America is plagued by inflation and headed, perhaps, for economic collapse. Illegals flood across our border. We’re funding a European conflict that could turn into World War III. Our dubious 2020 election saddled us with an incomparably incorrupt, hollow shell of a president whose incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan was the greatest embarrassment ever for a military that once guaranteed the Free World’s liberty but that now, along with our other major institutions, is awash in Critical Race Theory and transgender ideology. Meanwhile, our legacy news media are tools of the FBI, CIA, DOJ, and other arms of the tyrannical Beltway establishment. Oh, and our dollar may stop being the planet’s reserve currency any day now.
But, as Ira Gershwin once wrote, who cares if the sun cares to fall in the sea? Over here in Europe, last week was Eurovision week, and the hills were alive with the sound of music. Yes, almost all of it was absolutely awful music, but hey, you can’t have everything. And one thing that’s well worth noting is that, although 35 of the 37 participating countries were European (the other two being Israel and Australia), the whole three-ring circus — the semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday and the finals on Saturday — testified powerfully to the still-overwhelming cultural influence of America.
It wasn’t ever thus. In 1956, the year Eurovision debuted as a postwar effort to bring a broken continent back together, fourteen countries participated; the hosts said everything in both English and French, and the national votes were read out in both languages; the songs were (mostly) typical examples of their countries’ native tuneage, and none was in English.
Over the years — as the show grew into the most watched annual event of its kind — that changed. As American (and, yes, British) music conquered the international hit charts, genres originating in the U.S. (and, yes, the U.K.) — largely pop and disco, but also jazz, country, R&B, rock, alt rock, punk rock, pop rock, progressive rock, soft rock, hip-hop, techno, etc. — came, too, to dominate Eurovision. (It’s a shame, by the way, that Eurovision was born at almost exactly the moment when the era of the Great American Popular Song was dying: imagine Eurovision entries inspired by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter!)
In 1965, for the first time, a country (Sweden) was represented by a composition whose lyrics were in English rather than in its own tongue. In response, the Euro-honchos banned lyrics in languages other than the participants’ own. When that rule was lifted in 1973, both Finland and Sweden sang in English; the next year, the Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish entries (as well as those from the U.K. and Ireland) were all entirely in English. After fully half of the 18 songs in the 1976 competition contained at least some English lyrics, the native-language-only rule returned, and wasn’t lifted again until 1998.
By then, the Iron Curtain had fallen, and during their first years in the contest the Eastern European countries’ tunes weren’t just in their native lingos; musically, too, they sounded — well — foreign. But that didn’t last long. By 2000, former Soviet bloc countries had begun churning out American-style pop — and in English, no less (Estonia, “Once in a Lifetime”; Latvia, “My Star”) — that fit neatly into the mix, although every year does, admittedly, bring a few Slavic and/or Balkan ditties that sound variously like barbaric war cries, antiquated sea shanties, or the Islamic call to prayer.
These days, roughly three or four out of five Eurovision songs are entirely in English. In 2021, the last year in which Russia participated (it’s been banned since then because of the Ukraine war), even its entry was partly in English — which I’d like to think made the shades of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher smile. No less significant is that the proceedings themselves, which, as noted, used to be conducted in both English and French, began a long time ago to ditch the French — of which there now remain mere vestiges.
Andrew Breitbart famously observed that politics is downstream from culture; and while Eurovision, admittedly, isn’t culture on the level of Beethoven and Bach — or even “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” — it’s definitely a sampling of what turns on at least some young Europeans today, and as such confirms that however much America’s “hard power” in the world has diminished, our “soft power” is holding steadily. (Non-Eurovision case in point: not long ago my significant other discovered an app, Radio Garden, that provides access to thousands of radio stations around the globe. The Muslim world aside, it’s hard to find music stations anywhere — even in Russia — where the playlists aren’t dominated by U.S. artists.)
Ukraine won last year’s Eurovision, and the rule is that one year’s winner hosts the next year’s program. Owing to the war, however, last week’s spectacular took place in Liverpool (appropriate enough, given the debt that today’s pop music owes to a certain quartet of Merseyside lads). Many of the songs addressed the current crisis. Croatia’s entry was anti-war. So was Switzerland’s. Ireland’s, according to its lyricist, carried a message of “unity and peace.” Belgium’s was about “freedom”; Czechia’s was about “unfreedom” and, in tribute to Ukraine, written partly in Ukrainian. (For that reason alone, it was banned in Russia and Belarus.) Serbia’s song, its writer said, was “about people needing to wake up, because evil multiplies when people keep their eyes closed to it.” By contrast, Latvia turned in a lullaby, intended to becalm listeners in a time of “bad things.” And Ukraine’s contribution, not surprisingly, was a cri de guerre.
One thing about American cultural influence in postwar Europe: it’s always existed alongside a reflexive anti-Americanism (sometimes restrained, sometimes extremely robust). During my first few years here, I pondered that anti-Americanism extensively. But as I watched this year’s Eurovision, it occurred to me that the subject hadn’t crossed my mind in a while. What ever became of that irrational prejudice? Apparently, for the interim anyway, Putin has quashed it: Europeans are too busy despising him to remember to hate us. Besides, they know that as much as their own countries are doing to help Ukraine — the virtuous cause du jour — the U.S. is doing a lot more.
This year’s Eurovision final lasted just over four hours (take that, Oscars) and featured no fewer than 26 entries — brutal! — plus other musical items at the opening and during the voting interval. As it turned out, by far the best number that was heard on any of the three evenings was the 1945 Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which was crooned by the Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence — who, by the end, was joined by a Mormon Tabernacle-size chorus of Eurovision contestants from yesteryear. I have to admit it was moving. But why “You’ll Never Walk Alone”? Because — who knew? — it turns out to be Liverpool’s longtime “anthem.” Talk about American cultural clout!