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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 17 May 2006
Marketing: A New European Import
Topic: The Culture

Marketing: A New European Import

Who says all pop culture trends start out here in Hollywood? You've heard it all. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, offers something for everyone. Trends start here - some say so does the future. Hollywood creates trends. It determines what is cool. It's the world's cultural capital in some odd way, if the only culture left is large-scale shallow but flashy movies for the world market, popular music of all sorts, and what passes for fashion among fifteen-year-old girls, and celebrity detached from anything like achievement or expertise in anything but posing. And there's television - we gave the world the sit-com, games shows and The Simpsons and all the rest.

One needs to remember that Hollywood is a recent invention, incorporated as a municipality in 1903, with town ordinances prohibiting the sale of liquor except by pharmacists and one outlawing driving cattle through the streets in herds of more than two hundred. In 1904 we got the trolley - Los Angeles to Hollywood up Prospect Avenue. In 1910 Hollywood was annexed into the City of Los Angeles - we needed that water the new Los Angeles Aqueduct was piping down from the Owens Valley. Prospect Avenue was renamed Hollywood Boulevard. The movie industry boomed. Expatriates from Europe showed up in the thirties - Stravinsky, Schonberg, Man Ray - and Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald were writing screenplays, and drinking heavily at Musso and Franks. See this from February 4, 1905 in the Los Angeles Daily Times - "Business of an objectionable character has been discouraged; the saloon and its kindred evils are unknown." Times changed. Hollywood became the center of a certain sort of everything. And we came to know all the kindred evils, every one of them. We turned them into entertainment for the world.

But sometimes trends start elsewhere, and then out here in Hollywood we play catch-up, turning obscure French films into Hollywood blockbusters, and turning the Beatles into the far less odd Monkees. Now it seems to be happening again.

If you're in Paris you can switch from watching The Simpsons in German on Arte to watching Star Academy on TF1, the French take on American Idol. Drop by the local tabac and buy a pack of the most popular chewing gum there, Hollywood. Buy cheap jewelry at Sunset Boulevard on rue des Rennes. But know things sometimes run in the other direction. Earlier this year, NBC announced that it had acquired the rights to develop and screen a US version of the Eurovision Song Contest - instead of forty European nations competing in a cheesy big-budget show for the best bouncy pop song, each of the fifty states of the union will do that. You call in on your touch-tone phone and vote for the winner. Of course you can hardly wait for that.

It may seem peculiar, but the NBC people are no fools. The Eurovision Song Contest is now it its fifty-first year, and draws three hundred million viewers each year. So it didn't start in Hollywood. So what? This could be the next big thing on American television, if you hide the origin. Who remembers "All in the Family" was a version of a UK show, and Archie Bunker had his East End prototype? We're talking big bucks, smash hit potential, with a fine buzz.

Will it work here? Maybe, but this Eurovision Song Contest is very odd, and has come up before here - June 8, 2003, here - "watching the Eurovision Song Contest will either put you in a coma or drive you mad."

And from May 16, 2004, Silly Music -
Does anyone on this side of the pond follow the Eurovision song contest? I doubt it. This contest predates American Idol by many, many years, but like American Idol showcases some awful pop music. All the countries of Europe enter a singer or a group doing an original song - and from this event we were all introduced to Icelandic pop rock. Swedish stuff? Think of ABBA without wit or talent. You get the idea. Perhaps the only thing good that ever came out of the Eurovision song contest was by accident - many years ago an Irish folk dance group performed between contestants and became wildly popular, that was Riverdance and then Michael Flaherty proclaiming himself "Lord of the Dance" and stomping around. Whether this was a good thing depends on your appetite for penny whistles and fast unison clogging by rank upon rank of thin redheaded beauties.
The rest of the item covered that year's contest held in Istanbul. Ukraine won - only the second time the country had taken part in the competition - Ruslana won for her song Wild Dance. Serbia and Montenegro were second, with Greece third.

The item also quoted this in SLATE.COM -
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one die-hard fan who acknowledged that the contest - with its flamboyant costumes and high camp quotient has "seen better days." Noting that Eurovision enjoys a large gay following, he added, "It's like a gay world cup. Who else would sit here and watch this load of rubbish?"
Who indeed?

