Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 7th, 2010

Because of the victory in Eurovision 2008 by the Timbaland-produced “Believe” (video of Dima Bilan’s semi-final performance, featuring ice skating by Evgenij Pljushchenko), the 2009 edition of the European Song Contest was hosted by Russia (the victor each year hosts the following year’s competition). Georgia, who had, of course, recently fought a brief war with Russia, submitted as their candidate song Stephane & 3G’s “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” provided, here, with lyrics:

Derivative disco, sure, with a still not entirely uncatchy groove. Yet the chorus of the song, “We don’t wanna put in / The negative move / Is killing the groove / I’m a-tryin’ to shoot in / Some disco tonight,” fell afoul of the Eurovision officials. See, Eurovision is perhaps more regulated than any enterprise in the world. In fact, over half of the Treaty of Lisbon is devoted to regulations regarding song entries into Eurovision. Some regulations are very well known: songs can’t be longer than three minutes (which makes writing about Eurovision very easy). Others come up in weird cases, like with LT United’s 2006 entry, where they, apparently inappropriately, used the word “Eurovision” in their song. ((I can’t find references to this situation, but I recall reading in 2006 that LT United was going to not be allowed to use the word “Eurovision” in their performance. They did, of course.))

Stephane & 3G’s transgression, however, was to ignore the Eurovision rule regarding “No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature.” They refused to change the lyrics of the chorus, which were interpreted as anti-Putin, so the song was disqualified, and Georgia refused to send an alternate song. Disco continues to scandalize into the 21st Century! Of course, the politico-historical background of the 1974 winners was apparently more subtle than that of the Georgians.

Fill our heart with your national desire.

The desire to present an aesthetic without political commitments, pace Jameson, emerges, I suspect, out of the unifying desire of the paradox of the Eurovision project itself. Its current logo itself presents this paradox: it’s a stylized rendering of the name with a large heart taking the place of the “v.” But this heart is then filled in with the flag of whatever nation is competing or hosting at the time, suggesting a sort of innate, interior quality to national feeling that is embedded in each performer’s heart. So, since we all have an innate national feeling, a property claim on a slice of the Volksgeist, the theory goes, we’re all united in being different, a sort of neoliberal justification for the competition itself. And for those whose flags never get to be represented at Eurovision? Sorry.

In fact, Eurovision becomes a sort of neoliberal competition sans pareil, based as it is on the ideas of competition, on a fundamental human equality expressed in pluralism. Into the aesthetic European marketplace, unfettered by varying tariff schedules or import regulations, each song stands an equal chance of winning. Well, an equal chance except of course, for the “Big Four,” who bought their way out of having to compete at the semi-final level. But neoliberalism’s genius is, of course, its willingness to be ideologically inconsistent (here undemocratic) when money is at stake.

Next, each commodity is graded in part by the demos (televoting) and by expert bureaucrats (the national juries, which presumably can appreciate the quality of Eurovision better than the demos). We have the fantasy of democracy and equality, yet also the obscured structure of support (aesthetic firewalls, buying your way to the finals) to maintain a level of order, so capital is not put at too great a risk.

LT United’s entry in 2006 played up (unconsciously, I suspect) this neoliberal fantasy, and I bought in. The main reason I preferred it to InCulto’s beloved runner-up, “Welcome (to Lithuania)” was because of two lines Vee sings midway through the song that illustrate its commitment to pluralistic neoliberalism: “De Vilnius city à Paris” and “Chantons la même chanson.” So first we have the unifying move of the band itself, which took its name from the football tradition, imagining itself as a “national selection”–the best the nation had to offer and send to international competitions, just like in the World Cup. Lithuania is united behind the song “We Are the Winners.” But then lyrically, the song encourages a geographical and performative unity. The locus of winners stretches from Vilnius to Paris, and it involves everyone singing the song (a list that would include the actual winners that year, Lordi, and Robbie Williams). If this seems a bit confusing, it’s because it’s paradoxical: competition brings us together, and out of choosing a winner, we will be united. This ironic skimming between was missed by the throaty audience in Athens, eager to boo LT United as they made their way to a Lithuania-best 6th place performance. We can all sing the song, the message was, but we’re still LT United, and there can still be only one set of winners in this marketplace. But as long as no one’s feelings are hurt…

“Welcome (to Lithuania),” on the other hand, I found to be exceptionalist (and this conclusion was greatly influenced by the aesthetic moves made by PetPunk in their nevertheless enjoyable video for the song). So it’s interesting that InCulto has moved beyond the borders of Lithuania with their new song, “Eastern European Funk,” Lithuania’s representative in the 2010 edition of the Eurovision contest. First, here’s the televised final performance, so the reader can both see the Eurovision logo in action as well as get an aural appreciation of the lyrical content of the song:

Second is a version from much earlier this year, performed in studio (minus Auris on bass, who is in the other room) for RadioCentras. Notable in this performance is how the radio personality Vytenis manages to mess up the title of the song, uncertain if it’s “punk” or “funk.” Though I doubt he had Dr. Green’s “East Europe Ska” on the mind, as I’ll show later, InCulto owes more, generically, to punk tradition in this song than funk:

These two versions can then be compared against the two versions (though three clips) I posted earlier this week.

