Thursday, May 19, 2011

Glory Hallelujah

What a weekend we had in Finland.  By coincidence, two big events that could bring some international glory to Finland took place over the weekend.  The first was the Eurovision song contest.  The name Eurovision means nothing to folks in the US, but for many in Europe it’s a legendary pop-culture institution, though just as many people probably also see it as something of a joke. 

Eurovision, a yearly contest pitting the best pop songs European nations have to offer against each other, was around long before Idol was even a glimmer in someone’s eye.  The contest was conceived in the mid-1950s as an entertaining way to unite post-war Europe.  Or rather post-war Western Europe.  Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the only Communist land to take part in Eurovision was Yugoslavia, which joined in 1961, the same year as Finland. 

From its first broadcast, when only seven nations took part, the show has evolved into a gaudy extravaganza expanded to include over 40 countries – especially thanks to the breakup of eastern European countries into smaller states – and watched by an audience of well over 100 million worldwide. 

All competing countries have the same voting rights, even tiny places like San Marino (pop. 30,000 – which incidentally would fit, with room to spare, into the stadium venue of this year’s contest in Dusseldorf).  Even tinier Vatican City, as an active member of the European Broadcasting Union, would qualify to participate, though it never has.  I’d love to see what kind act the Vatican would come up with for Eurovision, though I suspect the Holy See would find the whole thing a little too tacky to ever take part in. 

And often it would be right.  While some song entries are stirring acoustic ballads or operatic solos, most of the acts in recent years tend towards the highly energized, highly choreographed, highly sexualized, and even highly farcical.  In fact, farcical often seems to do quite well.  For example, donning giant gnome hats, as the Moldavian entry did this year, might help an act stand out among all the cookie-cutter boy bands and clones of Céline Dion and Shakira strutting across the stage. 

Even the winning acts don’t typically stand out for very long after the show ends.  Céline Dion is one who actually did.  Canadian vocalist and future Las Vegas attraction, Dion won the contest in 1988, representing Switzerland.  That goes to show that when it comes to the Eurovision song contest, nationality is fungible.  Another well-known alumnus is ABBA, which launched its international career after winning the 1974 contest with “Waterloo”.  These two are the exceptions, however, with most winners usually fading from global view rather quickly. 

And doing well in the contest doesn’t even always come down to having a decent song, as very often the voting is based on cultural and geographical politics.  Countries tend to give most of their votes to their closest neighbors, or at least to songs they can understand.  This has historically worked against Finland, especially earlier when contest rules called for songs to be sung only in the national language.  This made it difficult for Finland to garner many votes, even from like-minded Nordic countries, because no one outside the country could understand the lyrics.  (To be honest, for some Eurovision songs, not understanding the lyrics can be an advantage.) 

Finland’s peculiar language might help to explain its tradition of always doing badly.  In nine out of 45 Eurovision contests, the country has come in last place, three times receiving no points at all.  This is why the 2006 contest was a seismic event, with Finland blowing everyone away to win the top spot with “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, a monster hit by a thematic band called Lordi.  I guess you could say it was a freakish win. 

This year, Finland’s entry was Lordi’s polar opposite, a fresh-face singer-songwriter of 20 named Paradise Oskar, who sang “Da Da Dam”, a song about an idealistic young boy setting out to save the world from ecological disaster.  (Disclosure: Paradise Oskar is a friend of one of my sons.)

The song was a breath of fresh air, I thought, with a clean, positive (though perhaps slightly naive) message.  Almost unheard of for today’s Eurovision, the song was written by the singer himself and, bucking the trend even further, performed without the aid of pyrotechnics or impossibly leggy dancers.  Not even (gasp) a wind machine.  And it was certainly catchy enough, I thought, to do fairly well in the contest. 

We were encouraged when Paradise Oskar came in third-place in the semifinal earlier in the week.  Still, like most everyone watching the show on Saturday, we were realistic enough not to expect a repeat of 2006, though an outcome near the top ten seemed possible.  Sadly, it was not to be.  “Da Da Dam” came in 21st place behind the winning entry from relative newcomer, and seriously peripheral European, Azerbaijan. 

