The weekend of the Eurovision Song Contest, the most well-known event of the European Broadcasting Union and popular music’s closest equivalent to an international celebration, is another suitable time to reflect again about the decades of changes in the music.
As I was growing up, it was obvious that the USA and the UK were the dominant forces in pop and rock music. Other countries’ artistes sometimes seemed to copy openly these countries’ originals; for example, Johnny Hallyday in France. If only more pop music heard in the UK was sung in languages other than English, I used to think, more young people would be encouraged to learn such languages. But such artistes never seemed to emerge into the music mainstream. Artistes from other countries who enjoyed international status tended to be instrumentalists, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany. World music artistes from the French- and Spanish-speaking countries remained a niche market. The music world became more European only with the rise of electronic dance music in the 1980s, building through the continental clubs of Ibiza and Ayia Napa and the Sónar festival of Barcelona, and most of this music was instrumental where any vocals in any language were unimportant.
In its beginning the Eurovision Song Contest was definitely a forum for western and central Europe. Political changes like the end of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union led to the event being hosted and contested by countries formerly on the fringes of and even outside the continent. The fifteen or so participants in the 1960s has now more than doubled to this year’s 40. Qualification procedures seem now as tortuous as for the UEFA Champions League or Formula One motor-racing.
In the 1970s, it was sometimes seen as ironic that, at a time when British pop/rock songwriters and performers like Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Elton John and David Bowie were so successful all around the world, none of these people represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. That was possibly because it was felt that the UK was doing well enough with acts who might be considered as our “second eleven”, like Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and the Shadows. Whatever, it allowed our major figures to concentrate on their serious work in the important markets and stages.
The most musically significant of the artistes who have won the competition during its history is probably Abba, who won in Brighton in 1974. Although Scandinavian, they sang in English, following the dominant US-UK paradigm. Their Eurovision victory led to an international career and further decades of influence and homage.
In the 1970s any self-respecting pop/rock producer or artist could compose a strong melody. Because it was a minimum requirement of which everyone seemed to be capable, it led to arguments among fans about which practitioners were the more culturally acceptable. Abba became an acceptable pop act for the musically snobbish – which most of us were at least some of the time. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (occasionally assisted by Stig Andersson) wrote some great melodies and arrangements for songs like “SOS”, “Money Money Money”, “The Name of the Game”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “One of Us”and “Head Over Heels”. They also wrote lyrics in their second language which were at worst perfectly serviceable, and at best witty and sensitive.
Nowadays I am more interested in the European Broadcasting Union for their annual radio days of music for Holy Week, and Advent broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 3, but a lifetime of listening to pop music has included at least a little attention to the Eurovision Song Contest. While it may not have helped to raise musical standards, it will still, in the middle of a period of European division, remind viewers and listeners of ideas and a culture which they share in common.