These days it is considered "uncool" to admit you watch the Eurovision Song Contest. And with reason. Nothing about the voting and such. People complaining about countries giving high scores to neighbouring countries in my opinion should get over it: it happened long before the Eastern European countries joined, it happened long before televoting, and it is not that unnormal: countries often share a musical background and culture with their neighbours, and they also often know the singer from the neighbouring country well. No, the problem doesn’t lie there. The problem is: it’s about kitsch rather than about quality music. While the idea of putting music in a contest is against the nature of art (tastes vary and there is nothing such as "good music" or "bad music" – it is a matter of taste and there is no real logical ranking order like it exists in sports where the person crossing the finish line first wins) the Eurovision has brought a lot of good songs. If we forget about the competitive element (which I guess is fair enough pleasant because it gives us a reason to proudly wave the flag when our country performs well, and to mock with rival countries when they did badly) the ESC has brought some top quality songs and has introduced us to music from different cultural backgrounds, a nice intercultural exchange between countries from all over Europe and sometimes beyond (despite not in Europe, Israel and Morocco for example are members of the Eurovision and thus have the right to participate).
The last couple of years however, my interest in the contest has been lost. I must admit that I every year looked at the show and even enjoyed it, from 1991 (my first ESC) to 2004 (the last one). My interest faded away then after I found it something to look forward to during the nineties. The problem is mainly the fact that Eurovision started to allow countries singing in English instead of in their mothertongue. Before this change, a lot of countries such as Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Spain, … brought music that had strong elements of the traditional music of their country. Not folklore maybe but distinctively traditional elements were common. It was really a discovery of different culture’s own musical style back then. Since countries are allowed to sing in English, a lot of them switched to the type of pop music which you forget 10 minutes after you heard it, because it is simply so unoriginal and so often heard before. The contest lost all its charms ever since countries switched to English language pop music instead of displaying their own nation’s cultural roots.
With the most recent contest a few weeks behind us and Azerbaijan as proud winners, I thought it was time to look back on the years when the contest was actually good and when I watched it with pleasure. I will make a top-10 of my all-time favourites. A few exceptions aside, they are mainly from the years that I watched it every year: 1991 until 2004. I realise I’ll be missing a lot of gems from other years, but this is my personal all-time Eurosong top-10:
Behold the top-10 ever from my personal point of view…
1. YOUDDIPH – Vječnij stranjik (Eternal Wanderer) ; Russia 1994
Russia debuted in the festival in 1994 and immediately left a mark on me with their first ever entry. Maria "Masha" Katz, aka Youddiph, was the first person to represent Russia at the festival as the Soviet Union never took part in it (actually, the only communist nation that had a Song Contest tradition was Yugoslavia, which was not part of the East Bloc. The other communist nations had their own East Bloc equivalent to the festival). While many people will mainly remember Youddiph for her eccentric dress that existed of so many layers that it could be folded into all types of designs (which she used very well on stage), what I mainly remember is the song and the incredible vocal delivery of Youddiph. The song is about an eternal wanderer who now and then appears in the life of his lover but then disappears again, Youddiph singing that she in the end will be his final destiny, no matter what. The theme of the song may not sound very original, the vocal delivery is simply amazing. While acoustic guitars set for two relatively low-key stanzas, the chorus goes right to a highlight where Youddiph’s amazing vocal skills reach a height and leave you overwhelmed with such excellent vocal range and passionate singing. The dress may be remembered, but please also remember the song. This is a true gem.
The song almost did not even make it to Ireland (where the contest was hosted) ; stories vary from the fact that the Russian broadcaster didn’t have the money and a fellow artist did a collection to pay Youddiph’s expenses, to the less pleasant rumour that the Russian broadcaster didn’t WANT to pay her expenses because she is Jewish, and that she had to get a loan in order to pay for it herself. The fact she was there to represent her country makes it just more beautiful as it shows her determination. Youddiph finished 9th on the evening, a very good debut, but she gets the honour of best ever Eurovision entry from me.
Russia, twelve points. Russie, douze points.
