Eurovision English and New Yorker fact-checking

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The 6/28/2010 issue of the New Yorker includes an engagingly waspish article by Anthony Lane, "Letter From Oslo, 'Only Mr. God Knows Why'".  Along with its witty observations about global language and culture, Lane's piece also includes some surprisingly elementary errors of fact.  The New Yorker has long (and loudly) cherished a reputation for assiduous fact-checking, and so this sort of thing still surprises me, though it happens often enough that it probably shouldn't.

Here's how Lane starts:

By any measure, Thursday, May 27th, was an important day for the stability of Europe. Two decisions, at different ends of the continent, did much to calm the nerves of anyone perturbed by its recent crisis of confidence. In Madrid, the Spanish parliament voted to approve an austerity package […] In Oslo, meanwhile, an eighteen-year-old girl named Sieneke, from the Netherlands, singing "Ik Ben Verliefd (Sha-la-lie)," was voted out at the semifinal stage of the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest. Reaction to both events was swift. The euro rose 1.6 per cent against the dollar, […] No less dramatically, those of us who cling to Europe as the cradle of the Enlightenment, and who therefore applaud each triumph for probity and justice, went to bed with lighter hearts, knowing that never again, in public, would we have to listen to this:

Shalalie shalala
Shalalie shalala 't gaat niet uit m'n kop
Shalalie shalala
Shalalie shalala ik sta d'r 's morgens mee op.

Translated into what one hesitate to call English, this means:

Shalalie shalala
Shalalie shalala, I can't get it out of my head
Shalalie shalala
Shalalie shalala, it's there when I get up in the morning.

In a way, the lines are brutally honest. Trying to get them out of your head is like trying to dislodge an ant that has crawled into your ear canal. That itch has long been a notorious side effect of Eurovision, and anyone who grew up in Europe, as I did, with a television in the house, can never quite shake off the affliction, just as old Africa hands used to suffer malarial twinges for the rest of their lives.

Here's Ms. Sieneke's performance, if you dare to listen to it after that review:

It's enough to give prima facie credit to Lane's opinion that

The Eurovision song contest is kindly, diverting, flamboyant, efficiently run, and surprisingly tough. In fact, there is only one thing wrong with it. The music. […]

The stuff you hear in the back of Belgian taxis, on German radio, in Sicilian bars, and in the lobbies of Danish hotels: it was all created by the great god of dreck, and Eurovision is his temple.  P.J. O'Rourke, sureying the dancing at a club in Warsaw in 1986, deplored what he called "the tragic lack of black people behind the Iron Curtain," and there is no doubt that, had Motown opened up a branch in, say, Bratislava, Europe would have been a happier landmass. But the want of taste runs deeper than that — deeper, even, than the puzzling way in which pop loses every trace of kick and soul when sung in anything but English. There is, and should be, something cheesy in all good pop, but what Eurovision delivers is flavorless processed cheese, as if it were produced not by musicians but by a cultural subcommittee of the European Union, convened in a back room in Brussels. It wasn't that I sat there, in Oslo, longing for the Supremes or the Stranglers, or R.E.M. That would have been too much to ask. I was longing for the Bee Gees.

I'm skeptical of Lane's opinion that "pop loses every trace of kick and soul when sung in anything but English" — here are a few exhibits for the defense, among thousands that prove he's wrong — but never mind that for now. Let's turn to Lane's discussion of the languages actually used in Eurovision entries:

From 1966 to 1972, the rule was that you had to compete in the language, or languages, of the country you had been chosen to represent. That rule was reinstated in 1977 and held sway for twenty years, and many acts still voluntarily cleave to it. […] "Europe has a problem: it's not the United States," [Albanian violinist Olen] Cesari said, in words that would make the Eurovision creators quiver with dismay. "So, if you don't speak English, you're immediately at a disadvantage." […]

Cesari is right: of the songs that have reached the finals over the years, two hundred and sixty-three have been in English, the lingua franca of pop. French, with a hundred and fifty, is the only other language in triple figures; the rest lag far behind. […] [W]hen you sing in English, you may be blasting through the language barrier to reach a wider audience, but are you not abasing yourself before the Anglo-American cultural hegemony that the competition is clearly designed to rebuff? There is, of course, a middle way, as taken by the Israeli-born Carmela Corren, who sang for Austria in 1966, and changed gear from German to English halfway through "Vielleicht Geschieht ein Wunder" ("Maybe a Miracle Will Happen". Historians of Eurovision argue that the miracle had been waiting to happen ever since the same country dispatched Bob Martin — again not the most wistfully Viennese of names — to the competition in 1957, with his bottom-ranking ballad "Wohin, Kleines Pony."