The next year was covered here, May 29, 2005 - Greece is the Word. Greek singer Helena won. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko presented her with the prize for her performance of My Number One, "a mid-tempo tune with minor-keyed Balkan flavorings." The surprise runner-up was Malta's Chiara. Romania's Luminita Anghel placed third. Vanilla Ninja, from Estonia but representing Switzerland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Feminem, with one of its three singers born in what is now Croatia, didn't do that well. So it was Greece, then Malta, then Romania. Cool.

Obviously the country for the previous winner hosts the contest the following year. That means the contest this year is in Athens, with the semifinal May 18 and the final on May 20, and you can read all about it at the official website here.

The best introduction, or at least the most pointed, can be found in SLATE.COM where UK-based Mike Atkinson offers this:

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest
Nonsense lyrics, frenetic dance routines, and costumes that sprout pterodactyl wings.
Whose Three-Minute Pop Ditty Will Rule the Continent?
Posted Wednesday, May 17, 2006, at 5:30 PM ET

The issue? The Eurovision Song Contest "can stake a legitimate claim to being the world's most watched regular music event. Despite this, the show remains entirely unknown to all but a handful of Americans."

And here's his analysis of what we have not yet encountered -
In theory, Eurovision's aim has always been to discover "the best song in Europe," with the focus on "song." In practice, things don't quite work out so simply. Since the majority of the viewing public will only hear the competing songs once before casting their telephone votes, it is imperative that each performance creates an instant impact to ensure that it stands out from the herd.

So, every trick in the showbiz book is thrown out, in rapid and dizzying succession. Dance routines start from a base level of "frenetic" and escalate upward. (This year, there's an awful lot of break dancing.) Costumes start at "florid" and expand outward - in many cases, quite literally. (The gown worn by the Swedish contestant covers most of the stage space behind her, and the monster costume worn by Finland's lead singer sprouts outsized pterodactyl wings during the final verse.) Mid-song costume changes are not unheard of; mid-song costume removal has become almost common, ever since a 1981 British victory in which the male performers tore off the skirts of the female performers, to a lyrical cue of "And if you wanna see some more!"

... Meanwhile, each country's props department works overtime to create the supreme staging gimmick - with mixed results. The Russians have a ballerina emerging from a grand piano, scattering rose petals. Ukraine has a huge jump-rope. Iceland's Silvia Night slides onto the stage from a giant white stiletto and pulls a telephone receiver from an outsized stick of candy. Finland has the biggest pyrotechnic display; Sweden the biggest wind machine. At Eurovision, size matters. (All of which makes the Latvian effort - a diminutive and decidedly low-tech junior robot - look ill-advised.)
Okay. Think about what each of the fifty states over here could do on the NBC version. Pennsylvania with molten steel and a remix techno-thump version of the Pennsylvania Polka? What will North Dakota do? Delaware? Oregon? It's hard to see how this will work. America has been homogenized in a way Europe has not. It not only that we all speak the same language (more or less), we all lead pretty much identical everyday lives - every mall has its GAP, Restoration Hardware and food court with the usual suspects, and Boston and Tucson and Billings look alike where one runs one's errands and relaxes. NBC may have misjudged this one.

Then Atkinson explains the music -
Due to a restriction dating from the show's genesis in the 1950s, when pop music was obliged to fit the strictures of the 7-inch vinyl format, no song is permitted to exceed three minutes in length. This ensures a tight discipline in their construction, into which a variety of well-worn tricks are squeezed. Each song must grab the listener's attention within the first few seconds, and each song should build to a suitably exhilarating conclusion - usually by means of an upward key change before the final refrain.

When it comes to that all-important chorus - which is reprised in a memory-jogging video montage just before the telephone lines open - the melodic hook should ideally be underpinned by a short, memorable phrase, using lyrics that are simple enough for the international, multilingual audience to grasp. In this respect, nonsense language can be a great boon: Previous winning songs have included "La La La," "Boom Bang a Bang," "Ding Ding-a-Dong," and the splendidly dumb "Diggi Loo Diggi Ley."
Well, we don't have much of a multilingual audience, so the lyrics here may be better, and the three minute rule can be waived, although it could be useful to limit viewer pain from overload. Too much screeching spectacle and the audience switches over to CSI, just for relief.

