to my childhood, youth and even points of my professional life. It’s even harder confessing that I’m over it.
When “Waterloo” conquered the continent in 1974, thanks to the Swedish group ABBA, I was cheering it on. When Sweden’s Loreen won this year, I wasn’t even tuned in. And not just because it was the eve of Shavuot; because it has lost its touch.
When it comes to the Eurovision, my heart no longer goes “Boom Bang-a Bang,” in the words of Lulu, who won for Britain in 1969, when I was still young and impressionable.
In those days, I gave the show itself “douze points,” to use the term for the top possible marks – a phrase that has entered colloquial Hebrew.
The first time Israel won the contest, in 1978, was a pleasant surprise, bordering on shock. An English newspaper assessing the chances of the entries that year had determined, if I recall the barb correctly: “The only thing this song will win is a speeding ticket.”
It was a great moment for Israel. And I missed it. I still lived in England, where the Jewish community was celebrating second Seder night. The next day, I caught up with the news, the beat, and my classmates on a geography field trip to the Welsh mountains. Even in this remote spot, the hills were alive with the sound of this particular music. I suffered a crisis – not because I hadn’t seen the performance, but because I couldn’t understand the lyrics of “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.” It was a few more days before I was to discover that Izhar Cohen was singing “I love you” – “Ani ohev otach” – in a child’s play language.
The following year was glorious – a double win for Israel: Gali Atari and Milk and Honey won the contest from Jerusalem itself. “Hallelujah,” indeed. This was the song that accompanied me on my aliya that year. It’s a classic – still ringing out at sing-alongs and shows more than 30 years later.
OVER THE decades, the contest has grown bigger, noisier and increasingly camp (not, of course, that I didn’t feel a touch of national pride when Dana International proved to be the eponymous top “Diva” in 1998 when the contest was broadcast from Britain’s Birmingham.
Even then, it was unclear whether she won more for her background as a transsexual, or, as Israelis love to joke, because the country only has a chance when it is represented by Yemenite Jews like Atari and Cohen, and Dana International, who is half-Yemenite and half-Romanian.) I covered the singer’s colorful visit to the Knesset after her win, where reporters got hold of the story that her identity card still listed her as a male called Yaron Cohen.
Dana International’s biggest Eurovision moment, surprisingly, was not her 1998 win, but the broadcast from the event in Jerusalem the following year when she was presenting the trophy to the Swedish winners. One of the composers of the winning entry accidentally stepped on the trail of her dress and she tripped on stage – a slip estimated to have been seen by more than a billion viewers, affording her a second claim to fame in Eurovision history. In honor of the contest’s 50th anniversary in May 2005, she was voted one of the alltime favorite winners (although her “Ding Dong” flopped, as it were, in Germany last year).
Like all Israelis, I tend to blame our Eurovision failures on politics. In the Eurovision, scores are settled in public.
Israel’s chances of winning have decreased over the years not so much because of the quality of the songs as because of the quantity of contestants.
In 1973, for example, when Israel debuted with Ilanit singing “Ei Sham” under unprecedented post-Munich Massacre security, there were just 17 participating countries.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, so many independent states have sprung up that the semifinals need to be held over a two-day period, and this year, there were 42 participating countries. Unlike the Jewish state, many of these countries have natural allies (the former Yugoslavian republics, for instance, tend to vote for one another, as do the former Soviet Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries).
There were years when I combined business and pleasure, and followed the Eurovision as a journalist. I attended the pre-Eurovision Song Contest that determines the Israeli entrant, at which sing-along queen Saraleh Sharon coined a catchphrase as she clutched a bouquet and promised: “Haprahim letzahal” – “The flowers to the IDF.” And I have sat in Television House in Jerusalem with the Israeli jury.
Some years, it was the runners-up who turned out the lasting hits – I still enjoy Spain’s “Eres Tu” from 1973, and “Congratulations” by Cliff Richard (which won second place for Britain in 1968) has also lasted well.
This year, I doubt many people will be able to recall the lyrics and tune (such as they were) of Sweden’s winning entry, “Euphoria,” by the end of the month, let alone decades later. The Buranovskiye Babushki (“Grannies from Buranovo”), who won second place, will be remembered for their gimmick of being dressed in traditional peasant garb. Ancient wisdom, they did not impart.
Israel’s Izabo disappointingly didn’t make it into the finals – leading to local headlines based on the words of the song: “Time, time, don’t let me down.”
Singer-songwriter Shiri Hadar, a lead singer in the indie rock group along with her partner Ran Shem-Tov, won a measure of admiration for managing to breastfeed her five-month-old baby all around Baku during the week of rehearsals and touring leading up to the show, but she evidently couldn’t compete with the grooviest grannies in Eurovision history. Israelis ultimately gave the “douze points” to Sweden’s song.
Next year, we won’t be invited to participate. I won’t miss it. I do, however, miss the days when all Europe could for a while sing together “Hallelujah!” Now it sings to a very different tune.
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