I’ve been very annoyed lately, on the completely justified and not-at-all ridiculous grounds that Sweden’s TV4 has blocked all American access to Internet broadcasts of the current Swedish Idol season. (Don’t judge me. Or if you do judge me, at least judge me positively.) Watching other countries’ Idol programs on the Internet is great, because–until the long arm of copyright law got in the way, at least–you could just watch the singing parts without having to sit through the commentary, the endless filler, or the results process. Also Swedish Idol has produced a number of my favorite singers of recent years, including Tove Ostman Styrke (3rd place and 2009) and Linnea Henriksson, who came in fourth last year by singing the Knife and Antony and the Johnsons’ songs.
But my love for competitive Scandinavian sing-offs is undying, and my patience for streaming video knows no bounds, so I’ve been watching a lot of old Eurovision clips.
The Eurovision Song Contest, if you don’t know, is a musical competition held every spring wherein all the countries of Europe (and also Israel) compete for cultural dominance through the power of the three-minute pop song. It has been going on since the ’50s and it is basically the greatest thing in the entire world, even when it’s terrible (which it can be, sometimes).
Anyway, that brings me to my love of Päivi Paunu and Kim Floor, the duo who very stylishly competed for Finland in Eurovision 1972 with the folksy song “Muistathan.” 1972 was a big year for male-female duos at Eurovision; six of the 18 competing nations sent such couples to perform. And like many duos who perform on stage together, Päivi and Kim wore matching outfits: brown buttondown shirts with giant collars (it was 1972, after all) paired with bright white jackets. It’s a great look, and suits both of them quite well, a hard feat to achieve since Floor, a bearded man with a remarkably deep voice, is over a head taller than his companion. I’m not quite sure why he’s wearing a watch, though. It seems like an odd touch for someone who’s going to be on stage no more than three minutes total, unless I’m misreading a bracelet that just looks like a watchband. But while I could do without that one detail, I give them full points for presentation.
A few years later ABBA graced the Eurovision stage to perform “Waterloo,” their breakthrough hit. Comprised of not one but two real-life couples, the quartet went the opposite stylistic route, looking as if each members’ outfit was hand-selected by a different three-year old. It’s hard to say what’s worst here: Benny’s fussy sleeves? Bjorn’s absurd guitar and over-the-knee boots? Agnetha’s short pants, which draw way too much attention to that vast plain beneath where her little jacket ends? Lucky Frida, who fares the best in her Grand Ole Opry get-up. So bad (so bad!) even though “Waterloo” is so good (so good!)
In the mid-’80s, groups of couples again took to the Eurovision stage, including Denmark’s Hot Eyes, who competed in two consecutive years, the second time with a nine-year-old running around on stage. In 1984, there were two other couples, and I have so much to say about both of them that I’ll just present them together.
First up, Alice and Franco Battiato, with “I treni di Tozeur,” a song about trains on the Tunisian-Algerian frontier. The song is not even remotely catchy and features accompaniment by three mezzo-sopranos who sing for a total of eight seconds (and who are dressed in a very half-assed approximation of the Italian flag). Battiato, meanwhile, looks like a Poindexter; with a pen and a glasses case in his breast pocket, he finishes his lines and then stares chillingly into the camera lens. Alice fares better in a white raincoat and black gloves, and actually looks moderately glamorous, a feat in itself considering how hideous the set was that year.
Speaking of glamour and Italian song titles, I couldn’t possibly not mention “Ciao Amore,” that same year’s entry from Yugoslavian pair Vlado and Isolde. They look ready for a junior prom, Isolde with a big flower in her equally big hair and Vlado, awkwardly gesticulating like a proto-Seinfeld and sounding like someone who recently swallowed a box of thumbtacks.
Let’s skip ahead a couple of decades to t.A.T.u, the pair of teenaged lesbians who placed this for Russia at Eurovision 2003. That they were lesbians–or, you know, marketed as such–isn’t that surprising for a contest like Eurovision, which has always had a huge gay following. Actually, in 1998 a transgender performer named Dana International won the contest for Israel. What is surprising is that they abandoned their naughty schoolgirl look and instead went completely casual, with cuffed jeans and number one t-shirts. Their style here is completely overwhelmed by the elaborate light show and, let’s be honest, their drummer’s emoface.
Finally, I’ll conclude with the current Eurovision champions, Eli & Nikki, whose rather tepid ballad “Running Scared” scored Azerbaijan their first-ever victory in the competition. Like many contestants of recent years, the pair opted for a slightly-but-not-overly fancy all-white look. Only the third duo in Eurovision history to actually win the contest and the first male-female couple to take the award since 1963, Eli & Nikki are now their country’s most well-known cultural export. (Their win is pretty politically significant, too, since a new stadium is being built just for the occasion in Baku, the capital, and since the Azeri government will be required to allow in Western reporters next May.)
It hardly seems worth it, somehow.