2. FRANCES RUFFELLE – Lonely Symphony (We will be free) ; UK, 1994
1994 surely was a good year as my second ever best ESC entry is from the same year (and finished 10th, just like in my chart only 1 position behind Youddiph). Frances Ruffelle already had a name in the musical world far beyond the UK, when she went on the solo path and entered the contest. The theme about war and divide is an often reoccuring one on the Contest, but unlike the many cliché songs about this subject, Frances did a song that not only sounded very bright and displayed her excellent vocal delivery, it also had lyrics that were actually honest and surprisingly well-written given the subject. It is just a pity that the studio version was too long for the contest and some sentences had to be left out to shorten the song to fit in ESC rules. Lines such as "Love has lost its way, we live in segregation" make the song better than the shortened version was. That still leaves some nice lines in however, such as "Can’t you see the piece of dust, the crumbles in your hand is me? Give me some affection" and "While you dance beneath an angry star I’m chasing rainbows across the sun". The hopeful undertone of the song is of course summarises best in the chorus:
"And in this mad equation, I still believe that we can be in harmony, you and me
A chorus in your lonely symphony
(Never fall) We’ll never fall again, and we will be free
(We will rise) We will rise
(Never fall) We’ll never fall again, and we will be free"
The shortened version is less good than the studio version but Frances did do an excellent performance on stage. Note as well that the more red blooded male part of the audience may remember the track for the wrong reasons: in the promo video of the song, Frances lifts up her skirts, displaying underpants with a Union Jack design.
United Kingdom ten points, Royaume Uni douze points.
3. ANNA MARIA JOPEK – Ale Jestem ; Poland, 1997
A star in her own country, Anna Maria Jopek already made herself known far beyond the Polish borders with one of the finest Eurovision songs the former East Bloc has delivered so far. The song displayed some mysterious sounds and an equally mysterious promo video in which we see vultures and Anna Maria dancing around mysterious symbols in some desolate landscape. This was promising a lot, but expectations were high. Anna Maria proved she deserves her stardom status in Poland when she did not disappoint live on stage and did an excellent delivery of what must be one of the most hopeful songs ever in the contest. "Ale Jestem" means something like "I exist".
The first stanza already is a dedication to enjoying life, as is would translate as:
"My eyes open: the world comes into being
Above me heaven, an orchard in front
Green apples’ smell and taste
And all is so simple
You must truly live to fool the time
You must beautifully live ; you only live once
You must live in admiration: love, imagine and dream
You must fool the time, to save true life"
But the highlight of the song, but in terms of vocal delivery and hopeful lyrics, is the chorus, which translates as:
"I’m just a grain of sand in an hourglass
A boat stray amongst the reefs
Just a raindrop, a cane amongst the reefs
But I exist"
With such a wonderful lyric, maybe this is one of those songs too good for something like the Eurovision. An 11th position was disgustingly low for a song that should have always been a top-3 finish at least. It gets its top-3 finish from me now.
Poland eight points, Pologne huit points.
4. PUT – Don’t ever cry ; Croatia, 1993
In 1993 the first former East Bloc countries entered the contest. The ESC invited 3 of them, so all those interested entered a pre-contest contest to determine which 3 had the honour of first ex East Bloc countries in the contest. While Yugoslavia was not part of the former East Bloc and had a long tradition as only communist country in the contest, the country had fallen apart in several new states, and these were also forced to enter this pre-contest qualifiers. Ironically, three former Yugoslav states grasped the 3 positions. Most attention went to Bosnia-Herzegowina’s entry Fazla, as the war-torn country sent a song which literally claimed that the whole world’s pain was in Bosnia now. A very good song, but I was mostly hooked on the Croatian entry.
Put was a choir with both male and female vocals, doing a semi a-cappella performance (there were violins and other instruments but those were just background settings for the beautiful vocal delivery) where all singers had a perfectly orchestrated performance which also tackled the Yugoslavian war, however from a more hopeful perspective. The song was sung partially in Croatian language, asking for peace and a bright future for their children and dreams, with an English language chorus that was a simple yet –given the circumstances– very powerful "Don’t ever cry, don’t ever cry, never say goodbye, don’t ever cry". True shivers down the spine was the outro with the dramatic but oh so beautiful "Don’t ever cry, my Croatian sky". Haunting.
Croatia seven points, Croatie sept points.
5. EIMAER QUINN – The Voice ; Ireland 1996 (winner)
One of the very few times my favourite entry of the year won (the other time was ironically the year before, with Norway’s semi-instrumental "Nocturne") was when Ireland did what it should really do every time: no cheesy pop songs, but a song reflecting the rich cultural musical heritage of the celtic nation. The song brought Irish violins, celtic dreamy music that take you away to a lovely daydream, and one of the most angelic voices to have appeared on the festival. Eimaer’s vocal range was fantastic, but equally great was the whole sound of the song. A true piece of Irish folk music, and isn’t that what the contest is about? Displaying the musical heritage of your country? Ireland only did it a few times, but this one time was just spot on.
