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‘Next Year in Jerusalem!’ Israel Wins Eurovision

On Saturday night, while yet another jihadist was terrorizing Paris, people all over Europe were tuned in to the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual display of the depressingly low level to which the quality of popular music has descended. First broadcast in 1956, Eurovision gave the world such songs as ABBA's “Waterloo” (which won in 1974) and – um – did I mention “Waterloo”?

Seriously, the music wasn't always so bad. During its early years, the competition was something of a cultural smorgåsbord, with songs sung in native languages and in accordance with national musical traditions. If you're old enough, you'll probably remember the Eurovision entries “Volare” and “Al Di La” and “L'amour est bleu.” There were nice ballads and cute novelty numbers.

Over time, however, more and more of the songs were all but interchangeable U.S.- and UK-influenced pop and dance tunes, increasingly sung in English. Among the memorable titles: “Boom Bang-a-Bang” and “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley.” By degrees, songwriting gave way to spectacle. The whole thing had started off as a competition among composers and lyrics, but now the singer was the star. In the first few decades, at least one person onstage needed to be playing a musical instrument; nowadays, believe it or not, that's totally prohibited. Any number of back-up dancers, acrobats, lighting effects, explosive devices, etc., etc., are permitted, but the singer or singers are required to sing to a pre-recorded track, just like at a karaoke bar.

After the Iron Curtain fell, Eastern European countries not only joined NATO and EU – they were swallowed up into the madness of Eurovision. For several years, many of their entries were even worse than the crap from Western Europe – illuminating the sober fact that Communism had produced even more appalling notions of popular music than capitalism had. One measure of the gradual adaptation of Eastern Europe to Western culture has been that the entries from countries like Moldova and Estonia are now, by and large, indistinguishable from the entries from France and Sweden.

To be sure, though the musical quality has steadily declined, every now and then a Eurovision song turns out to be actually melodic, capable of being remembered for at least two or three minutes into the next song. Last year there was actually a very pretty – dare I say haunting? – song, “Amar Pelos Dois,” that was performed by Salvador Sobral of Portugal. In a shocking departure from tradition, the best tune ended up winning.

Every year the contest takes place in the country that won the year before. So this past Saturday night, the Eurovision program was broadcast live from Lisbon. As always, the giant auditorium was packed to the rafters. One presumes that the TV audience was also huge. Why, you may wonder, do people watch this train wreck? Some of them, disturbing though it may be to contemplate, actually like the music. Many others, however, watch out of habit, the way some Americans still watch the Oscars even though they haven't seen any of the movies and wouldn't do so with a gun put to their head. Still others use it as an occasion to buy champagne and hold a party. It's kitsch. It's camp.