The language of lyrics is, in short, a booby trap, and there are three well-established methods for avoiding it. One is to be France, whose performers, as you would hope, grind away in French, year after year, repelling all intruders, giving only the barest hint that other languages, let along other civilizations, even exist; their man in Oslo, Jessy Matador (possibly not his real name), delivered a song called "Allez Olla Olé," which is as close as France will ever come to hedging its bets.

OK, everyone likes a good laugh at the expense of the French, but this little joke is false to fact. A few minutes with Wikipedia reveal to us that France's 2001 entry was Natasha St-Pier singing "Je n'ai que mon âme", half in French and half ("All I have is my soul") in English — hardly "grinding away in French, repelling all intruders". And France's 2008 entry was Sébastien Tellier performing Divine, (almost) entirely in English:

The lyrics (and the music, and the video) may well make us long for the Bee Gees, but the only French is a dozen words stuck in near the end:

No no no no no no no
I'm looking for a band today
I see the Chivers anyway
Through my eyes

Oh oh oh
I… I'm alone in life to say
I love the Chivers anyway

'Cause Chivers look divine
Look away
They try to find the Milky Way
They love to drink it everyday

No no no no no no no
You… You and I, It's like you said
I'm not a Chivers anyway
You look fine

Oh oh oh
I… I'm alone in life to say
I love the Chivers anyway

Cause Chivers look divine
Look away
They try to find the Milky Way

I… Toi et moi C'est comme tu sais
Comment mon coeur a succombe
She looks fine

Oh oh oh
I'm looking for a band today
I see the Chivers anyway
I 'll be a Chivers guy some day
In my mind

This is surely a song whose "kick and soul" could have been increased by translation into almost any other language — perhaps Etruscan or Cornish. But the fact that France's 2008 entry involved "grinding away" in English was hardly a secret — it was discussed in the French parliament, for example — and so we might have hoped for the New Yorker's fact checkers to ask Anthony Lane to modify that passage of his article, even if it takes some of the sting out of the joke.

Continuing with Lane's discussion of the three ways to deal with not being English:

The second method is to be Ireland, the nation that has won the contest more often than any other. Seven times it has struck gold, and no wonder; if you can sing in English without actually being English — all the technical advantages without the shameful imperialist baggage — you're halfway to the podium already. […]

The third method, which is by far the most popular, and which has brought mirthful pleasure to millions on an annual basis, is to sing in Eurovision English: an exquisite tongue, spoken nowhere else, which raises the poetry of heartfelt but absolute nonsense to a level of which Lewis Carroll could only have dreamed. The Swedes are predictably fluent in this ("Your breasts are like swallows a-nesting," they sang in 1973), and the Finns, too, should be hailed as early with their faintly troubling back-to-back efforts from the mid-seventies, "Old Man Fiddle" and "Pump-pump," but the habit continued to flourish even during those periods when the home-language ruling was in place, as cunning lyricists broke the embargo by smuggling random expostulations into their titles and choruses. […] Hence such gems as […] Sweden's "Diggi-loo Diggi-ley," which won in 1984. The next year's contenders, spurred by such bravado, responded with "Magic, Oh Magic" (Italy) and "Piano Piano" (Switzerland). Not that the host nation relinquished the crown without a fight, as anyone who watched Kikki Danielson can attest. Her song was called "Bra Vibrationer." It was, regrettably, in Swedish.