Lyrically the song is about a voice that will always be present somehow, although I can’t help recognising a bit of Ireland’s painful history in lines such as these:
"I am the voice in the wind and the pouring rain, I am the voice of your hunger and pain"
"I am the voice of the past that will always be, filled with my sorrows and blood in my fields"
This song was spot on in almost every possible way. Of all songs that I saw winning the contest, this was by far the best one.
Ireland six points, Irlande six points.
6. DUO DATZ – Kan ; Israel, 1991
My favourite of my first year that I watched the festival was the Israeli entry. Displaying a few traditional Israeli sounds in the intro mainly, this song was a very catchy and danceable entry without ignoring to be very distinctively Israeli at the same time. The song is an ode the the home country of the duo performing. "Kan" in that context literally means "Home" or "here" and invites all listeners to come to Israel and share the joy. With references in the lyrics about the seaside, the open fields and the desert the references to Israel are clear, and the line "Here you are also with me and here are all of my thousand friends, and after 2000 years and end to my wandering" clearly refers to the jewish diaspora and the desire to return to the Holy Land. I guess the latter gives it a political angle that one may like or dislike, depending on their political or cultural background, however I do believe the song is nothing more in intention than a celebration and invitation to join them while celebrating in what they consider their home. The song finished 3rd.
Israel five points, Israel cinq points.
7. BRAINSTORM – My Star ; Latvia, 2000
Probably the last year where I really enjoyed a lot of the songs, was 2000. A few songs stood out, but the nr 1 had to be Brainstorm. The song was a summer-like tune that cannot leave anyone without leaving a smile on the face, or shall we call this a nice flower power revival of 3 minutes long? The lyrics are as joyful as the song itself:
"My friends all call me: hey, dreamer, the stars you’re watching are so far
Tonight I know I will get there, by plane or by bus, right to my star
Pretend there are things you just don’t know, in spite someone’s told you’re so cute
You have to ask and I will show the snow in the summer or so so…
If my star would fall or disappear at all… I will follow my star till the end of my days, and my heart’s gonna lead me through so many ways
And if you gonna join me, I’ll be your guide
Baby, never say never, be my run-a-way bride"
A simple love song about always chasing his "star", the girl he loves. The live performance was epic with vocalist Renars Kaupers dancing in the most eccentric way that I can recall at the festival, meanwhile still delivering a great vocal performance. This song was just irresistable in all its simplicity. The 3rd spot was well deserved although knowing the winner of that year was actually quite bad, I wonder how this song could possibly finish ONLY at third place.
Latvia four points ; Lettonie quatre points.
8. MICHELLE – Out on my own ; Netherlands, 2001
A very hopeful low-key song about the joys of independency and living life with many dreams ahead of you, spreading your wings in liberty. A very hopeful song with an excellent performance as well.
"Closing the door leaving behind all that has been, no turn around… life begins out on my own
Follow the sun from day to day, free as a bird
Now is the time to spread my wings, out on my own
Come to the conclusion, I am in control. Take it with my body and my soul.
I can fly over mountains, over seas, I never felt so free in the choices of my life"
Simple yet powerful. Maybe a bit too good for the festival as well, considering this finished only 18th while I can’t even remember who won that contest that year.
The Netherlands three points ; Pays-Bas trois points.
9. SOPHIA VOSSOU – I Anixi ; Greece, 1991
One of the songs where the orchest went a bit wrong at some points but where that all was compensated by the amazing vocals of the singer. The song’s title translates as "Spring" and is a dedication to the time of the year, the moment, when all falls into place. The song is a simple love song where the uniting of the singer and her lover is compared to the spring coming in. This may sound simple, but the song has a very uplifting sound which somehow makes you feel optimistic and hopeful indeed. Just like that first sunshine of spring. The title was thus very well-chosen.
The lyrics, when translated, also show some interesting angles:
"If we are open to the winds
If we are faithful to what we live
If the thread of love binds us
Our two bodies will be hanging gardens"
Not sure what this could possibly mean but I nonetheless like the metaphor, possibly just because of how it sounds mysterious.
Greece two points ; Grèce deux points.
