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Mommy Bought the Tractor
This year's most fun Eurovision entry is a nonsense song about tractors and an crocodile psychopath angling for armageddon
“One of the most common mistakes about Russia is that bears can walk in our streets, just like that,” the TV host says into her comedically large Channel 1 microphone, as she paces the Moscow streets.
“But this is not exactly like that.”
In the park behind her, a polar bear and a black bear meet up and shake hands.
“Another stereotype says that we are all still living in the Soviet Union, under the control of KGB,” she goes on, through a thick Russian accent.
A serious-looking man, dressed in black from his stiff suit to his mirror sunglasses, approaches the bears and flashes his badge.
“But this is not true at all.”
The bears disappear from frame, off to the bear gulags.
“Many people abroad think that it’s really cold in Russia all year long.” It snows suddenly. They also think “Russians like to drink and are doing it every day.” A massive urn labelled “vodka” is delivered to a table in the background.
“The last, but maybe the most common, legend is that we are eating black caviar with big spoons every day and night.” Our reporter walks over to an ice cream cart, emblazoned with the logo of a sturgeon. “This is true!”
Everybody, cheering, enjoys a cone of black caviar.
That truly odd series of sight gags was probably the most inspired of the sketches used to pad time during the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest live broadcast. Hosted in Russia for the first time ever, the spectacle promoted the distinct impression that Russia was lightening up. It was learning how to take a joke. It was ready to join the European conversation, with all of its weird campy rituals.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin had left the office of the president almost exactly a year earlier, having respected the constitutional term limits and opting instead for the lower-key job of prime minister. His hand-picked successor, everybody knew, was a stooge — but one that could eventually assume real power. Maybe. Dmitry Medvedev had stood in Berlin and promised to bring Russia “in from the cold,” so maybe things were heading in the right direction. Maybe.
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It was all wishful thinking, of course. You needn’t look any further than Eurovision itself. (If you’re not sure how to look for Eurovision at all, because you have no idea what it is, I’ll explain in the next section.)
Nine months before the kitschy festivities in Moscow, tensions exploded in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It’s a story you’re familiar with, even if you’ve never really read up on the affair: A cadre of local Russophilic separatists suddenly mounted hostilities against the Georgian state, with the help of Moscow — an allegation that Russia fervently denied, of course, despite ample evidence. Tbilisi’s attempts to de-escalate were met with more escalation. When Georgian troops attempted to regain control, Moscow accused them of aggression and responded with indiscriminate bombing. After five days of fighting, a ceasefire was brokered. Russia left the conflict with de facto control over more than 7,000 square kilometres of territory, with a (yet-unfulfilled) promise to fully annex the territory via a Moscow-organized referendum.
So when it came time, a few months later, to select their entry to Eurovision, the Georgian public selected an apt entry for the long-running song contest: We Don’t Wanna Put In by Stephane and 3G. (Get it? Put in. Putin.)
The song is unhinged in the most wonderful way possible. It asks and answers the question: What if S Club 7 raided Studio 54 with the Georgian answer to 99 Luftballons?
The European Broadcasting Union, alas, forbids “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature.” It banned Georgia from the contest.
The Georgians might have saved themselves with a clever story about the lyrics. Ukraine’s second-place entry from two years prior, sung by drag queen Verka Serduchka, was ostensibly a Mongolian phrase meaning “churned butter,” but was actually gibberish that happened to sound a lot like “Russia goodbye.” But the Georgians barely tried.
Russia was back in Europe and Georgia would just have to sit this one out.
Seven years later, the song contest found itself in a similar state. Putin was back in office. That dour mood had returned. Held in Denmark, the 2014 show came just months after Russia had mobilized their little green men in Ukraine’s east and seized Crimea by force. The audience, normally polite to a fault, consistently booed any Russian who appeared on the giant screens.
The audience reaction was so visceral that the European Broadcasting Union installed “anti-booing technology” the following year, to preserve Russia’s feelings. They needed the help, as Ukraine won the contest with 1944, a fairly lear allegory between the Second World War and its current predicament. (“When strangers are coming/They come to your house/They kill you all/and say/We’re not guilty/not guilty.”)