Another well-worded joke, this time at the expense of the Swedes, who are another reliable object for Anglo-American linguistic humor. But again, there's a small problem of fact. This passage is likely to leave readers with the impression that "Bra Vibrationer" was an instance of those cunning lyricists breaking the linguistic embargo by smuggling random bits of un-idiomatic English into their titles and choruses.  But being (however regrettably) in Swedish, "Bra Vibrationer" actually was (and is) Swedish for "Good Vibrations".  And Ms. Danielsson's costume included a fairly demure pink jacket that eliminated essentially all possibilities for visible jiggle, so that Anthony Lane's innuendo, though undeniably effective, is a misleading cross-linguistic pun.

Perhaps the job description of New Yorker fact checkers stops short of spoiling a joke by insisting on clarity about such things. Or perhaps, as in the matter of the lion tongues, those fact checkers are now more legend than reality.

[I should also mention that an ingenious fourth way of not being English was tried by the French entrant in the 2007 contest, Les Fatal Picards (discussed here), whose song was in a combination of English and French produced with a fake English accent:

Maybe that one was a little too ironic for "kick and soul", but I liked it.]


  1. Janne said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    As an aside, "Your breasts are like swallows a-nesting" was a translation from the Swedish original line ("Dina bröst är som svalor som häckar") – which, improbable as it may sound, manages to sound even more embarrassingly corny than the translation. That particular line has, in fact, gained some notoriety in the Swedish language as a prototypical bad pop ballad line.

  2. The Ridger said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    English, even great English, is hardly immune from odd "my love is like…" lyrics. Consider:

    Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.

    Do you cry unfair, since it's a translation? How about

    My love is as a fever, longing still
    For that which longer nurseth the disease,
    Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
    The uncertain sickly appetite to please.

    Not pop?

    My love is like whoa.
    My love is like a sweet revolver.
    My love is like footsteps in the snow, baby, I follow you everywhere you go, baby
    My love is like a powder keg in the corner of an empty warehouses omewhere just outside of town about to burn down.

    But all of that is inconsequential beside the fact that he's making jokes at the expense of the truth. People who've never seen Eurovision now think they know what it's about.

  3. language hat said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    Oh, I don't think a few errors of fact detract significantly from the overall truth of the picture (though, like Mark, I deplore the precipitous decline of the New Yorker fact-checking department). I have never heard an account of Eurovision that casts doubt on his description.

    [(myl) Everything that I know about Eurovision comes from an hour or two on YouTube, so I'm hardly an expert. But to use a phrase that I learned from an ethologist friend when I asked him about Farley Mowatt's Never Cry Wolf, I suspect that Lane's perspective on the Eurovision song contest is "poetically true", whatever the validity of any mere facts it may contain. Here's another passage that rings true (or at least truthy), whatever its mere veracity:

    Two nights earlier, I had dropped into a club, on Rosenkrantzgate, in downtown Oslo, for the party that followed the second semifinal. Rumors were swirling that some of the singers might be there, but there was no sight of them. Whether or not the club was usually a gay establishment, it had certainly become one for the occasion. There must have been three hundred male Eurovisioners present, plus four women, one of whom leaned against the bar, swigging from a bottle of pear cider. I asked where she was from. "Finland," she said. I launched into a stream of commiseration, expressing my regret that the Finnish entrants had been expelled so prematurely from the contest, taking their squeezebox with them. The lonely drinker looked blank. "Eurovision," I explained. She hadn't know it was happening in the city that weekend. "So why are you here? What do you do?" I asked. She drew herself up like a duchess and declared, "I am prostitute." To which the only conceivable response was "Honey, you are in the wrong place." But maybe, on reflection, she wasn't. Even if business would be slow that night, she was enveloped in the good will of an institution that has lasted more than half a century, that has ridden the bumps of fashion, that has harmed nobody and given delight to hundreds of millions. The Eurovision Song Contest is kindly, diverting, flamboyant, efficiently run, and surprisingly tough.

    Like a Finnish whore in Oslo, we're meant to think.

    Did this exchange actually take place? Are Baltic prostitutes in Norway actually kindly, diverting, flamboyant, etc.? This is a bit like asking whether the events and descriptions in Farley Mowatt's Never Cry Wolf or David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise are factual. As Farley Mowatt told John Goddard, "I never let the facts get in the way of the truth."]