So first, let’s get the funk out of the way (I’ve had friends ask what, precisely, is “funky” about this song). Unlike “jazz,” whose very etymology is euphemistically tied to sex, “funk”‘s euphemistic power to obscure sex is retrofitted. Taking a classic lyric like “Make my funk the P-funk / I wants to get funked up,” it’s taking advantage of uncertainty over the etymology of the term “funk,” including using its phonetic proximity to “fuck.” Musically, funk is supposed to lope around, vamping with a driving bass on just a chord or two, giving an undulating motion, and, well, this song doesn’t really do that. But what it cedes musically, it reclaims lyrically, despite a certain amount of variance in the lyrics over the course of the song’s evolution in the YouTube clips online. ((When referring to lyrics, I’m referring to the RadioCentras version, which is new and clear. The same lyrics are used in the Maxima performance, and there isn’t significant deviation from the televised performance from the other day.)) The first verse sexualizes the bloody past of Eastern Europe during the 20th Century. “We’ve had it pretty tough / But that’s ok, we like it rough” sings Didžiulis, turning “Survived the Reds and two world wars” from a defiant move of political strength to a 70-year tantric orgy enjoyed by the masochists of Eastern Europe. Yet there’s an implicit threat in the first verse, too, as Didžiulis sings that “We’ll settle the score,” presumably not with the previous oppressors, but with those who refuse to “give us a chance.”

The second verse, then, is the interesting one, and it’s the one that serves as a (revolutionary) critique of neoliberalism and of the very structure of contemporary Europe and Eurovision. Didžiulis pits Eastern Europe and its suffering against the relative material success of the West, arguing that there are neoliberal fictions of equality codified by the EU, but these fictions filter down to the ground level only as shadows of their idealized selves, their corners cut by concessions to capital. The verse is worth quoting in full, with my potential errors in transcription asserted beforehand:

Yes sir, we are legal, we are
But we're not as legal as you
No sir, we're not equal
Though we're both from the EU
We build your home, we wash your dishes
Keep your hands all squeaky clean
Someday you'll come to realize
Eastern Europe's in your genes/jeans!

Being unified in the EU has not granted full equality, in fact, and, in making moving as an undocumented worker even easier, it has fostered, in its own neoliberal way, even more massive income inequality. The release of travel restrictions to the West has created a gigantic exodus of Lithuanians from Lithuania (along with other Eastern Europeans from their homes), such that, for example, when I was walking down a street in London and saw a bunch of men building a home, I would have been more startled if they had not been speaking Lithuanian.

But the ascendance of the Eastern European into the underclass of Western Europe (thereby competing with the underclass from Asia and Africa in urban environments like Paris) comes despite the fact that Eastern Europe has gotten the “democracy” and “freedom” that it “wanted.” It gets to participate in Eurovision now with its nationalist, not communist, flags inside the little Euro♡ision. You are, after all, now equal, no? Oh wait, you wanted something resembling economic equality as well? Clearly you’re not actually ready to join us, let’s have you run up some debt with the IMF first.

The point here is that the second verse starts skating toward lyrics “of a political or similar nature.” Not that I think the song should be disqualified: it’s to its benefit that it carries a revolutionary subtext, rising to its climax, as it were, in the closing line, with an implicit threat of occluded miscegenation. Perhaps the homebuilder or dishwasher is your true, biological father or mother, masked and obscured to prevent class shame. Or perhaps the dishwasher has sabotaged your dishes, leaving his own genetic material on the plate in quiet revolt against your terrible wages. This is, of course, the revenge for the sextourism critiqued in “Welcome.” Further, read as “jeans,” the last line is a reminder of the role of the Eastern European in the process of production even in Western Europe, suggesting that it’s probably not a good idea to keep stomping on the underclass.

This revolutionary current, then, explains how I see the generic ancestry of InCulto’s entry not in the funk ethos of sexual expression, but in the punk ethos of (sexual) revolution, despite the eagerness to pigeonhole InCulto into a nationalist revolutionary sentiment. For the latter, take a song like “Sally,” by Gogol Bordello, a band with certain aesthetic affinities with InCulto:

There is a similar thread of defiance (“But by the accident of some kind divine dispensation /
I ended up being walking United Nation / And I survived even fucking radiation”–though messed up in the live version above, these are the lyrics of the album recording) as with the “we like it rough,” but the force of “Sally” comes before, in the narrative of cultural revolution. “Gypsies” come by and drop “something,” and right there, the revolution begins.

