Eurovision’s Mormon Moment

May 24, 2008 | 23 comments
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From the international annals of overachieving singing and dancing Mormons

The Mormon moment for the Eurovision Song Contest came in 1984. Since 1956, the member nations of the European Broadcasting Union have held an annual contest in which each nation selects one contestant, and an overall European winner is selected in the live televised finale. In 1984, three Swedish brothers, Richard, Louis, and Per Herrey, all church members, beat out the Irish entry by just eight points to take first place with their song “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley.” Some Wikipedia contributor calls the song a sign of “everything wrong with the Contest,” with “three impossibly clean-cut young men” singing 80s dance music with a nonsense title. But the song also proved influential in its own way. Although the Herreys didn’t go on to musical stardom, a copycat number won the contest in 1985, and a leading repository of Eurovision lyrics can be found at diggiloo.net. To make the musical moment complete, the Herreys’ success was met by the accusation from a conservative Protestant minister that the title was actually a smutty inquiry in disguise (exercise left to the reader).

Most Americans know Eurovision, if at all, only in the form of abominable Youtube videos, which is too bad. The event itself is both entertaining and utterly fascinating. It’s rumored that the event can now be viewed over the Internet. Americans who tune in looking for the next ABBA or Celine Dion will probably be disappointed, however. In most cases, Eurovision is not about finding Europe’s next superstar. Some songs may be quite good, but what’s most interesting is how nations and performers use music and television to work out a European identity.

The European Broadcasting Union is bigger than the EU, and much easier to join. This year’s entries push the boundaries of Europe to include Israel, Turkey, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Morocco has participated in the past, and other North African nations could choose to participate. Eurovision provides a glimpse into current European aspirations, and into who may or may not be joining the EU in another decade or two.

Since each nation gets the same number of votes in the final regardless of its population, the largest countries with most of the viewing audience subsidize the disproportionate influence of smaller countries. People used to complain that the Scandinavian countries always voted for each other, and now the republics of the former Yugoslavia tend to do the same. But this seems like a small price for the rich nations of Europe to pay, since Bosnians’ voting highly for the Serbian entry, and vice-versa, is one of the few hopeful signs to emerge from the Balkans in years.

Each nation in the Eurovision competition is faced with the challenge of attuning local musical tastes to an overall European preference. Some countries aim for a cosmopolitan sound that could be written or sung anywhere. The next year, the same country might choose to remind its neighbors that it is musically and culturally distinct, thank you, and let the consequences fall where they may.

The choice of language becomes especially sensitive. There are four basic strategies for singing to a polylingual European audience:
1. Sing in English, so everyone can understand the song.
2. Sing in the national language, because it’s authentic, and we don’t care what the rest of Europe thinks, or we don’t want to look like we care what the rest of Europe thinks.
3. Sing one or two verses in the national language and one or two in English.
4. Write lyrics that include snatches from as many European languages as possible.

(For all of these reasons, the idea of an American equivalent of Eurovision is ludicrous, unless you accept the possibility of Honduras and Guatemala voting to push the entry from Belize to victory over Vermont and Manitoba. The 50 U.S. states don’t have enough diversity to make a contest only between them at all interesting.)

There are other considerations that go into winning the Eurovision contest, of course. High-energy, upbeat songs have a good track record, but last year Serbia came through with an impassioned chanson, so we can expect to see more of those this year. Sex sells; there will no doubt be some outfits of questionable taste. After Lordi in 2006 and Ukraine’s strong second place finish last year, we can probably expect to see more novelty acts, unfortunately. We’ll have to see how well clean cut fares in 2008 (to my knowledge, Eurovision does not have any Mormon contestants this year). I’ll be tuning in at 9:00 PM tonight (or noon on the West Coast, 3:00 PM on the East Coast) to find out.

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23 Responses to Eurovision’s Mormon Moment

  1. Bored in Vernal on May 24, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Louis Herrey is now a seminary teacher and blogger!! Check him out at A Good Life.

  2. Wilfried on May 24, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Great overview, Jonathan. Yes, the Herrey’s, those were the days!

    One clarification though: Israel has been participating in Eurovision since 1973 and won three times.
    First time in 1978 with A Ba Ni Bi.
    Second time in 1979 with the IMO beautiful Hallelujah.
    Third time in 1998 with the controversial Diva, causing outrage among Orthodox Jews.

    As to the choice of languages, there is also a 5th possibility: sing a nonsense language, like the Belgians do! With this one they won second place in 2003!

  3. Jonathan Green on May 24, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Right, Wilfried, I meant that those contestants in this year’s contest lie outside of what we usually think of as Europe, not that they were new contestants this year. Thanks for the clarification.

    BiV, you’ve made my day.

  4. Norbert on May 24, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Nice summary. Another Eurovision/Mormon connection: the lyrics for Finland’s 2005 entry ‘Why’ were written by a Mormon. They didn’t make the finals, and the next year Lordi was the national choice to represent the country in Eurovision. The rest is regrettable history.

  5. Geoff J on May 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    Those videos are AWESOME.

  6. Jonovitch on May 24, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    The only word that comes to mind: Schlagermusik.