  4. muzz said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    "Vielleicht Gesicheiht ein Wynder" – seriously? Never mind assiduous fact-checking, he can't even copy and paste!

    [(myl) That's me who can't copy and paste — or rather, in this case, didn't type accurately. The New Yorker's online archive has only page images, so I couldn't copy and paste, and though I meant to type "Vielleicht Geschieht ein Wunder", I typed 'Gesicheiht' instead of 'Geschieht', and 'y' instead of 'u'. And then didn't proofread adequately (this is about the 15th typo I've corrected since the original posting). I believe that the original New Yorker text was correct.]

  5. Marion Crane said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    During the preparations for the Eurovision contest, I've had several friends expressing the hope that with our song being in Dutch no one would know how insipid the lyrics really were. Really, a lot of us were wondering why the writer of this song was allowed to write the song to represent our country in a cross-European contest in the first place.

    Also, another Dutch artist made a cover of this song about two days after it was announced, in English, which did manage to sound better – but that was in a large part due to an improvement on the music accompanying the lyrics. I think this was a specific case of Bad Song, Period, and not of Pop Music Only Works in English. I'll have to check your the examples in the post when I get home – no speakers at work.

    …And the lack of fact-checking, apparently to favour bad jokes, is indeed quite repulsive.

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    Some of the tendencies of Eurovision have been satirised: there's Neil Innes' macaronic Mr. Eurovision Song Contest Man and Monty Python's onomatopoeic Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong (1:30 here).

    I can't disagree with the general view of Eurovision: that its problem is that the selection-by-committee process attracts the anodyne, that which will offend no-one. You're never going to see Nina Hagen.

    [(myl) Or even Kraftwerk. The "anodyne selection by committee" theory makes more sense to me than Lane's "all (continental) European pop was created by the great god of dreck". Though admittedly there's a fair amount of dreck created everywhere.]

  7. Sigve said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    So you regard Finland as a Baltic country. Interesting. Here in Norway the Finnish prostitute wouldn't have been considered Baltic, but Nordic (and some might even have said Scandinavian).

    [(myl) I know even less about prostitution in Norway than I do about the Eurovision song contest, but I have the impression that Estonia and Latvia are bigger suppliers of sex-industry talent to Scandinavia than Finland is. For that reason, and because I've never met a Finn who regularly omitted English articles, I guessed that the woman in the story might actually have been Baltic in your sense, as well as (if Lane was accurate here) being from a country that happens to face the Baltic as a mere fact of geography.]

  8. Deanna said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    What about that monster band from Finnland that won a few years back? I don't recall being able to make out *any* words, Finnish, English, Swedish, or otherwise, and that didn't seem to hold them back. Of course, the whole thing is a popularity contest, which is why some countries consistently end up at the bottom of the results.

  9. D said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    If anything, "Bra Vibrationer" sounds weird in Swedish, as if someone did a word for word translation of the Beach Boys' song.

    As for Eurovision, it is a guilty pleasure for so many Europeans including me. It is like a musical adaption of an Asterix comic, full of European stereotypes. Our neighbors seldom fail to prove that they are indeed true (and yet we tend to be blind to just how ridiculous our own entries are).

  10. mgh said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    Can you summarize the errors of fact that prompted this lengthy critique?

    Was it only:

    1. Lane says the French have sung in French "year after year" when in fact, since 1977, there have been two years partly in English.

    2. He says that "Bra Vibrationer" is written in Swedish, when in fact you feel some readers might be led to believe it was not.

    [(myl) Well, actually, two French entries have been half in English, and one year the French entry was entirely in English except for 12 words; while Lane's account told us that the "olé" in this year's entry was as far as the French ever go in acknowledging the existence of other languages. And the context of the "Bra Vibrationer" discussion implied that the song's title was in English, even though the song was in Swedish.

