Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dancing In The English Rain: Eurovision


It is remarkable how certain subjects crop up at precisely the same time each year and have an almost unfathomable ability to generate some form of controversy. Nevertheless, their recurrence is a sign of cultural importance, and there is little that is more culturally important than the Eurovision Song Contest.

Last year - at this time - it was the UK creating the discussion and controversy. Was it right that a pop dinosaur like Bonnie Tyler should be dragged onto a soggy Welsh beach and appear to be sinking into the sand while gyrating unconvincingly for the video to promote "Believe In Me"? There was little to believe in, and Bonnie didn't disappoint, failing spectacularly when it came to the actual contest and so perpetuating a tradition of UK Eurovision disaster. This year it's Spain generating the controversy and, according to one critic at any rate, it is the fossils if not the dinosaurs of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (RAE) who are at its centre.

So, what is the fuss all about? Ruth Lorenzo, that's what. Or rather, that's who. Ruth, those of you with long and detailed memories of "X Factor" will know, took part in the British talent show in 2008. She didn't do all that badly, getting as far as show eight before being ushered off stage. And being the British "X Factor", she did something that most people in Britain would have expected her to have done - she sang in English.

It is English that is proving to be controversial. Ruth sings in English. Actually, she sings part of the song - "Dancing In The Rain" - in Spanish and a part in English, the crucial part, i.e. the chorus, which is replete with repetition of "rain". Ruth can certainly hold a tune. No one has ever before belted out "rain" in such dramatic and regular fashion. If it is true that a song's chart success is partly a function of the number of times the title is repeated, then Ruth is on to a surefire winner, assuming, that is, that text voters in Serbia and Azerbaijan understand "rain". 

Ruth secured victory on the show broadcast by the national broadcaster RTE over two weeks ago. That she sang partly in English didn't appear to bother anyone, certainly not the Spanish public who voted for her. Two weeks on, though, and the RAE has got involved and stoked the controversy. Some of its academics (not the RAE directly) have fired off a missive to RTE, expressing their "disquiet" at the intrusion of English and prompting RTE to say that a final decision has yet to be made as to whether Ruth will perform at Eurovision only in Spanish, only in English or in the Spanglish that got her to the final.

Why, though, are some of the academics agitated enough to send a letter to the broadcaster? It is not as if Spain hasn't had a Eurovision entry which is partly in English in the past; it has happened on five occasions previously. Is it because the academy senses that its role is being diminished?

Jaime Amador, the critic who has described the academy as a group of fossils, would argue that this is the reason. The academy, he says, adopts resolutions on language that interest nobody; it is the body which arbitrates on standard use of Spanish. He goes on to call the academy a "delusion", implying that it is out of touch with the real world, especially the one which attracts millions of tourists to Spain who aren't about to suddenly think that English is the language in Spain purely because part of a song at Eurovision is in English.

What he's getting at, other than intimating that the academy has become increasingly irrelevant, is that there are occasions when language becomes the cause of cultural navel-gazing. Eurovision isn't culturally important. Above all, it is or should be entertainment and not an exercise in nationalism or linguistic imperialism. It might offend some that English insinuates itself to the extent that it does, but this is a song contest for the "X Factor" era not a platform for promoting global Spanishness, which was how Franco was inclined to see it but also how the academy appears to perceive it. One of the justifications for the academics' "disquiet" is that messages have been received from some Latin American countries where they don't understand why English has been incorporated into the song. What's it got to do with Latin American countries? They can't vote in Eurovision.

We'll have to wait until the contest to find out what Ruth sings in, though one can be sure that it won't be Catalan, which would make for a far better controversy, and that the UK's young Bonnie for 2014, Molly Smitten-Downes, won't be singing in Spanish.

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