But it’s uncertain to me what, precisely, Hütz has in mind with this cultural revolution, which is how Didžiulis manages to move past it. Hütz’s lack of clarity over revolution, in fact, is a persistent problem for me with Gogol Bordello, since, unlike InCulto’s ironic twisting of the pluralist screw, Gogol Bordello seems to be eager to relish it. ((Someday I’ll write my review of InCulto’s much maligned second album and start a process of recuperation of it as a brilliant, persistent critique of the nationalist project informing about 95% of contemporary Lithuanian political life.)) “They always were afraid that I was a schizophrenic,” Hütz sings, continuing with “They always were afraid что я родину продал” (that I sold out the nation). In reality, though, “я был просто маленький медведик / Сёл на велосипедик и всё на хуй проебал”(I was simply a little bearcub / Seated on a little bike and fucking losing everything). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work through these lines. ((This time spent is in part since I have little confidence in my translation of “всё на хуй проебал,” but advanced cursing isn’t part of the third-year Russian syllabus.)) What they seem to encourage is a continued presence of a national spirit. The cultural revolution, or the performance, did not ruin the national identity, and the nation was not sold out. What, then, is the actual result of the revolution called for here? ((A song like their “Immigrant Punk” is even more frustratingly illegible as far as an actual political call to action. It seems to get its lyrical energy simply out of celebrating difference. Zzzzz.))

The nationalized cultural revolutions Gogol Bordello imagines play right into the neoliberal playbook. The band fancies itself as subversive, “smuggling” ethnic musical tropes into the US like Gogol “smuggled” Ukrainian culture into Russian culture. But the result is just an enhanced cultural particularization. In making such a big deal of its multiethnic composition, Gogol Bordello banishes itself to its own ghetto. ((Trimmed from this piece is an extended discussion of the fiction of cultural particularization as highlighted in Joann Sfar’s fantastic series Klezmer. I did go through the effort of uploading the images I was going to use as evidence, which you can view here.))

Didžiulis, on the other hand, with his threats of miscegenation, shows that the cultural revolution will come as interior sensibilities of national identity become illegible, replaced, instead, with models of practice and performance–expressivities of identity that by definition have a material component. ((Another way to see how “Eastern Europe is in your genes/jeans” is a Lamarckian way: take those jeans to the dance floor, dance to the Eastern European funk, and find that the practice of your dancing jeans embeds itself in your genes.)) In other words, the fantasy of equality through pluralism (with its resonances with “separate but equal” in the US) is now challenged on the stage in Oslo, during Eurovision, perhaps the grandest stage for perpetuating that very fantasy. Elsewhere Didžiulis has commented on the kitsch nature of Eurovision, but considering kitsch’s complicated relationship to national expression, it does not unhinge the subversion of the lyrical content of the song.

LT United promised a certain kind of imagined unity in all voting for the winners and in singing their song from Vilnius to Paris, but it’s ephemeral; it’s the cover for increasing economic destruction. “Eastern European Funk,” to me, calls for for a different kind of European Unity.

So that all said, what are the song’s chances in Oslo? One of the great moves by writing a song about Eastern Europe as a whole is that it might shake up the blocs that tend to vote for each other in Eurovision. The Baltic states tend to vote with the Scandinavians, leaving the Slavs to split themselves further into two groups, the Western-European Slavic axis and the South Slavic axis. The political claims Didžiulis makes, in English, the master’s language, are understood as well in Russia as in Poland as in Bulgaria as in Ukraine as in Bosnia (whose population has felt the thumb of democracy in their eye in denying them the right to build minarets in Switzerland). Centuries-old neighborly antagonisms don’t change the fact that everyone in the east is not as legal (or as equal) as those in the west.

I’ve read a few criticisms of the song for being, in its all-male constitution and self-consciously kitschy approach, far too reminiscent (and hence derivative) of the four year old performance by LT United. For me, that comparison makes no sense whatsoever–especially given how each year about 80% of the songs are interchangeable lovesong pop and, thus, derivative of each other, one after the other–but for a person just tuning in to the semi-finals in May, there may indeed be a lot of resonance, which probably goes to InCulto’s detriment. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that we have seen the final version of the band’s stage performance, so they may have some tricks tucked away in their sequined briefs.

Sadly, since I’ll be in the US during the semi-finals and finals, I suspect I won’t be able to vote for InCulto from France, but I still support their bid.

[Originally posted, with proper formatting, footnotes, and embedded video, to Lithchat.]

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4 Responses to “We’re not as legal as you”

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