    These two points were the only things in the article that I tried to fact-check. I looked into the first one because I knew it was wrong, since I knew about the Fatal Picards' entry from 2007. I looked into the second one because (like most American readers, I believe) I interpreted it to be saying that the title was in English, and so I thought the video would be interesting; when I discovered how tame it was, I wondered what "bra vibrationer" actually might mean in Swedish, and used a dictionary to find out.

    But mostly I wrote about this because the Eurovision Song Contest is a hoot, and I enjoyed Lane's discussion of it — even if he's all wet about non-English-language pop, and may in other cases sometimes avoid letting mere fact get in the way of the truth. The weblog format allowed me to look up some of the relevant videos and embed them or post links, which was fun, since I'd never seen most of them.]

  11. John Kozak said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Should mention the "Father Ted" theory of the Eurovision Song Contest: the winning country is obliged to host next year's contest at their own expense, but are not allowed to make any money therefrom. The Irish are the only nation who haven't twigged this yet, which is why they alone continue submitting entries actually intended to win.

    And "My Lovely Horse" (per FT, the song Ireland submits after realising this) sounds like it owes something to the 1957 Austrian entry. While I'm gushing trivia "Bob Martin" is/was a brand of vitamin pills for dogs in the UK.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    an engagingly waspish article by Anthony Lane

    I detect a bit of redundancy here.

  13. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    There's also the fact that tastes differ. People like different things.

    I think it's creepy when people try to define cultural standards so that only their own country's stuff can possibly measure up. And then, of course, call the people of other countries snobbish.

  14. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    oh, and did anybody else find it hilarious that the captioning on the Monty Python video was courtesy of the US Department of Education?

  15. michael farris said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    Mr. Lane made the unfortunate, if natural, mistake of thinking that the purpose of Eurovision is to showcase something like quality pop music.
    As an American living in Europe I've come to love Eurovision but the last thing I want or expect from it are good songs tastefully performed. What I want from Eurovision is:

    a) questionable taste all around,
    b) poorly thought through spectacle,
    c) over-emoted power ballads,
    d) clumsy dance routines,
    e) big dance numbers that don't catch on,
    f) quirky weirdness,
    g) flagrant, but harmless nationalism,
    h) earnest garbled pseudo-English.

    I'm never disappointed.

    Never less than train-wreck guilty fun when it all comes together it's a mutant culture experience like no other.

    One of my all time favorites. I have no idea what the song is about and I don't want to know, all I know is that it's great:

    The language issue is separate. Lane is all wet in his English only view of pop music and misses another very important reason that most acts perform in something remotely resembling English. Most pop lyrics aren't very smart and many Europeans are more comfortable when dumb things are expressed in English rather than in their own languages.

  16. HP said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    The nice thing about Eurovision is that it provides a handy, single-word trump card for Americans with ex-pat European friends who occasionally drink too much and start to loudly lament the lack of culture and taste in their adopted home.

    My Eurofriend: You see, the problem with you Americans is that you have no culture. And when you do come up with something like jazz, you don't appreciate it.

    Me: Eurovision song contest.

    My Eurofriend. Fair enough. Let's change the subject.

    (And as an aside to an aside: You list five items for the defense of non-English pop, of which four are American, and none are Brazilian? How is this possible?)

    [(myl) Well, I'm an American, so I started with the things that I grew up with, which included conjunto and cajun music. Then I starting thinking about things from other countries, got overwhelmed, and just stuck in Miriam Makeba because how could you not?]

  17. Frans said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 12:36 pm


    What about that monster band from Finnland that won a few years back? I don't recall being able to make out *any* words, Finnish, English, Swedish, or otherwise, and that didn't seem to hold them back.

    Huh? It's easy enough to make out the English. And while nothing special in its genre, I'd say it's easily among the better winners to emerge from Eurovision. Maybe it's easier to follow in studio version?

    On another note, here's the 1957 winner, in Dutch. Suffice it to say that the quality of the lyrics is nowhere in the vicinity of what was referred to in the OP.

  18. Frans said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Add a "the" to that last post.

    michael farris nails it btw (except I mostly tend to ignore it).

  19. wally said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    myl: "(this is about the 15th typo I've corrected since the original posting)"

    How does this compare with your other postings? Can we conclude that listening to a couple of hours of Europop hurts the brain and makes you type poorly?