Russia threw a hissy fit. Maria Zakharova, the long-suffering Russian government spokesghoul, threw up her hands and said the song may as well have been about Syria. She even wrote some lyrics: “Assad blood, Assad worst. Give me prize, that we can host.” (Many, of course, found the Putin-Assad comparison quite apt.)
Russia didn’t even get the chance to boycott when the show went to Kyiv in 2017: Ukraine slapped Russian performer Yuliya Samoylova with a travel ban for having visited occupied Crimea. (The Broadcasting Union, ever concerned with Moscow’s feelings, offered the extraordinary opportunity for Samoylova to perform remotely. Moscow declined.)
Russia has appeared competed since then, to surprisingly good result. At the same time, it has sworn, up-and-down, to restart the Soviet-era Intervision contest, one that would be free of the “moral decay of the West,” but it hasn’t actualized. (An earlier version of this newsletter said Russia hasn’t competed since 2017. Despite their protestations, they have!)
Last year, as Ukrainian defenders dug in and prepared for the onslaught of Russian military aggression, Stefania became part of the soundtrack of resistance. The song’s author, Oleh Psiuk of the Kalush Orchestra, had written it as an ode to his mother. But given that it was chosen as Ukraine’s entry to the European contest just days before the war began, it became something much more symbolic. Kalush recorded their video for the song in Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin, where Russian forces had massacred civilians in the streets.
“Help Azovstal, right now!” Psiuk shouted after their performance ended.
If you have no concept of what Eurovision is, I’m not sure there’s a summary that can do it justice.
It is the European equivalent of Dolly Parton: High camp and earnestly serious, often, but not always, at the same time. It’s geopolitical Idol — featuring Graham Norton. It’s Model U.N. for band nerds. And it is a purely European phenomenon that seems to get lost in translation whenever it sails over the Atlantic. (A well-intentioned American Song Contest totally flopped.)
It works like this: Every member of the European Broadcasting Union selects a song (and, of course, the act that goes with it), often through a national contest. At the semi-final events, the entrant for each country gets onstage and performs their country’s song, and the citizens of Europe vote for their favorites. Those who make it through (plus the ‘big five’ of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, who all gate a pass) perform at the finals. Over four hours on a Saturday in May, each country performs the song again, and Europe votes along national lines. Each nation gives points to other nations based on how their citizens voted: 12 points for the most popular, 10 for second-place, 8 for third, and then straight down the line to a measly 1 point. Citizens can’t vote for their own country, but they can vote strategically. A jury from each country also hands out a bag of points. Oh yeah, and Australia, Israel, and sometimes parts of North Africa are there too. The winner gets a trophy, bragging rights, and they bring home the contest to their home country the following year.
I won’t even begin to try and explain the whole history, so here’s a series of words: ABBA, a 20-year-old Celine Dion, Hard Rock Hallelujah, crazy stilt action, Dustin the Turkey, party Babushki, whatever this was, Conchita Wurst, the song that never got a chance to win because of the goddamn pandemic, sexy butter churning, mystery wolves, Julio Iglesias, dancing apes. I hope that helps. If it doesn’t, go watch the Netflix movie. (It’s genuinely fun.)
This year’s event is in Liverpool, as the security situation in Ukraine was too fragile to host it there. (President Voldomyr Zelensky hopes to host Eurovision, someday, in a rebuilt Mariupol.) It has the excellent Ted Lasso-star Hannah Waddingham hosting. If you can’t find it on TV, it’s streaming on Youtube.
While it doesn’t seem to be a standout year, we’ve got a solid pop hit from Belgium, a dance hit from France, the bookmaker’s favorite in a Swedish rock ballad, a fun swing-and-a-miss United Kingdom, and a wild anthem from Finland. It’ll be worth watching.
So, I’m clearly a Eurovision nerd. Anything that can turn kitsch into a continent-wide event has high marks in my book. But, despite the blanket ban on things political in nature, Eurovision holds this particularly strange position in European and global affairs. And given that a year-old land war is raging in Europe — fought by two countries that used to compete in this dumb little ditty duel — it’s worth considering the politics of this event.