It was a result that I think doesn’t do real justice to Finland’s entry.  To be fair, the Azerbaijani number wasn’t too bad and more typical of Eurovision fare.  (It was bought from Sweden, where there is something of a cottage industry in Eurovision songwriting.)  And it came in first place in the semifinal, just 30 points ahead of Paradise Oskar, which makes the Finn’s poor showing in the final even more disappointing.  I chalk it up to Eurovision politics. 

The other big contest of the weekend was a much more serious one for ice-hockey obsessed Finland.  For two weeks every spring, the Ice Hockey World Championship brings out the ardent fan in almost every Finn.  I admit I’m only a fair-weather hockey fan, and certainly no expert on the sport.  To be honest, I only get interested when the high-stakes championships games roll around and the international rivalries heat up. 

Finland has long been a hockey powerhouse, though this isn’t always reflected in its performance in the world championship finals.  While the Lions – as the country’s team is called – have won a total of 11 medals over the years, it has won gold only once, a distinction it shares with – wait for it – Great Britain, a country probably associated more with hockey of the “field” variety. 

Though Finland has reached the finals in almost half of the last 20 championships, the gold medal always eluded it until 1995, and has continued to do so in the ensuing 16 years since that first taste of gold glory.  Some have attributed the long dry spell to a tendency of the Finnish team to choke under pressure, especially when playing archrivals (and neighbors) Sweden and Russia.  Whether that’s true I’ll leave to be debated by others who know the game better than I do.  What I do know is that this serial disappointment has left a serious bruise in Finland’s national sporting pride. 

So, it was with huge anticipation that we sat down on Sunday night to watch the Lions face off against eight-time championship winner Sweden.  The history of grudge matches goes way back for these two.  The play was fiercely even in the first period, which ended scoreless.  Only about halfway through the second period did the puck find the net, deftly delivered by a Swedish player who ironically has a Finnish surname.  In such a tightly contested match, the goal could have been a psychological blow for Finland.  Then, with only seven seconds left in the period, Finland evened the score, setting up the third period to be a tense all-or-nothing battle. 

It didn’t take long to see which way it would go.  Less than three minutes into the period, Finland took the lead after scoring in a spirited two-man attack.  Then almost without a beat, a lone Finn broke away half a minute later to charge the Swedish goal and narrowly miss scoring.  A mere 47 seconds after that a scuffle in front of the Swedish net produced Finland’s third goal, essentially sealing Sweden’s fate.  The Finns didn’t let up, pummeling Sweden with three more goals.  It was impossible to sit still for the rest of the game. 

Winning the gold, and doing it by giving Sweden such a thrashing, unleashed wild scenes of spontaneous partying the streets of Helsinki have rarely seen.  The next afternoon over 100,000 exuberant fans gathered in front of a hastily erected stage at South Harbor’s market square to welcome the team home, cheering as the jubilant – in some cases perhaps a bit too “jubilant” – Lions celebrated on stage with President Halonen.  A visiting colleague of my wife’s, who witnessed the throngs in the streets and stayed at the same hotel as the Lions, reported that the party was still going strong, and loud, at four the next morning.  Being from Canada (winner of 24 gold medals), he might wonder at such celebration over just one long-awaited, but absolutely glorious, victory.  Or maybe he understands it completely.

1 comment:

  1. This a sweet bit of stuff. I like hearing about day-to-day life in other countries, especially from ex-pats. It's funny that Oskar is a pal of your son. It's as if everyone in Finland knows everyone else!

    I so rarely watch TV that I forget what a normal part of life it is for so many people. Eurovision is definitely something I would ignore, no matter what nation I lived in. I've never seen one second of the similar shows here the States and never will. I realize that they bring pleasure to many--it's just that I'm not one of them.

    I can see the problems with other folk dealing with the language. One of my old writer friends wrote some books based on/about Finland. One was a biography of Sibelius--I seem to recall that Bill (Trotter) visited the country for that one. He also wrote a truly excellent book set in WWII Finland called WINTER FIRE in which the Germans refer to Finnish as "bloody gibberish!". I've heard it's a darned difficult language to learn if you weren't raised in it.