    [(myl) I'm generally a fast but inaccurate typist. When I'm composing at the keyboard, I generally see the mistakes and correct them. When I'm transcribing from a separate text, I don't look at what I'm typing, and so the first draft has a lot of mistakes of all kinds. I'm a rather bad proofreader when I'm looking over a paragraph or two that I've recently written, and so a fair number of typos tend to survive, depending on how motivated I am and whether I bother with a spellchecker. This post had long passages from Lane's article that I had to re-type, since the New Yorker doesn't make cut-and-pastable versions available.

    I doubt that the three or four Europop songs I listened to in composing this post did any permanent cognitive damage…]

  20. mgh said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    myl: good, I'm glad that beneath the criticism there was pleasure; I was afraid so many painstaking take-downs of bad science writing had finally blinded you to everything but factual errors!

    in the same issue there is an excellent article by Oliver Sacks highly relevant to language issues. I hope you will find a way to post about it as well, as I'd enjoy hearing what you'd bring to it.

    (in the unlikely event that you can't think of anything to say about the science, I will tell you it also contains one misspelling, one type-setting error, and one possibly nonstandard grammar usage.)

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    What is apparent is that what Anthony Lane (an Englishman in his 40s) regards as "pop" is the watered-down rock'n'roll that nowadays carries that designation (hence the need for "kick and soul"), while popular music based on other cultures seems to be beyond his ken. Citing Cajun music (even if sung — except for the refrain — in English by an Australian) or Mexican music (even if sung by Chicanos in Americanized arrangements) is really irrelevant.

    [(myl) But Freddy Fender was born in San Benito, Texas, and had rock and "swamp pop" hits in English, from 1959 on. Flaco Jimenez is from San Antonio, Texas, and has played with Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Buck Owens, and many others. Fender and Jimenez were central to the band the Texas Tornadoes, which had songs that got pretty high on the country charts in the early 1990s. And La Bamba was a hit in the U.S., in Spanish, in 1958. Buckwheat Zydeco, among others, has had Cajun pop hits, some at least partly in French — I linked to Helen Reddy just for fun, to show that French lyrics can have "kick" even when sung by an Anglophone. Miriam Makeba had a number of songs on the pop charts, including Pata Pata which went pretty high on the charts in 1967. So I reject the view that stuff like this is irrelevant to the question of whether pop can work in languages other than English.]

    About The New Yorker and facts: A month ago, an article by Hampton Sides about the World Cup reported: "ESPN… has selected four commentators… three of them are British and one is a Scot." So, the Act of Union of 1700 doesn't seem to be a fact for The New Yorker, unless what was meant was that the Scot was one of the three Brits. But what I have heard has been three Englishmen and a Scot.

  22. Alexander said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    On the other hand, sometimes we are treated to an "unofficial" European language, like Viennese German:

  23. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    He's wrong about the malaria too; the sort you get in Africa is overwhelmingly falciparal malaria, from which you either die or get better. He's presumably thinking of India.

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    I'm still floundering with what Lane means by "kick and soul". I'm not terribly au fait with European "pop" – I tend to like European folk-fusion and metal – but there does seem to be plenty with similar characteristics to that sung in English. If he wants a comparison with The Supremes, what about Shy'M's La première fois. The Stranglers: some of Rammstein's less 'metal' tracks, such as Amerika.

  25. HP said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    Ray, I think what Lane means by "kick and soul" is something like, "Out of all the manifestations of the international marketplace for popular music since the invention of recorded sound, I've listened to maybe one-half of one percent, and only what is easily found on my car radio."

    I suspect that we could have Language Log readers each choose a region of the world (nobody's even mentioned Yoruba [where the drums are the backup singers], one of the greatest languages for pop music ever, and as I recall LL's own Victor Mair has posted some kickass Shanghainese pop in the past), and, even if we limit ourselves to YouTube, we could keep Anthony Lane busy listening for the rest of his natural life. Still, he seems like the kind of perpetual curmugeon who would wholly dismiss as innocuous and kicky-souly as yé-yé.

