ABBA at the Eurovision Song Contest

Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog of ABBA perform their winning song “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest—the subject of a popular course taught by music professor Philip Bohlman. (MacKendrick/Mirrorpix/Newscom)

Catchy hooks, wild looks, and sneaky politics

It must be the Eurovision Song Contest. 

Philip Bohlman has been teaching a course on the Eurovision Song Contest since 2004, but this year’s class is unlike any other. Due to COVID-19, his students have scattered. Eurovision itself has been canceled.

One aspect of college normalcy remains in the 2020 edition of Music 23509. It’s a 9:30 a.m. class, and the students aren’t pleased. Assembled via Zoom from their basements, living rooms, and childhood bedrooms, they engage in ritual grousing. The clear winner of the I-have-it-worse-than-you contest is an Arizonan, for whom class begins at 7:30 a.m. East Coasters, the students agree, have “time zone privilege.”

Another bit of continuity: even amid a global crisis, it is impossible for a course on the Eurovision Song Contest not to feel a little bit fun. (For Eurovision newbies: participating countries submit an original three-minute song to the annual contest, then vote on each other’s entries. The organizers take an expansive view of Europe—Israel joined in 1973, Australia in 2015. These days, many songs are in English.)

Bohlman and his course assistants, Eva Pensis and Laura Shearing Turner, PhD’20, have made a few concessions to circumstance. Usually, the class concludes with a student-organized Eurovision-esque song contest. These performances have developed “a real reputation on campus,” Bohlman, the Ludwig Rosenberger Distinguished Service Professor in Jewish History and the Department of Music, tells me later. “John Boyer [AM’69, PhD’75] came one year.”

This year each student is creating a scripted podcast about a fictional song contest of their own devising; the podcasts will include several original songs as “entries.” The theme and sound are up to the student. As the syllabus notes, “you may draw from the repertories that are dear to your heart.”

For today’s late-April session, focused on the theme of stardom and whether there is “life after Eurovision” for performers, Bohlman has selected a Eurovision song dear to his heart: Ireland’s 1987 winning entry, “Hold Me Now,” performed by Johnny Logan. (Logan was born in Australia but grew up in Ireland—a kind of fluidity of nationality that’s not unusual. Canadian Celine Dion, relatively unknown at the time, sang Switzerland’s winning song in 1988.)

“I chose this for two reasons,” Bohlman says. First, “I kind of like it, for all its embarrassment.” Second, it represents the tail end of “old” Eurovision, dominated by an old-fashioned orchestral sound.

Like many Eurovision songs before and after, “Hold Me Now” features a surging chorus, a bridge that arrives exactly when you want it to, a sneakily beautiful melody, and utterly deranged fashion. Logan’s outfit falls somewhere between a white tuxedo and a chef’s uniform. “I’ve never seen anyone, anywhere, in any country wear a jumpsuit like that,” Bohlman says.

Bohlman’s interest in the contest dates back to graduate school in the 1980s. While doing research in Israel for his dissertation, Bohlman began playing chamber music with a group of older European emigrés and exiles. One Saturday evening, they told him, “We’re not playing chamber music tonight. We’re going to watch the Eurovision Song Contest.” They were “very formal people, highly educated—I didn’t even know they had TVs,” Bohlman recalls. Still, they watched Eurovision “as if this were a sacred service.”

Like most Americans at the time, Bohlman had not heard of Eurovision. Those who had mostly knew it through ABBA: “Waterloo,” which won in 1974, launched the band into global superstardom. For them, at least, there was life after Eurovision.

Johnny Logan wasn’t quite so lucky, Bohlman notes in his lecture. He is the only person to have won the contest twice, in 1980 and 1987 (“Mr. Eurovision” also composed the winning song in 1992), but he never really transcended it.

Logan’s “Hold Me Now” represents not only an old Eurovision but also an old Europe. “Clearly this comes from a different era,” Bohlman tells the students. Other songs from the 1987 contest sound more firmly ’80s, rhythmic and synth driven, than the violin-drenched “Hold Me Now.” These sonic transformations anticipated political transformations to come: “This is two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Europe will undergo a considerable change itself.”

Despite Eurovision’s reputation for frivolity, politics have been baked in since its creation. The contest began in 1956 in part as an implicitly anti-Soviet demonstration of Western European unity, and many songs contain pointed political messages in the guise of pop songs: Ukraine’s 2016 entry “1944” references Russia’s historic and ongoing invasions, while “Face the Shadow” (2015) confronts the Armenian genocide.

Australian Dami Im, who was born in South Korea, represents a very different Eurovision. Course assistant Pensis queues up the music video for “Sound of Silence” (2016), in which dancers writhe in a smoke-filled warehouse to an impeccably produced, lyrically questionable pop song. (Sample line, sung slowly and sincerely: “Growing tired and weary brown eyes / Trying to feel your love through FaceTime.”)

“Hold Me Now” and “Sound of Silence” are structurally “exactly the same,” Bohlman says. Both are in A-A-B-A form, with key changes at identical points in the song. Yet for all their similarities, “they couldn’t be more different in what they’re trying to do,” he says. “Logan is maybe a bit outside his historical moment. Dami Im is very much in her historical moment.”

With that, Bohlman concludes his lecture and Pensis and Shearing divide the students into small groups for discussion. I follow Pensis into group three, where she asks the students what makes a good Eurovision song. “Very inspirational songs, with really big themes of love and peace,” one student suggests. “Big, fun, catchy hooks,” another adds.

The group mulls the question of why ever more songs are sung in English and what it means when they aren’t. “At what point does speaking in your native tongue become a cause?” Pensis prompts.

Ukraine’s “1944” included a few lines in Crimean—something that likely worked to its strategic advantage, one canny student points out. “It probably wouldn’t have generated as much press as it did without that.” After all, it is a contest, and countries are trying to win.

When small group discussion concludes, the class reassembles. Bohlman notes a few housekeeping items: upcoming assignments, office hours.

Finally, he urges students to keep listening to as many Eurovision songs as they can. “Every night or so listen to a couple of songs from a particular year,” he says, “so you can get the sounds in your ears.” It makes for a delightful homework assignment.