Strange people on strange TV shows

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 25.05.2018

Ah, Eurovision. The most ridiculous televised event on the planet. Americans cannot understand it, we find it detrimentally cute, if not charmingly obscene, there are urban legends of a whole family in Utah who watched it and cringed themselves to death. Eurovision takes the most American trope that Americans know—a televised mega-event of showboating, cheesiness, celebrities, and ritualistic viewing—and perverts it into an outrageous, creeping absurdity. Explaining Eurovision should be the sole question on any EU nationality exam.

Permit me to muddy my way through some theories as to why country, culture, and communication make it so.

To Americans, the UK is a small country: one measly time zone, the relative practicality of rail travel, a mere fifth our populace. Across a thin water strip lie all of its prime antagonists, often comparable in size and history, making Britain just another orange on the branch. I mention this to introduce some perspective to Luxembourgers, whose country is like a tiny beetle you could flick into the sea.

Unless you hail from a megacountry like the States, you can’t fully know what it’s like. Over there, you generally have to travel damn far to find someone who isn’t expected to speak English, but also whose norms in meal sizes, media outlets, and work holidays much differ. Walk westwards from Philadelphia for a fortnight: you’ll reach new climates before finding anyone who is terribly foreign.

Indeed, in the States, you pretty much don’t meet foreigners unless you live in Manhattan (which is too expensive) or in a national park (which is illegal). We have them, but not like Luxembourg does: in the States, foreigners quickly morph into locals. You typically don’t move to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for a gap year or a secondment—you move there to start a new life as an American.

The country eats people and breaks them down with its acids and changes their makeup. It’s weird, but our youthful and destabilised American identity still needs meat to grow and to form new muscle. European countries are old and established, by comparison, and cannot digest new folk so quickly. If a Luxembourgish family did move to Kalamazoo, their neighbours might say things like “this neighbourhood is so cosmopolitan—we have Europeans living here!” and boast of how these nice strange people smear cooked cheese on bread for dinner. Soon enough, the family wouldn’t be distinguishable as foreign at all, just a little odd.

This is not to say that everyone is accepted, only that aliens lose their cachet of exoticism relatively fast. But while what it means to be “not foreign” is clear, what it means to be American is, perhaps, another issue. Plenty of infighters have tried to foist their own identity onto the American character, but none of them has the gravity or history to keep it there; as a result we keep deadlocking each other back to our only common ideal, which is that we have no common ideal. Instead, we have the Super Bowl.

So, imagine this enormous place where locals can seem foreign to each other and foreigners fit in as pieces of local colour. The ultrapolite American chatter you may know is the only electropulse capable of getting from system to system, person to person, people to people. It comes under criticism for its superficiality, but superficiality is the point: without more commonality, we cannot be knowing or ironic with each other. Rather, we have relaxed into a rhythm of speaking that circulates similarities, not differences.

Back to Eurovision, then: every year I theorise about it, and this time I’ve concluded that awkwardness is what’s so European about it. The four Portuguese hosts of the 63rd edition on 12 May sighed into the camera, flirted via translator, hammed it with the fans—it was humbling, in a way, watching them tolerate themselves all evening. The States has cringeworthy TV hosts too, of course, but they more often court stupidity than awkwardness. Our giant country, digestion of foreignness, and native superficiality enable a sort of public comfort, a nationwide small-town vibe where you can (and should) say “howdy!” to just about anyone. This smoothness has also sensitised us to awkwardness, thus forming our national insecurity: much more than seeming stupid, we fear seeming unrelatable.

Not so in Europe. I’ve lived in Ireland, Portugal, the UK, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and to my outlander eyes Europeans don’t possess this particular strain of insecurity, at least not in the same way. Rather, the uncontested (by comparison) national identities here form a bedrock that supports a sea of irony. Cultures keep a humorous distance from themselves: if a British person expresses disgust for tea you’d be expected to consider that a lie; when Luxembourgers bluster about daily minutia as ardently as they do about Brexit it’s on you to filter out the real direness of their feelings.

Because Eurovision’s producers are obviously in the business of devastating all nuance, these national ironies get evaporated—and because the event is cross-continental, any comedy that might survive in puddles of language is splashed away too. What’s left is four hours of TV with no cultural or lingual lubricant whatsoever. The presenters may be gifted, but stick them with a Norwegian violinist on a backdrop of Irish fanboys and it all goes to shit because they end up speaking to each other in such a way—it’s like—it’s like they—I don’t know, this is where the understanding ends. They are just such nerds. Also the music is atrocious.

But I’ll definitely watch it again next year.

Jeffrey Palms
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