  26. HP said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    ….dismiss [insert]music[insert] as kicky-souly…

  27. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 5:25 am

    Lane's premise is rather undermined by the fact that the UK's Eurovision entries are almost universally appalling, including the ones that won the tournament.

  28. chris said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    michael farris is absolutely right in every single respect. Eurovision is a celebration of Eurotrash at its most enjoyably, fantastically, hilariously dreadful. The bad is what makes it good. Ask any Brit, they'll happily explain this to you. Even the Australians have cottened on, and Eurovision has become a huge cult hit there, with comprehensive network TV coverage every year.

    Is it perhaps the inability of Americans like Lane to notice this that explains why there isn't even a cable channel in the US that will show it? I've often wondered. There are at least a few people stateside who know how to appreciate it, though.

    As michael farris says, "the last thing I want or expect from it are good songs tastefully performed." The only problem with Eurovision is that in the last couple of years the quality has been rising alarmingly – the semi finals are still fun, but the final is getting depressing: far too many songs approaching a bland kind of "good"and far too many performances that could be easily called tasteful. This could ruin everything.

  29. Ray Girvan said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    HP: I suspect that we could have Language Log readers each choose a region

    Agreed. I'd bag Finland. Interestingly, the 2010 Eurovision did feature names who I'd think representative of what's good on the Finland music scene. The humppa band Eläkeläiset didn't get through (perhaps understandably – maybe humppa's a bit too local). But who did get to represent Finland, the duo Kuunkuiskaajat (Susan Aho and Johanna Virtanen), rather reinforces my feeling about the selection process. Their song Työlki Ellää was catchy and bouncy – but at the lite and obvious end of their range compared to the edgy (and I think much superior) work they do with Värttinä when they're not trying to be eye candy.

  30. michael farris said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    "in the last couple of years the quality has been rising alarmingly – the semi finals are still fun, but the final is getting depressing: far too many songs approaching a bland kind of "good"and far too many performances that could be easily called tasteful. This could ruin everything."

    I'm not worried just yet and even if the worst happened and it started being tasteful all around, thanks to youtube I'll still be able to relive the glory years….

    Latvia once gave an ungrateful world the least impressive special effect _ever_!
    You'll live on in my heart, little waving and not quite dancing robot dude…

    In 2009 Albania decided to appease those who'd been calling for a guy in a sequined green gimp suit (with flared legs!) to dance around a feel up a teenage girl….

    And whose nightmares aren't occasionally visited by Ukraine's Vera Serduchka from 2007?

    So many wonderful, wonderful memories…… (sniff)

    [(myl) Um, wow.]

  31. John said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    What Ginger Yellow said. The UK's entries repeatedly fail to work either as pieces of music in their own right, or as the kind of incomprehensible high-camp zanery people watch Eurovision for.

  32. Terry Collmann said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    The elephant in the room in this discussion is 1974's winner, sung in English by a quartet of Swedes previously little known outside their own corner of Europe who went on to be quite possibly the finest "pop" group in the world. If Eurovision has done nothing else over the past decades, at least it gave us Abba.

  33. ella said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    I am honest rather stunned that in all this discussion no mention has been made of 99 Luftballons; surely one of the finest pop songs in any language? Not part of Eurovision, of course.

  34. ella said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    arg. *honestly.

    where's a damn delete button when I need it!?!

  35. jah said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    The same issue of the New Yorker includes a reference to "William Coleridge" that should surely be Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

  36. John Baker said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    I enjoyed the original article and I enjoyed this post. However, the supposed errors (I say "supposed," because I was not misled by the "Bra Vibrationer" reference, even though I speak no Swedish) strike me as not very large or linguistically interesting. With so much really irresponsible writing available (Kathleen Parker comes immediately to mind), it seems unnecessary to single out what was at most a research failure and could be seen as mere exaggeration.

    Recent Eurovision contests seem to be hits on Youtube, so there does seem to be some American interest. Last year's winner, "Fairytale," and this year's winner, "Satellite," seem to be particularly well-received. I'm a little old for the target audience, but I have to admit that I like them both.

