Cover Photo: Eurovision.tv
Europa non é lontana
C’é una canzona Italiana
Unite, unite, Europe
In 1990, Toto Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called – a little oddly, given the year – “Insieme: 1992.” Written and performed only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the song got its title from the implementation of the European Single Market, due to come into effect in 1992, and the anticipation of the European Union, created the same year with the Maastricht treaty.
“Insieme” is a soaring paean to a politically and ideologically united Europe. In typical power ballad fashion, it starts subdued and sparse and builds to a triumphant finish of power chords. Cutugno, a hirsute middle-aged fellow with a prominent brow, delivers the song with an almost grave intensity. He jabs his pointer finger at the audience like an infomercial salesman when he sings “per voi” – for you – and clasps his hands together to drive home the meaning of the word “insieme”: together.
Musically and lyrically, “Insieme” reminds me of another 1990 song about the end of the Cold War, “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions, which was so effective in its message of European unity and reconciliation that it became the subject of persistent rumors that it was written by the C.I.A. as propaganda. (After the 2020 podcast investigating the rumors, Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine publicly denied the claim.) And just like “Wind of Change,” “Insieme” is undeniably effective. It was a surprise winner at Eurovision 1990, beating out predicted favorites like Ireland’s “Somewhere in Europe” and the UK’s “Give a Little Love Back to the World.”
Insieme’s lyrics are almost propaganda-like in their devotion. We are always more free, Toto sings. We are love without borders. We are united under the same flag, the same ideals. Our stars, one single flag. And then, in English, the tagline: Unite, unite, Europe!
Clearly, in 1990, a kind of pan-European optimism was in the air. Italy wasn’t the only country to send a topical entry that year: Austria’s “Keine Mauern Mehr” proclaimed “No Walls Anymore” in German, English, and Serbo-Croatian, and Ketil Stokkan of Norway finished dead last with the song “Brandenburger Tor.” (Why did Norway fail where Italy succeeded, even though the songs were so thematically similar? It might be, as Chris Zammarelli suggests, that “Brandenburger Tor” is about the recent past, while “Insieme” looks to the future. It might also be that Norway is cursed.) In his live commentary for the UK, Sir Terry Wogan quipped, “This is more of a Jacques Delors competition than I’ve imagined,” as a cartoon mascot called Eurocat knocks down a cartoon wall. (Delors, former president of the European Commission, spearheaded the European single market.)
Eurocat, tear down this wall!
From today’s vantage point – after years of financial crises, Euroscepticism, and the reascension of the nationalist right in many parts of Europe – watching someone wax so unironically poetic about the European Union is disarming, if not downright comical. In one performance of “Insieme” from 1992, Toto performs the song in front of an audience of attractive teenagers who wave flashlights in time to the music, and stand up and cheer at the climax of the song. The comments under the YouTube video of this performance exemplify the gulf between then and now: one commenter writes, “Quante belle speranze per la nostra Italia ed Europa, e invece….ci stiamo sgretolando…” (“How many beautiful hopes for our Italy and Europe, and instead … we are crumbling …”) Another simply writes, “Italy has National debt in billion euros: 2,431.08.”
In the summer of 1989, less than a year before Toto’s Eurovision victory, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an essay called “The End of History?” in the foreign policy magazine The National Interest. The theory put forth in that essay, and later a book of the same name, has been so thoroughly refuted, debunked, and dunked on that it feels almost silly to repeat it, but here it is, more or less: Fukuyama predicted that as the Cold War came to an end, European-style democracy, liberalism and capitalism would become world’s the ascendant, unchallenged norm, the universal endpoint of mankind’s political evolution. At the end of history, according to Fukuyama, there would still be events and struggles, but ones that nations could confront together; there would be no more ideological struggles between political entities, because liberal democracy had already won.
Even at the time, Fukuyama’s theory wasn’t terribly well-received, especially by those who didn’t agree with Fukuyama’s characterization of liberal democracy as the best and most evolved version of government. But the book and its ideas have aged poorly ever since, to say the least. For one thing, the “west” has not remained comfortably ensconced at the top: Russia and China, two non-democratic powers, continue to threaten North American and European democratic regimes. For another, every year that passes has made the failures of market-based neoliberalism – which has degraded public institutions and infrastructures, stretched wealth inequality to a breaking point, and ravaged the environment – become more evident.
But while “the end of history” flopped as a sociopolitical theory/prediction, it remains useful as a way of theorizing a vibe, an aesthetic, an outlook that informed the cultural output of the nineties and early 2000s. “Insieme: 1992” is very End of History, insofar as it reflects a cultural current of optimism about a global democratic future. So are any comically exaggerated examples of globalization, like McDonalds in Moscow’s Red Square; elements of nineties and early 00’s design, like curvy housewares and generically “global” imagery; The Rainforest Café; the “Pure Moods” album and commercial New Age music (more on that later); early VR interfaces; and the sleek, frictionless Y2K imaginary.
The world: now at everyone’s fingertips.
