Eurovision 2016 and Hungary — Lost opportunities

Eurovision is the target of much derision in the United Kingdom–a country, which has great, diverse talent, but has essentially no chance of ever winning a music festival that has descended into a trite, flashy circus, catering mainly to eastern European nationalists. Countries with large diaspora or expatriate populations tend to do much better in Eurovision, because voting rules stipulate that televoters cannot support music from their own country, but must choose a performer from a different state. Since there are close to half a million Hungarians living in the United Kingdom and perhaps close to a million Poles, these expats can vote for their home country, while multiethnic countries that accept and integrate immigrants, rather than produce emigrants, are at a disadvantage. Eurovision really isn’t about innovative musical talent, but about producing run-of-the-mill, generic pop music. Some British critics aptly describe Eurovision as showcasing “power ballads, ethnic rhythms and bubblegum pop.”

British comedienne and actress  Mel Giedroyc puts it best:

It is essential that at least one item of clothing gets ripped off, either by yourself or ideally by someone else. You need wobbly lips and your costume has to be 89 percent sequins.”

This year, Hungary had the opportunity to send authentic and creative music to the Eurovision festival in Stockholm, but on the Saturday evening national finals broadcast on Hungary’s state-owned Duna television station, the jury and the televoters decided to just go with some more bubblegum pop instead.

Let’s start with why Eurovision is important to Hungary. First of all, Hungary’s public broadcaster is struggling and bleeding away viewers, and doing so at an even faster pace since the network–which includes multiple television stations and radio–has morphed into a blatant political propaganda wing of the Orbán government. Eurovision, and the national, televised finals that precede it–called A Dal (The Song)–is perhaps the only programming that manages to attract large audiences. It also gives the public broadcaster an aura of dynamism, youthfulness and of being “hip.”

Eurovision and the national finals also offer an opportunity for Hungarian musicians to gain national exposure, with their songs not only presented on television, but very widely played on radio, for the duration of the multi-week finals. And, of course, the grand prize is to break out of the circa 13 million-strong market of Hungarian speakers in Central Europe and perform in front of a large international audience, at the Eurovision festival.

On Saturday, the jury and the televoters decided to send a 25 year old performer known as Freddie (his full name is Gábor Alfréd Fehérvári) to Stockholm with his pop song “Pioneer.” (Listen to Freddie’s Pioneer here.) Freddie has a strong voice, his English is pretty much impeccable and his song is catchy. But “Pioneer” is also a generic, dime-a-dozen pop radio hit. It’s precisely what you might expect from Eurovision and it might do well at the festival. But Hungary just gave up an opportunity to showcase more authentic, innovative music, on a large world stage.

Gábor Alfréd Fehérvári (Freddie) will represent Hungary at the Eurovision festival in Stockholm. Photo: Duna TV.

Gábor Alfréd Fehérvári (Freddie) will represent Hungary at the Eurovision festival in Stockholm. Photo: Duna TV.

I’m thinking, in particular, of two of the finalists, who could have shaken up Eurovision a little, had the jurists and the televoters been willing to actually consider the quality of the music and the performer, and not just what teenage Eurovision fans would find easy to listen to.

The first possibility would have been the Gypsy ensemble Parno Graszt, with their Hungarian-language song Már nem szédülök (I’m no longer dizzy). Parno Graszt, in the Romany language, means “white horse” and the ensemble’s roots stretch back to 1987, and their hometown of Paszáb (population: 1,289), in northeastern Hungary. Parno Graszt has received some attention over the years in the West (particularly in Switzerland and Great Britain), but the ensemble has more or less focused on performing in rural Hungary–villages, and small towns, close to their roots–and often combining both the Hungarian and Romany language in their music. In 2008, the group traveled to India, in order research forms of Indian music and to search for ties between Roma and Indian cultures.

Parno Graszt’s submission to the national finals this years was authentic, not just in terms of its music, but also the narrative it presented. The song focuses on multiple generations of a Roma family in Hungary (specifically, a father and daughter) both trying to make a precarious and modest living from their musical talent. It’s a story that is not uncommon in Eastern Europe. It’s not glamorous, but all the more authentic.

Some of the lyrics, in my English translation, go like this:

“I live in the shadow of the past,
Even though the sun shines on me today.
I tell stories to my daughter,
But will she understand it all some day?


I’m no longer dizzy in the light,
My cup’s half full.
It’s not alcohol that gets me drunk.
Let there always be as much as there is today.


The dawn rests on her eyes,
Black can shine too.
That tune glows on her lips;
Her life is but a worn-out nightclub.”

The jurists, who decided to eliminate Parno Graszt, all praised the group for so successfully recreating “the Central European feeling” on stage. But most of them also suggested that the music and the ensemble was effectively “too Hungarian” to make it at the Eurovision festival.

Parno Graszt would certainly have stood out in the kitsch, meaningless teenage pop line-up. There was another finalist who would have stood out as well, yet also did not fit the Eurovision bill. Singer András Petruska and his ensemble performed their song Trouble in My Mind, which combined elements of urban beat music, jazz, folk and even tinges of Yiddish tradition. The final product was a very strong performance, flawless English and an innovative piece of music that will probably go somewhere…although not on the Eurovision stage in Stockholm.


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