Disco Escapism Wins Again

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If the place where Australians shine has traditionally been the sporting field, the Eurovision Song Contest is the Swedes’ proving ground. In Europe’s far north, cheesy dance pop is akin to religion. Over four million Swedes watched a wind machine propel Loreen Zineb Noka Talhaoui into the Eurovision final at the country’s "Melodifestivalen" qualification final in February. That’s almost half of the entire population of Sweden.

Loreen’s song, "Euphoria", may have been nondescript hi-NRG fluff, but it won her the prize in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, despite woeful rhyming couplets like "Forever, we sail into infinity/ We’re higher, we’re reaching for divinity". The song and its performer’s unthinking ebullience had Europe smitten.

Just why that was the case is hardly advanced mathematics. On a continent where one of the biggest dance hits of the past five years has been Stromae’s "Alors On Danse" — "Saying credit means saying loan/ Saying debt means saying collector/ Which means saying you’re in the shit" — disco escapism is once more du jour.

So Loreen was awarded the second highest number of points of all time by European voters and national juries. Her victory, wrote The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on Sunday, left Sweden in second place in the overall Eurovision national winners’ list. Only Ireland is now ahead of the Scandinavian pop factory in the rankings.

But, reported the Frankfurt paper, Loreen scarcely seemed "conscious" that she’d won. Not because she was overwhelmed by her victory, mind you. Instead, Loreen "apparently finds it difficult to string together a complete, comprehensible sentence", hissed FAZ, apparently discarding journalistic dispassion for a little bit of Eurovision pop bitchery.

Talhaoui’s victory brought to a close an evening of the very finest European schlock and schmaltz. Held in a country that few viewers could locate on a map, Azerbaijan, the evening proved to be an "unprecedented opportunity" for touting the country’s hitherto unknown tourist attractions, says Parisian paper Le Monde. For Azerbaijani president Illham Alijev, whose family has been in power since 1993, the contest also provided a great chance to showcase the "petrol state’s" modernity.

Strangely enough, the ruling clan turned out to be the best illustration of this up-to-dateness: "Mehriban Alijev, the first lady, dominated the organising committee. The publicity spots for [Azerbaijan] featured a young woman in a bikini — the very glamorous Arzu Alijev, the daughter of the president. And one musical interlude on Saturday night was delivered by local crooner Emin… the president’s stepson."

In addition, many of the construction companies that worked on the "futuristic" crystal hall where the event was held "are owned by [Alijev]", reveals Le Monde. To build that hall, "entire families were evicted [from their homes]with no notice whatsoever", says Spanish state broadcaster Radio y Televisión Española (RTVE). Meanwhile, there have been further curbs on journalists’ rights in recent years, says the broadcaster. Still, Alijev’s government has denounced these kinds of quibbles as "anti-Azeri" propaganda, continues RTVE.

There’s little sign that Brussels is mindful of opposition criticism either. Azerbaijan received €37 million in EU development assistance in 2011, with little accompanying noise about human rights abuses, claims the Spanish broadcaster. The reason for all this aid has a lot to do with those oil resources, says RTVE:

"Crude oil arrives in Europe via [one]oil pipeline…and draft plans for gas pipeline would see gas delivered to Vienna at a tremendous cost, if it remains feasible despite huge infrastructure costs."

All that oil wealth seems to have emboldened the Azerbaijani government to dismiss anyone who does try to speak out — even some of the visiting Eurovision singers. The government attacked eventual victor Loreen for meeting with human rights activists in the capital Baku in the days before the event, writes Stockholm paper Svenska Dagsbladet.

The singer had met twice with "anti-Azeri" forces, said government spokesperson Ali Hasanov. He accused Loreen and Swedish ambassador Mikael Erikkson of "politicising" Eurovision by holding meetings with human rights groups. Erikkson insists Talhaoui’s visits to Azerbaijani opposition activists were simply "private meetings" with several spokespeople from human rights organisations. "She has a complete right to do that," Erikkson told Svenska Dagsbladet.

The Azerbaijani government notwithstanding, few were begrudging Talhaoui her victory on Sunday. Arguably, universal plaudits for the Swedish performance reflect the country’s Teflon-coated reputation. Despite Sweden’s economic hegemony in far Northern Europe and the Baltic, the Julian Assange affair and several recent scandals involving Ikea and Swedish natural resource companies, few can muster a word of disapproval for the Northern European power.

At the other end of the table though, some of the bigger losers received a dose of scarcely concealed Schadenfreude. German TV moderator Peter Urban hailed the German eighth-place result because it was, well, better than Greece’s.

"They normally finish in the first half of the table, this time they’re down," Urban smarmed. And, apparently avoiding any charges of being a gracious winner, Swedish media played up Norway’s last place result on Sunday. "Sweden overwhelmed — Norway was an overwhelming last," the tabloid Aftonbladet gloated. "The Norwegian entry was cut down by viewers and juries alike."

Tooji, the Norwegian entry, seemed to be taking his defeat well considering his dismal score of just seven points. Aftonbladet again: "As the results came in, Tooji could only laugh: ‘Europe doesn’t want me.’"

The Norwegian entrant — who is also an MTV presenter — plans to continue making music. But Tooji is "likely to keep away from Eurovision" in the future, he told the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. Judging by the quality of the song contest on the weekend, perhaps more than a few of the other acts should take their cues from the Norwegian loser.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it – but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

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