Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Lost in translation?

Portugal's Eurovision performance last night at the first semi-final in Dusseldorf raised more than a few eyebrows. In the midst of what many see as a German-imposed austerity drive forced on Portugal after they had to take a €78 billion bailout from the EU and IMF, their Eurovision entry performed a song dressed as protestors and chanting slogans, right in the belly of the beast. It was a bit of an awkward moment, especially considering political messages are supposed to be banned from the Eurovision Song Contest.

According to the group, the song was apparently supposed to be a sort of celebration of Portugal despite all of its bad news. Entitled "A Luta é Alegria" (The Struggle is Joy), it calls on the Portuguese to not give in to feelings of despair or rage at the restrictions being imposed on them. The message, I imagine, was intended to be like the old expression 'keep calm and carry on' used by the British during World War II. "There’s no point in tightening the belt, there’s no point in complaining," they sang. "There’s no point in frowning and rage is pointless, it won’t help you. Many people wish to silence you. Many people want you to feel resentful. Many people want to sell you the air itself."

But given that the song was in Portuguese, the message was lost. All the audience saw was a group lit in the colors of the 1970s Portuguese revolution dressed as demonstrators at a time when violent demonstrations are taking place in Portugal against the German-dictated austerity cuts. The costumes were apparently supposed to be archetypes from the 1970 revolutionary period, but the group ended up looking more like the Village People. The signs they held gave the name of the song in various languages, which didn't seem to make the message any more clear to the audience. And even now that I know the English lyrics and the intended message, I'm still confused about whether or not it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. In the end they were not chosen as one of the 10 finalists who will go on to compete in Saturday's final.

Portugal was one of only three entries in last night's semi-final to be sung in a language other than English, out of 19 songs competing. For most of the songs the English actually grew quite tiresome, and I was thinking several of them would have benefitted from being in their own language instead. But Portugal was the one where perhaps English lyrics would have been the most beneficial. If they were worried about possibly offending their German hosts with a song that could appear confrontational, singing it in English could have made it more clear that it was instead a call to keep calm and carry on. But of course, it would have been a bit bizarre to sing a song in English about celebrating Portuguese pride.

At the very least the song appears to reference a controversial political situation, so it's quite surprising that it was allowed to compete. A similar situation arose in 2009 when Eurovision was being held in Moscow in the midst of the Russia-Georgia war. Georgia fielded an entry called "We Don't Wanna Put In". The disco song had a less-than-subtle message, especially considering "put in" is not an expression in English. Even though there was no explicit reference to Putin or Russia in the song (the rest of the lyrics are all about music and dancing) the European Broadcasting Union decided it violated the contests ban on political language and would not allow the song in the contest.

So why was that song banned but the Portuguese song allowed in? Probably because in this year's instance the host country did not raise any objection. The EBU's decision in 2009 was very likely a result of pressure from host country Russia. Germany likely has thicker skin than that. In any event, the Portuguese song ended up being more confusing than anything else. The type of song where, after it finishes, everyone looks at each other and asks, "what the hell was that?"

The second round of Eurovision semi-finals will be held on Thursday.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea what that song was supposed to be about! I thought it did look like they were protesting Germany.

Bernie said...

Love your Eurovision coverage so far - I of course remember the days when we used to win all the time.... (I think Hungary might do it this time) Anyhow, I thought I'd send you this article in case you hadn't seen it -

Best wishes from sunny Prague, Bx

Captain Kid said...

The ban on political issues is wrong. Music reflects society and in a democratic society, it is essential and natural to have lyrics about political or social concerns. Why should we continue to pretend that everything is rainbows and sunshine? It would only help Eurovision to get better.

PS: Only three countries sung in their national language? One more reason why I stopped watching Eurovision in the 90s.