As for NBC moving forward, Atkinson notes "there is nothing remotely hip about Eurovision, which generally runs at least ten years behind developments in youth-based genres, if not twenty." Hardly any rap and metal - no modern R&B. But then, "this stylistic conservatism does ensure a continuing appeal to the sort of traditional, multigenerational, family-based demographic that is rapidly disappearing in our tightly segmented multichannel age."

Yeah, but will it play in Peoria? NBC has a problem. The whole thing is not remotely hip, nor does it seem to hit that sweet spot for middle America - safely hip in a non-threatening way that still lets the viewer feel "with it." That's an old Hollywood trick. What you give the rubes has to be as daring and controversial as the hot movie of the moment, "The Da Vinci Code" - not very. Think of "Rebel Without a Cause" - in the mid-fifties every fifteen-year-old guy in Ames or Buffalo was really James Dean, going though existential angst. Right. Make people think they're thinking, and let them think they're in on the cool. It sells.

This may not -
Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest is flagrantly camp - that overused and much devalued term - but like all the best camp, it retains a certain innocence and sincerity at its core. So, when the 10th dolled-up pop moppet in a row gushes at her press conference about what a deep and humbling honor it is to be representing her country, and our eyes roll upward in exasperation, we also know that, deep down inside, she actually means it. And I, for one, like that a lot.
Okay, camp just won't do. That's charming for forty seconds, then it's cloying. Americans will shrug and move on.

NBC has to sell the innocence and sincerity thing. People eat that up. And as they say out here in Hollywood, if you can fake sincerity you've got it made.

__

You might want to browse the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest entrants here. The Finnish entry, Lordi is conventionally strange - AC/DC meets the Orcs (or Klingons) - and check out Germany's Texas Lightning in their cowboy outfits. Camp indeed.

__

Will "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, be watching?

Here's what he had to say on the 18th -
Starts Saturday at 21:00 on France-3 TV. What else is on? A variety show on TF1, the 43rd rerun of 'Jean Moulin' on France-2, oooh there's '1631, Massacre à Magdebourg' on Arte - something about Europe's eternal wars of religion I guess - and there's 'Smallville' on M6. Canal+ I don't pay for so forget it.

Being in sort of a transmission shadow - I can't quite see the Tour Eiffel - my TV comes from an antique roof antenna, and then an antenna cable running through the apartment. Arte, luckily for me, gets the best reception. TFI and France-2 are about equal, France-3 is not so good and M6 sticks to black, white and snow. But I can use the tuner in the video recorder; it's better than the TV's.

France-3 has set aside three hours for Eurovision. Oooh, it says Michel Druker is one of the French hosts. He's been on TV since it was invented - the SECAM version - in France. He used to be with RTL, or he invented it too. He's not as old as this sounds and he doesn't look it, so there must be some clever makeup he's got. The way it works the French will comment the Eurovision with a French view. This will get somewhat more ironic after the French entry proves to be embarrassingly inept. The Bulgarian peasants and Albania goatherds will not fare well in the eyes of the French, who invented 'Ye-ye.'

The observation that the Eurovision can be very camp is true. For three hours the only jokes will be in the dulled minds of the viewers because no jokes are allowed on stage. It's a long time to go watching a band of nitwits trying not to offend anybody, from Palestine to the North Pole. In a word, it's Europe.

Last night for example, on Arte of course, there was a documentary about how the Nazis treated homosexuals - with four of the six remaining survivors telling us how it was. in parts It was pretty emotional. At the time, in the 20s and 30s, a lot of people thought the Nazis were a gang of 'schwülen.' There was Röhm for example, head of the SA. Anyhow, not-so-fond memories of stays in Dachau and other Nazi spas. 'Jean Moulin,' mentioned above, was a resistance hero in France, bounced by the Gestapo in Lyon and killed. There's a museum here named after him.

Against a background like this the Eurovision Song Contest better not have any jokes.
And that's the word from Paris.

Posted by Alan at 20:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 19:00 PDT home

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