Evan Collins and Froyo Tam run a blog called the Y2k Aesthetic Institute, where they catalog examples of the style in clothing, typography, architecture and graphic design. On their twitter account, they describe the “strange sense of post-millennium calm & vague end-of-history futurism” evoked by the music and imagery of the period:
I remember this too, and along with it the deeply felt sense that history was a twentieth century phenomenon, something we had closed the book on with the end of the Cold War. Growing up in the United States at the end of the twentieth century, I remember how naturally the history textbooks would come to an end: the last pages covered the end of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the European Union, and the emergence of the United States as the lone global superpower, and then petered out with some vague paragraphs about globalization, environmentalism, and technological progress. War and conflict were for the past; the future was one of cooperation and global unity.
We don’t have to look far to see how this sense pervaded the music, rhetoric, and visuals of Eurovision. Of course, the Eurovision Song Contest has been about unity from the start, founded as it was with the intent to foster post-war European harmony. But perhaps there is an end-of-history explanation for why Eurovision entries decline in quality in the late nineties and early 2000s: power ballads and drum machines were supplanted by mid-tempo fare like “The Voice,” “Reise Nach Jerusalem,” and “Fly on the Wings of Love,” the last of which was referred to by one Tumblr user as “a song that sounds like it came preloaded with your copy of windows xp.” The songs on the whole (with many exceptions, to be sure) were more down-tempo and chilled than either their predecessors of the early nineties or the female-led dance pop that would come to dominate the contest in the mid- to late-aughts.
Countries could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking that Eurovision’s mission had at last been achieved, and they could phone it in a little. After all, what is there to sing about at the end of history?
The nineties also saw an influx of New Age music in the contest – characteristically, a little behind the times, as New Age music emerged into mainstream popularity in the late eighties. Though a notably hard-to-define genre and a term that many of its participants have shied from, the first Eurovision song that we could identify as “New Age” is probably France’s 1991 entry, “C’est le dernier qui a parlé qui a raison” by Amina. By 1995, New Age reached its peak at Eurovision when Norway’s Secret Garden won with “Nocturne,” an almost entirely instrumental composition. Secret Garden was actually fairly successful in the New Age scene: their album “Songs from A Secret Garden” went platinum in Norway and South Korea, and the title track was featured on the popular New Age compilation “Pure Moods.”
The chilled-out, mild, vibey – bland, if you agree with the genre’s critics – milieu of New Age music is a fitting soundtrack to the end of history; but history, it turns out, had not ended, in Europe or anywhere else. The 1990s in Europe were marked by conflict in the Balkans and bitter sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. One of the great paradoxes of the Eurovision Song Contest has always been its high-minded refusal to acknowledge politics, even as politics manifests itself in every aspect of the competition.
The myriad ways in which European and global politics has influenced Eurovision – and vice versa – have been documented at length elsewhere, from the Portuguese entry in 1974 being used as a call to begin a military coup, to the thorny Ukraine-Russia and Azerbaijan-Armenia relations issues that continue to cause controversy at the contest. History, as Louis Menand wrote in 2018, has a few more tricks up its sleeve.
In 2018, Francis Fukuyama published his most recent book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. In it, he tackles a hot concept in the age of Brexit and Trump: identity politics. According to Fukuyama, identity politics – whether that comes in the form of calls for recognition and dignity by marginalized groups and peoples, like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, or the stoking of identity-based resentments by right-wing nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists – is the major force that has prevented the safe ascendency of the global liberal order.
There will always be Eurovision entries about unity and coming together, as sure as there will be entries about love, peace, peace and love. But the overwhelming trend over the last decade has been towards songs that celebrate individuality and independence – “Voila,” “Toy,” “Rise Like A Phoenix” – and songs that express the culture or struggle of minority ethnic groups – “Origo,” “1944,” “Russian Woman.”
Fukuyama might look at the Eurovision of today and lament how the “Insieme” of it all – uncritical celebration of the European political order – gave way to a contest that prioritizes personal identity over transnational unity. But what is more neoliberal than the lionization of individual identity, often at the expense of solidarity and community? American and European popular culture are dominated by narratives of individuals breaking free from oppressive masses – societies, families, institutions – to live their fully realized, true lives. This encompasses anything from a queer coming out story to the Hunger Games series.
Individual pride and self-love are not, in and of themselves, bad things. Of course we should all believe in ourselves and not hide or be ashamed of our identities. But neoliberalism values the individual because individual identity is in large part expressed through consumption: of clothes, home decor, books, luxury products, and more. Emphasis on individual excellence above community solidarity maintains the illusion of meritocracy, allowing the wealthiest individuals to claim that their wealth hoarding is just, and allowing governments to reframe structural problems as issues of individual responsibility.
So: what will the Eurovision Song Contest look like in the years to come, as dissatisfaction with the neoliberal world order grows and the realities of climate change become increasingly more incontrovertible?
2021’s contest might give the answer. While this year was Italy’s first win since Toto, Måneskin’s angst anthem “Zitti e Buoni” is about as far from “Insieme 1992” as it’s possible to get, with it’s snarls of “siamo diverso da loro” – we are different from them. “Zitti e Buoni” contains no platitudes; it is not an exhortation for us to get together and fix the world. It’s a loud and sexy “fuck you” to authority, an acknowledgement that shit is not alright. Toto Cutugno may have been what Europe wanted in 1990, but Måneskin is what it needed now.