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Drukkje min broderѕ blod! Why the best Eurovision songs are no longer in English
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Drukkje min broderѕ blod! Why the best Eurovision songs are no longer in English

There was a time when in order to win Eurovision you had to “fly on the wings of love”, “take me to your heaven” or “sail into infinity while reaching for divinity”. This year, however, there’s a fair chance the winner will estar comiendo el mundo (be eating the world), ridere in queste notti bruciate (laugh in these burnt nights), or even drukkje min broderѕ blod (drink my brother’s blood).

The metaphors may have been mixed, but for the first two decades of the 21st century, the English language reigned supreme at the Eurovision song contest. In the run-up to the millennium, the so-called language rule restricted English songs to countries that counted it among their official languages, such as Britain, Ireland and Malta. But when the rule was scrapped in 1999, the floodgates opened.

Out of the next 18 winners, only Serbia’s Molitva in 2007 did not feature any English lyrics at all. Such was Eurovision’s anglophilia that even Russia triumphed with a song containing the line, “Cause I got something to believe in as long as I’m breathing”. By 2014, more than three-quarters of entries were sung entirely in English, rising above 80% in the three years that followed.

A man holds a large trophy on his head as a person next to him exclaimsView image in fullscreen

Then, in 2017, something unexpected happened: Portugal’s Salvador Sobral won the grand final with Amar Pelos Dois, a song sung not in one of Europe’s most common languages, but in a tongue with only about 10 million native speakers on the continent. Sobral’s Portuguese upset changed the formula for Eurovision success: of the last six winners, three have been in a language other than English, with leather rockers Måneskin proving Italian-language songs can also work outside the giddy delirium of the five-day competition.

English, Europe’s lingua franca, remains dominant, and the shift towards non-English songs at Eurovision has been subtle. Yet it has followed a distinct trend. Of the 37 songs in the semi-finals this year, 49% are at least partially sung in a non-English language – up 11 percentage points from last year’s contest, and a 16-year-high. The entries with the biggest pre-competition buzz – Angelina Mango’s taut piece of steelpan pop La Noia, Marina Satti’s Rosalia-esque Zari and Joost Klein’s gabber-infused Europapa – are sung in Italian, Greek and Dutch, with no more than a few English phrases sprinkled over the top.

Two members of a four-piece band on stage hold aloft a trophyView image in fullscreen

Is it too obvious to identify Britain’s vote to leave the EU as the point at which the tide began to turn? In May 2017, amid tense negotiations over Brexit, then European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said, “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe”. What may have been intended as a tactical tease gained a prophetic ring when Sobral triumphed in Kyiv just days later.

“It was an act of liberation,” says Irving Wolther, a German linguist and Eurovision historian. “For years, the Brits had treated [Eurovision] as this freak show that was just badly copying music first pioneered in the UK, when in fact there is plenty of dreck in the British charts too. After Brexit, there was a sense of ‘Now we are no longer being patronised by the Brits, we Europeans can express our own voice.’”

Others see less overtly political developments behind the shift. “I wouldn’t go as far as saying this is all about Brexit,” says André Wilkens, director of the Amsterdam-based European Cultural Foundation. English may be nothing less than Europe’s lingua franca, but also nothing more, Wilkens argues – a tool that has enabled different European countries to communicate with each other. “But with the rise of machine translation, you no longer need to sing in English to be understood.”

A woman in a white outfit sings on stage against a colourful lit backgroundView image in fullscreen

As Eurovision approaches its 70th anniversary, it has grown in size and reach, with last year’s concerts in Liverpool being followed by 162 million people across various media. The competing songs are released weeks or months in advance on social media, with translations of the lyrics displayed in the subtitles.

The newfound belief in the power of non-English pop songs to transcend national barriers appears to be driven by Eurovision’s fans rather than the music and television executives who cook up each year’s entries, said Kajsa Törmä, a linguist who coordinates a course called Linguistics and the Eurovision song contest at Umeå University in mid-northern Sweden.

“The jury voters usually favour marketable songs in English that stand a chance of penetrating the charts in as many countries as possible,” Törmä says. “The audience vote tends to be more open to songs in other languages. They value it as an expression of identity.”

Last year’s final featured another triumph for Eurovision record-holder and resolute English-language stalwart Sweden, which has not submitted a single Swedish-language song since the scrapping of the language rule in 1999. “All I care about is you / You’re stuck on me like a tattoo,” sang Loreen, last year’s Swedish Eurovision winner. But a poll of the audience at the M&S Bank Arena Liverpool had by a considerable margin chosen a different favourite: Finland’s Käärijä, with a chorus that went Cha, cha, cha, toinen silmä jo karsastaa.

A man with outlandish green sleeves, black trousers and no top surrounded by four people in pink outfits baring false teethView image in fullscreen

The decline of linguistic competence as a requisite for communication and its rise as a marker of identity may also explain the growing prevalence of minority languages at the contest. Australia’s entry is sung in English, but has lines in Yankunytjatjara, an Australian Aboriginal language. Norway has entered a reinterpretation of a Norwegian medieval ballad, its lyrics written in a partially modernised version of the non-standardised Telemark dialect.

“All this has quite sad implications for the UK,” says Törmä. “You are not on a roll and haven’t been for quite a while, and now that the dynamics at Eurovision are changing, you haven’t even got another language to fall back on.”

If the UK is serious about losing its nul points reputation, the future of British pop at Eurovision may well be Cornish.

Source: theguardian.com