10. FRANCE GALL – Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son ; Luxembourg, 1965 (winner)
I could have easily chosen one of the countless good songs from the times when I watched the contest every year, instead I will finish my top-10 with the one song from long before I was born that I nonetheless consider as an essential to Eurovision history. Being a tiny country with not that many singers, Luxembourg often recruited across the border in neighbouring France. This was no exception. France Gall wasn’t even 20 years old when she was chosen to represent neighbouring Luxembourg and selected a song penned by Serge Gainsbourg. The song is a very up-tempo catchy tune in which the singer compares the songs she sings heard by many and danced to by many while in fact she feels her life misses all of the glory and love she sings about, but determined to one day live up to her songs and experience what she sings about. The song, after all those years, still sounds as fresh as it did back then.
"Mais un jour je vivrai mes chansons
Poupée de cire, poupée de son
Sans craindre la chaleur des garçons
Poupée de cire, poupée de son"
A prediction that surely was realised and people to date still dance and sing along to this song. Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote the song, explained its meaning: "the songs young people turn to for help in their first attempts at discovering what life and love are about, are sung by people too young and inexperienced to be of much help and condemned by their celebrity to find out."
Luxembourg one point, Luxembourg une point.
So this was it. Or not?
With hundreds of songs have passed over the years, even the bottom place of an all-time top 10 still means a song left a mark, because what about all the hundred songs I like but couldn’t select simply because there were just those ten places?
Here is a summary of songs I didn’t include in my top-10 but that I still liked enough to want to mention them:
MORGANE – Nous, on veut des violons ; Belgium, 1992
MÜNCHENER FREIHEIT – Viel zu weit ; Germany, 1993
RUTH JACOTT – Vrede ; the Netherlands, 1993
FAZLA – Sva bol svijeta ; Bosnia-Herzegowina, 1993
SILJE VIGE – Alle mine tankar ; Norway, 1993
MARIE BERGMAN & ROGER PONTARE – Stjärnorna ; Sweden, 1994
CHRIS & MOIRA – More than love ; Malta, 1994
E. ANDREASSEN & JAN WERNER DANIELSEN – Duett ; Norway, 1994
FRIDERIKA – Kinek mondjam el vétkeimet ; Hungary, 1994
STONE & STONE – Verliebt in dich ; Germany, 1995
SECRET GARDEN – Nocturne ; Norway, 1995
ANABEL CONDE – Vuelve conmigo ; Spain, 1995
FREDERIC ETHERLINCK – La Voix est libre ; Belgium, 1995
ALEXANDROS PANAYI – Sti fotia ; Cyprus, 1995
SEBNEM PAKER – Beşinci mevsim ; Turkey, 1996
LUCIA MONIZ – O meu coração não tem cor ; Portugal, 1996
HARA & ANDREAS KONSTANTINOU – Mana mu ; Cyprus, 1997
SEBNEM PAKER – Dinle ; Turkey, 1997
MARC ROBERTS – Mysterious Woman ; Ireland, 1997
JALISSE – Fiumi di Parole ; Italy, 1997
DEBBIE SCERRI – Let me fly ; Malta, 1997
FANNY – Sentiments songes ; France, 1997
KATRINA & THE WAVES – Love shine a Light ; UK 1997
PAUL OSCAR – Minn hinnsti dans ; Iceland, 1997
ALMA LUSA – Se eu te pudesse abraçar ; Portugal, 1998
MÉLANIE COHL – Dis oui ; Belgium, 1998
AISTÉ – Strazdas ; Lithuania, 1999
THE MULLANS – When you need me ; Ireland, 1999
SÜRPRIZ – Reise nach Jerusalem ; Germany, 1999
EVELIN SAMUEL & CAMILLE – Diamond of Night ; Estonia, 1999
INES – Once in a Lifetime ; Estonia, 2000
ALSOU – Solo ; Russia, 2000
NINO PRšEš – Hano ; Bosnia Herzegowina, 2001
NATASHA ST. PIER – Je n’ai que mon âme ; France, 2001
LINDSAY DRACASS – No dream impossible ; UK, 2001
ALF POIER – Weil der Mensch zählt ; Austria, 2003
URBAN TRAD – Sanomi ; Belgium, 2003
RUSLANA – Wild Dances ; Ukraine, 2004
MOR VE ÖTESI – Deli ; Turkey, 2008
TOM DICE – Me and my Guitar ; Belgium, 2010
Now bring back the rule that everyone sings in their own language again, and I may give the Song Contest another chance in the future.