    Jon

  7. Bill Chapman on May 24, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    I hope that one day every entry will be sung in Esperanto, the international language. This is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

  8. Jonathan Green on May 24, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Voting is about to start. I hope that another impassioned chanson doesn’t win, because it seemed like those made up half the numbers this year. Poland and Sweden had the best in that genre, I thought, but I preferred the offbeat numbers from Bosnia and France.

  9. Jonathan Green on May 24, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Oh, and “clean-cut” seems not to have done well at all this year. Ack.

  10. Wilfried on May 24, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    # 5 – Schlagermusik? That’s about the same as saying that American Idol is Country&Western. Forty-three countries compete, with songs from hard rock to ballads and all varieties in between. Past few years quite a few songs have been kitschy or simply provocative (Lordi), but there are some pretty original and artistic ones. A schlager would never win. Not for some 500 million viewers with so diverse cultural backgrounds.

  11. Jonathan Green on May 24, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    But Wilfried, that’s not to say that some countries don’t keep trying to win with the equivalent of Schlager. The combination of hard rock and Azeri folk music was…interesting. Keeping the musical styles straight can be tricky–last year, an Eurovision-related opinion piece in the New York Times confused Hungarian R&B with Country&Western.

    This year, my preferences seem to have been shared by few Europeans, unfortunately. My preferences ended up in the bottom of the division. The novelty acts faded, but nothing could stop the chansons. At least Russia won by featuring a real ice skater and a real Stradivarius.

  12. JKS on May 24, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Don’t forget 99 Luft Baloons. Didn’t that win in the late 80s?
    I remember being a kid in England and watching the Eurovision song contest in 1982, I think. A wonderful song won, “A Little Peace” which the artist sang in multiple languages for the winner’s encore. I still remember all the words. The losing song was titled “Don’t Drop that Neutron Bomb on Me.” My dad still thinks that was hilarious.

  13. dangermom on May 25, 2008 at 1:16 am

    I remember this contest–I can still sing the Danish entry for the 1990 contest! Actually I have it on my playlist.

  14. Wilfried on May 25, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Right, Jonathan & JKS, I should not have generalized too much. Eurovision does not exclude schlagers. Depends also on the definition of “schlager”. In a broad sense, these are sentimental songs with a simple melody, sometimes used in the early Eurovision years. Even later, like indeed A little peace (Ein Bisschen Frieden) by Nicole, who won in 1982. In a narrow sense schlager evokes mediocrity and kitschy melancholy. We haven’t seen much of that at Eurovision these past decades, and certainly not as winners. But you never know, with the revival of schlagers tied to provocative kitsch or to gay culture, everything is possible.

    To bring it back to the Mormon theme and the impact Eurovision could have on the Church’s image, could we do more? Would it be such a bad idea to have some tatented missionary of missionary group apply in local selections? You do not have to be a citizen of any country to try out for Eurovision and you can sing in any language. In fact many participants have been foreigners to the country they represent. In 1988 Canadian Celine Dion won for Switserland. When does David Archuleta go on his mission? Hope he gets a call to Belgium.

  15. Peter LLC on May 25, 2008 at 4:44 am

    In fact many participants have been foreigners to the country they represent.

    Yeah, like this year’s “Greek” entry.

  16. Brian Barker on May 25, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Bill Chapman\’s suggestion about Esperanto is not as startling as it might seem.
    You might like to see Paul O\’Grady\’s presentation of the subject!
    http://www.youtube/watch?v=qNDt8j6oUHo

  17. Jonathan Green on May 25, 2008 at 8:26 am

    JKS, Nena’s “99 Luftballons” is German New Wave, not at all like Schlager, and never came close to participation in Eurovision. We have standards here, I tell you, standards!

  18. Julien on May 26, 2008 at 6:04 am

    The problem with the Eurovision Song Contest – besides the usually horrible selection of uninteresting and terribly performed songs – is the way in which the winner is determined. Every participating nation can call in for any other performer – every performer EXCEPT one’s own country. This of course is done in order to prevent more highly populated countries from winning each time due to the highest amount of callers/inhabitants. But especially last year has shown that people meaning to call in for their own country just go to see some friends across the border for the night, call from there and go back – which leads to all of those countries giving each other voices and larger countries or such bordering less countries, go on losing. Serbia getting all the Balkan votes showed that last year, Russia did this year. Winning the contest doesn’t have anything to do with performing the best song, but with getting most “Eurovision tourist” calls….

  19. Tiffany on May 26, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    My best friend in Sweden joined the church because of that song. She was 14 when they were big. She thought the Herrey’s were so cute and went to the church to see what they were all about. She ended up getting baptized and now has a wonderful family, all active in the church.

  20. Ronan on May 27, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    The UK came last…again.

  21. Ronan on May 27, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    BTW, the fact that many European countries seem to take Eurovision seriously only confirms to me that we (i.e. the British) will never truly be European.

  22. Jonathan Green on May 28, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Ronan, I sympathize. The British didn’t deserve last place this year. Last year, though…

  23. GuyC on May 28, 2008 at 10:08 am

    When I lived in England, I watched this event every year. I always thought the voting was a little hokey, but I enjoyed it none-the-less.

    While I was in England (left in 92) I was good friends with Katrina and Vince from the group Katrina and the Waves, who won the Eurovision for the UK in 97. Both Katrina and Vince are Americans by birth, but live and perform in England.

    Thanks for this thread! Sure brough back fond memories!!!