Quote of the day: GIBBERISH

July 24, 2010

GIBBERISH

Eurovision English [is] an exquisite tongue, spoken nowhere else, which raises the poetry of heartfelt but absolute nonsense to a level of which Lewis Carroll could only have dreamed. The Swedes are predictably fluent in this (“Your breasts are like swallows a-nesting,” they sang in 1973), and the Finns, too, should be hailed as early masters, with their faintly trouble back-to-back efforts from the mid-seventies, “Old Man Fiddle” and “Pump-pump,” but the habit continued to flourish even during those periods when the home-language ruling was in place, as cunning lyricists broke the embargo by smuggling random expostulations into their titles and choruses. Hence such gems as Austria’s “Boom Boom Boomerang,” from 1977 (not to be confused with Denmark’s “Boom Boom,” of the following year), Portugal’s “Bem-bom,” from 1982, and Sweden’s “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley,” which won in 1984. The next year’s contenders, spurred by such bravado, responded with “Magic, Oh Magic” (Italy) and “Piano Piano” (Switzerland). Not that the host national relinquished the crown without a fight, as anyone who watched Kikki Danielson can attest. Her song was called “Bra Vibrationer.” It was, regrettably, in Swedish.

By and large, philologists date the golden age of gibberish from the collapse of the Communist bloc. This brought a surge of fresh, unjaded contestants into the fray, hitherto unexposed to the watching world and avid to make their mark. (Of the thirty-nine contenders this year, eighteen did not exist as independent entities when the contest was first held.) I tried to interview Alyosha, who was in Oslo to sing “Sweet People,” for Ukraine, and hit a wall. She could learn English phonetically, and howl it convincingly into a wind machine, but speaking it one-on-one was another matter. Run your eye down the first semifinal of 2008, and you find what Donald Rumsfield used to call Old Europe being gate-crashed, in style, by Ukraine (“Shady Lady”), Latvia “(Wolves of the Sea”), Lithuania (“Nomads in the Night”), Bulgaria (“DJ, Take Me Away”), and Belarus (the ambitious “Hasta La Vista”). How could veterans like Turkey (“Deli”) or Switzerland (“Era Stupendo”) compare with that? My overriding concern, of course, was that 2010 would mark a hiatus of calm and common sense in this ritual massacre of the English language. I needn’t have worried. From the moment that Aisha took to the stage, for Latvia, in the first semifinal, with a hostage-to-fortune special called “What For?,” I settled down to enjoy a vintage year:

I’ve asked my Uncle Joe

But he can’t speak

Why does the wind still blow?

And blood still leaks?

So many questions now

With no reply

What for do people live until they die?

That is a good question. And even better was Aisha’s answer:

Only Mr. God knows why

(But) His phone today is out of range.

— Anthony Lane, writing in the New Yorker about the Eurovision Song Contest

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