At its very core, Eurovision was a statement about European unity: By the mid-50s, the Marshall Plan had helped rebuild the continent and Europeans were ready to celebrate some degree of collective identity. So the European Broadcasting Union took on the job of creating a program-sharing pact to allow national broadcasters in each country to pool entertainment. The programming that came from that earned the name Eurovision. Apparently the first broadcast featured a message from the Pope: “Television is a wonderful medium for humanity,” he said, at least according to the New York Herald Tribune’s radio and TV critic. “This is a terribly important moment for peace."
The song contest only came two years later, in 1956, as a continent-wide version of a local Italian competition. It resonated so aggressively that it subsumed the broader idea of Eurovision and became an annual tradition — it wouldn’t miss a year until 2020.
The show is a microcosm for just how bonkers the European project is. Many of the contestants either reject the European Union, aren’t welcome in it, or aren’t even on the continent. It exists in a suspended plane where it is simultaneously a joke and deadly serious. Countries gain reputations, make names for themselves, and earnestly vie for personal, professional, and national success. And now it’s aggressively sponsored by Moroccanoil. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Eurovision has always made Moscow nervous. It both excites the notion that Russia is every bit the cultural powerhouse that the rest of the continent is; and inflames the disgust at Europe’s opulence and moral decay. Inversely, it worsens the anxiety that Russia is cultural inferior to its western neighbors; and makes Russians long for the liberalism and fun of Europe.
By the mid-60s, the show was even being broadcast to behind the Iron Curtain — through its Soviet equivalent network, Intervision. The Soviets, in turn, tried to take this musical revolution worldwide by broadcasting the Sopot International Song Festival, but only managed four editions in the late 1970s before fizzling out.
But the sad, short, life of Intervision re-enforced Western Europe’s apparent cultural supremacy. A tale, which has become fact despite likely being untrue, says that residents of the Soviet republics voted for their preferred song by switching lights on-and-off during the performances, with state energy companies reporting results based on the change in electricity demand. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, because it feels true. Europe is fun, it has phones. The Soviet Union is a bummer, it barely has power.
I only caught the tail end of the 20th century, and I’m not European. But I gather the best part of the contest wasn’t its implicit dunking on the Communist states but rather its saccharine commitment to European identity. (This year’s theme is the throw-pillow-worthy “united by music.”) That came as both a challenge for countries to work better together and a challenge for the citizens of Europe’s remaining dictatorships to strive for better.
Europe wasn’t enthralled when Paulo de Caravalho took to the stage in Brighton, during the 1974 contest, to sing E depois do adeus. The Iberian peninsula remained a frustratingly autocratic corner of Europe in the post-war decades, which made it an awkward fit for the performative liberalism of the contest. (Strangely, Spain’s first-ever win at the contest had a last-minute change because dictator Francisco Franco forbade its original performer from singing it in Catalan.)
Despite coming second-to-last, E depois do adeus still got radio play. When a Lisbon DJ spun the track over the radio around 11pm, a few weeks after the contest, it was a signal for left-wing revolutionaries inside Portugal to make their move. By the next morning, thousands of Portugese citizens were in the streets, joining the insurrectionist soldiers who had overthrown the autocracy. They decorated tanks and rifles with flowers taken from the Lisbon flower market: Hence the Carnation Revolution.
At the next year’s Eurovision, its first without ham-fisted government censors, Portugal was represented by a captain who had participated in the revolution. (“Raise your voices, celebrate/Run, barefooted, by the wharf/Open your arms and hug/There can't be enough songs like this.”)
Joining the Eurovision club also became a particular point of pride for countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. Estonia had declared independence through a “singing revolution,” joined the contest in 1994, and went on to win the contest in 2001. This was, according to the authorized history of Eurovision, “a modern fairytale.”
It also became a rather avant-garde statement about linguistic, cultural, gender, and sexual rights.
Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag queen who won the 2014 contest, became a topic of conversation across the continent — and an existential crisis for Russia. A year earlier, Moscow’s odious law: "For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” or, simply, the gay propaganda law, had become law a year earlier. But Wurst had become a cultural icon inside Russia as well, exposing the limits of the Kremlin’s anti-Queer propaganda crusade. Russia’s competitor in the competition even uploaded a photo of herself hugging Wurst.
The author of the gay propaganda law went berserk. “Don't you dare soil Russia by hugging Euro-perverts,” he squealed.
But Wurst was so popular inside Russia that there was a Conchita Wurst March of Bearded Women and Men planned in Moscow. (The head of Moscow Pride told a Queer news site that the march was really “a trial balloon in our relations with the Moscow mayor's office this year.”)
Moscow banned the event.
There is a litany of great examples of the subtle and overt ways in which Eurovision acts on, and reacts to, the internal dynamics of Europe.
This one comes at a particularly interesting time. Its notional host, Ukraine, is on the cusp of launching a counter-offensive to recapture the land stolen by its neighbor; while its actual host, the United Kingdom, is linchpin for an unprecedented European solidarity that has supplied the gear and help to make it possible.
While Eurovision is supposed to be escapism, there’s always at least one coded political entry. And this year’s is one of my favorite in a long, long time: Mama ŠČ! by Let 3, the Croatian entry.
Let 3 got their start in Yugoslavia: Mocking the Catholic Church, agitating for LGBTQ rights, and horrifying censors by regularly performing in the nude.
I won’t even begin to try and explain the band’s political resonance inside Croatia — because I genuinely don’t understand it. But the contestants from Croatia, like their brethren in the neighboring former Yugoslav republics, are some of the only ones that could reasonably claim to appreciate Ukraine’s situation.
Bosnia and Herzegovina‘s first entry, the band Fazla in the 1993 competition, had to dodge snipers’ bullets to leave the country — their conductor, in fact, couldn’t make it due to the fighting. They returned home after the competition to more shelling.
So marry the bizarre performance art of Let 3 with a Eurovision held under the shadow of war. And you get Mama ŠČ!
The truly bonkers song is mostly nonsense. The band takes to the stage in what can only be described as acid trip military blues. They sing an eerie nursery rhyme (“Mama bought a tractor/Trayna-neena, armagedon, nona, šč/Mama bought a tractor, šč”) which serves as an oblique reference to Belarusian dictator Alexandre Lukashenko’s gift to Putin for his 70th birthday: A tractor. Šč, by the way, is the transliteration of the Russian letter Щ.
Interspersed with the occasional exclamation of “tractor!” the band takes over the stage, stripping into some combination of see-through bodysuits and/or underwear. Zoran Prodanović, the lead singer, stalks across the stage shouting: “That little psychopath/Little, vicious psychopath/Crocodile psychopath” as his chorus responds: “Mama, we’re going to war/War, war.” (An earlier version of this post misidentified which member of Let 3 is singing.)
As the song rises to a crescendo, a dark figure emerges from the back of the stage, wielding two massive (inflatable) missiles.
“Mama, I’m going to war,” Martinović belts out, as the missiles shoot off sparks. He shouts “Šč!” and salutes rigidly as the music cuts.
So stupid, so absurd, so perfectly fitting.
Will Croatia win? According to bookie Bet365, they’re facing 125:1 odds. (So you’re saying there’s a chance -ed) But regardless of how they place, their gender-queer anti-war ode to the little Russian president and his apocalyptic vanity mission will go down as a truly iconic moment.
That’s it for this week’s newsletter. There will be more subscriber-exclusive content coming soon, now that I’ve finally dispatched with the huge deadline that I’ve been grappling with for the past two months.
I’m always keen to take suggestions on future topics worth covering, so feel free to reach out — in the comments, on Notes, in the Chat, on a plane, in the rain, etc.
For you fellow Eurovision nerds: I’ve opened up comments, so please let me know who you’re cheering for this year.
Until researching this newsletter, I genuinely thought Eurovision was sponsored by the Moroccan state oil company. No. It’s the Israel-based shampoo people.