Our Star for Oslo

The television offerings in Germany are awful in too many ways to describe. Throughout the year I have been amazed that the channel I watch most consistently is VIVA, a video channel similar to MTV. I don't have the German medical or legal terminology to watch House or Law and Order dubbed, and I have no patience for the dozens of regionally produced (i.e. PBS-style) Stammtisch programs, where people sit around and talk.

This spring I briefly fell under the spell of Deutschland Sucht den Superstar, Germany's version of American Idol (which is amazing in part because I would never, ever waste my time on Idol). In a similar vein but more to the point, I completely succumbed to Unser Star für Oslo (Our Star for Oslo).

The Eurovision Song Contest, for those who don't know, is an annual event televised all across Europe. Established in 1956 as an experiment in simultaneous transmission, the contest has become a European cultural phenomenon. The reason for this, I think, is that it is the only time in the year when everyone in Europe can turn on the television and watch what everyone else is watching.

As Americans, I think we have no idea how tantalizing this premise is. Culture critics complain that since Cronkite and Carson went off the air we no longer have shared mediated experiences. It may be true that we now live in a world with 57 channels and nothing on, but the fact remains that day after day, people in Idaho, Iowa, Alabama, Alaska, Maine, and Michigan all watch exactly the same programs on television. Now imagine a world in which each state speaks its own language, and has its own television networks, and in which there are only two hours a year when people in all 50 states watch the same thing at the same time. That's pretty much what the situation in Europe is.

The Eurovision Song Contest is like a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. It's like the former because it entails picking a wining performer. It's like the latter because national pride is at stake.

Each country selects a contestant for the contest as it sees fit. Our Star for Oslo is Germany's selection process. (Oslo is where the contest takes place this year.) This television program is roughly like American Idol: singers perform, judges critique, viewers vote, contestants are eliminated.

By the final program, there were just two contestants left, and somewhere around the middle of the broadcast, things got interesting. The judges' attention shifted from the contestants' performances to the larger issue of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. The winner, they observed, is usually a perky, happy song (ABBA won the song contest with "Waterloo," back in the day). This was the judges' oblique way of saying that the very talented rock vocalist on stage might not be the right gladiator to send into the circus.

Poor Germany hasn't won the Song Contest since 1982. They're seldom in the top ten even. (In the last five years they were 20th, 23rd, 19th, 14th, and 24th. If this were baseball they'd be the Cubs.) So when you think of Our Star for Oslo, think of American Idol with an extra element of we want blood.

Germany's winner this year is Lena Meyer-Landrut, who is quite good despite her inexperience (she's not even through with high school). The winning song is "Satellite," though I think her best performances were some of the other pieces she sang on the show.

When the judges veered into thinking about how to win in Oslo--well, that's where it gets interesting. One judge expressed sadness that the winning song, whatever it might be, would be in English. German or English, that is the question. German may represent Germany better in such a competition, but English sells.

And then there's the messy matter of "European" taste. They put up video clips of some of the competition. The styles and tastes represented couldn't be any less similar. Consider Holland (dreadful), Ireland (all that musical talent, and this is what they come up with?), Norway (popera), and Slovenia (I guess they love this in Ljubljana).

All in all, Eurovision is a healthy reminder that regardless of the state of European unification, the Europeans are still strangers to one another. I didn't invent this thought, but I think this is essentially correct: The only culture Europeans share is American pop culture. No wonder the victory-hungry Germans picked a song in English.


Anonymous said...

It is often interesting to hear different points of view on things well known tome. I have never really understood, why anyone really bothered with viewing or partaking in that event. It never occurred to me, that this event is one of the very few occasions (others being sports events on European or world level), where all of us Europeans would be watching the same programme, as you suggested.

I would go even further, now that I read about this thought. In preparation for the ESC, the European countries are also doing the same thing as the neighbor states over a certain period of time: They elect their candidates for the contest. It is a Europe wide struggle/effort/labor (sorry, unsure about the best word to use here :) ). This struggle is sort of a connection between the people of the different European countries. Hmm, in the end, the ESC really might be good for something. Thanks for the thought.

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