Here’s a trivia question every nerd will be able to answer: What song won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1959? If you answered Sing Little Birdie in a bad Chinese accent, you are officially a social embarrassment, since you must be a Monty Python fan. You only know the answer to the question because you know the skit in which four famous Communists (Marx, Che, Lenin and Mao) are forced to appear on a British quiz show, competing for a lounge suite. (Marx is baffled by a football question; Mao gets the Eurovision one.)
Even at the time of that skit, the early seventies, the Eurovision contest was a cultural joke: It symbolized the blandest of pop, the lightest of entertainments, the worst insult to the seriousness of the great revolutionaries. Created in 1956 as a unity-building diversion for Western Europe at the height of the Cold War, it was easy to laugh at in the age of rock ’n’ roll and counterculture. And if you listen to Sing Little Birdie, a children’s song by Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, you will feel how desperately the world must have craved rock ’n’ roll in 1959. (By the way, pace Python, the song actually came second, not first.)
The contest has been culturally irrelevant ever since, seen by music critics as a showcase for bubblegum and tourism commercials. Its most famous success story is ABBA (the 1974 winners).Why, then, is it still going, a massive annual televised event (airing this year from Malmo, Sweden, starting on May 14)?
See, if it wasn’t for Eurovision, you wouldn’t have seen, this week, in your social media feed, the strangest rock video of the year – possibly of your life. It’s a performance by an Estonian punk band called Winny Puhh, broadcast on Estonian television as part of their national contest to select their representative at Eurovision. Winny Puhh’s performance reminds one, finally, of how much fun pop music can be if it doesn’t cling slavishly to the soul-singing diva style that is worshipped by American televised talent competitions.
Winny Puhh is very silly. It’s a bunch of muscular guys wearing spandex wrestling shorts and hairy monster masks. The lead screamer has what appears to be a dead fox hanging from his microphone stand. There are two drummers suspended from the ceiling on a spinning, upside-down platform. The instruments strummed include a banjo and some sort of gourd-shaped double-bass. The Wookiee-headed front man has a favourite sound to emit: It’s a kind of yappy dog bark. The video is edited so as to provoke seizures, like a strobe light. At the end of their performance, three of the musicians are yanked upside-down by ropes attached to one foot, and dangle there like writhing sides of beef. You may not like this work of art, as music, but you have to admit its aesthetic is invigorating.
Okay, so Winny Puhh is just a novelty act, and there have been funny guys doing novelty songs on mainstream pop-music TV shows since an arm-flapping Steve Wahrer sang Surfin’ Bird on American Bandstand in 1963. Winny Puhh had little chance of winning Eurovision. (In fact, it did not even qualify to represent Estonia: The official entrant is Birgit Oigemeel, a pretty girl singing a soulful ballad with orchestral accompaniment, American Idol style. She has no chance of winning either, as she is stone boring.) But novelty acts have been getting further and further up the Eurovision finalists’ ladder in recent years. Last year a group of folk-singing grannies in traditional Russian costume made it to the final without any conventional pop sound. In 2006, the contest was won by a Finnish metal band in elaborate monster costumes. Generally acts have been growing more theatrical, with futuristic costumes and dance troupes. It’s actually becoming hard to predict what will impress the increasingly diverse European population.
So now the contest is a joke for different reasons – not as a cliché of blandness but as a cliché of weirdness. And it’s one of the few remaining bastions of earnest weirdness untinged by irony. The finalists are never hipsters making fun of the whole pop-music thing. Now that it is broadcast over the Internet as well, its audience only grows. And how else would you know about the newest Estonian punk?