  37. outeast said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    What constitutes 'pop' music is certainly open to debate. I don't think it's necessarily fair to accuse Lane of being ignorant in his comment about 'pop in languages other than English' (as multiple commenters have done); I suspect it is more that he simply has a particularly narrow definition of 'pop' (likely one that specifically excludes both anything that could be defined as World Or Ethnic Music and anything with Substsntial Artistic Merit).

    I have in the past tended towards the use of such a definition myself – not least because of the legacy of the TV chart show 'Top of the Pops', which for a long time fixed 'pop music' in my mind as meaning a label for 'ephemeral commercial crap bought as singles by 10-15-year-old British kids'.

  38. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:55 am

    It's true that "pop" has a different semantic range in the US and Britain. Maybe there's even been a Language Log post on it. There's definitely a Separated By A Common Language post and thread about it.

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    The new vuvuzela button is a wonderfully useful thing when watching some of these videos…

  40. mollymooly said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    @John Kozak "The Irish are the only nation who haven't twigged this yet, which is why they alone continue submitting entries actually intended to win."

    I resent this gross libel, as does Dustin Hoffman. Winning the Eurovision is like hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix: deeply uncool countries think it gives them prestige; nobody else cares.

  41. vanya said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    "Mr. Lane made the unfortunate, if natural, mistake of thinking that the purpose of Eurovision is to showcase something like quality pop music."

    No, Michael, he did not. Lane actually agrees with you 100%. You should read the article – it's basically a humorous defense of, and love letter to, Eurovision, which Lane loves despite his better judgment. He pretty much cites and agrees with all 8 of your points. His dismissal of non-English language pop is the bog standard British attitude common to almost every English music lover I've ever met. (yes, chris, Lane is (very) English, not American).

  42. Panu said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    maybe humppa's a bit too local

    One of the unsettling aspects of globalization is, that I see this sort of sentences in the comments box of an American linguistic blog. It feels like you'd meet some local guy in the most improbable corner of the earth who would turn out to be your mother's old flame and who would discuss her excellence in bed, not knowing that you were her son.

  43. David said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 5:44 am

    It seems there is a big cultural divide between English-speaking ESC lovers and some continental European countries. Basically, at least some European countries approach the ESC as a serious competition to be won by submitting the best song. This has typically been the case in Sweden, for instance. The fact that some countries fail hysterically at this is part of the fun, but it's not nearly as fun if you suspect they haven't been trying very hard in the first place. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be a very good strategy, since Sweden has failed miserably the past years. Instead, the Swedes have come up with the sneaky strategy of producing (and sometimes performing) songs for other countries, which has worked quite well.

    The sudden change in quality from one year to the next is always fascinating, compare Greece 2001 ( and 2002 (, or Sweden 1999 ( and 2000 (

    The line "Dina bröst är som svalor som häckar", from the 1973 song "Sommaren som aldrig säger nej" (The Summer that Never Says No) was made extra cheesy by the fact that it had been written by Lars Forsell, a well-known poet and a member of the Swedish Academy. Sweden has never submitted an entry in Swedish since language restrictions were removed in 1999. Often, the songs are sung in Swedish during the qualification process (a certain quota of songs have to be in Swedish to promote Swedish-language song-writing) and then the winning entry is translated into English.

  44. David said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 5:59 am

    "This is surely a song whose "kick and soul" could have been increased by translation into almost any other language — perhaps Etruscan or Cornish."

    I couldn't stop myself from adding this example to prove the point of the translatability of good pop songs into small languages:

  45. cinches said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    I was posting about the analogy Lane uses on my blog.

    The usually wonderful writer Anthony Lane uses a lazy analogy in describing some lyrics from a pop song.

    "Trying to get them out of your head is like trying to dislodge an ant that has crawled into your ear canal. "

    Not that hard I would imagine- I would stick my head under a sink.
    More importantly an analogy fails when a reader is asked to understand something they know well by comparing it to something they don't know at all. Everyone knows what it is like to have a pop song that won't stay out of their head. Lane asks us to compare that to something very few people have experienced.

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