Recently, a friend blogged her commentary about this year’s (spectacular) Eurovision Song Contest. Read the post here; but then read the comments. She suggested I might be interested in contributing to the discussion on the difference between US and UK/European entertainment tastes. It turns out I was so interested that my brief comment on her blog has turned into an entire post on my blog. So think of this as an extended comment, if you will.
I can really only speak about British and American television here, and as someone who doesn’t own a TV and hasn’t for several years now, you may want to take anything I write on the subject with a massive grain of salt.
But I’ve always felt that the best British television tends to fall into one of two categories: the classic (often costume) drama, or the witty/deadpan comedy show. Neither of which is something we tend to do particularly well in the US; instead, we’ve chosen to perfect the art of the sitcom, the slick crime show, the glamorous reality show (which, yes, tends to take itself just a little too seriously). We (in the US) are subsequently afraid to laugh at our own product, because we haven’t set it up as something to be laughed at. We can laugh at the jokes in a sitcom, or the spoiled 16-year-old girls on MTV who cry because Daddy bought them the wrong colour Humvee, but there’s always a flashiness factor that wows even the most skeptical audience (myself included), and suddenly, making fun of these things seems almost more trouble than it’s worth. It’s like staring at a remarkably shiny diamond, glinting in the sun. Pretty. Interesting, even. But eventually you need to avert your eyes.
The reason, I think, is this: there’s a culture of celebrity in the US–specifically television and film-related celebrity–so powerful, so pervasive, that what we create when we create a TV show is not just a conduit for entertainment. It’s actually a shrine to this celebrity culture–something like the grand European cathedrals, only in a modern form, an offering not for a god but for an entire race of beautiful, smooth-faced people who spend their lives behind a camera. The entertainment industry is as much a religion as it is a business; so it’s only natural that we’ve come, over the years, to take it undeservedly seriously.
Obviously, there’s a culture of celebrity in Britain, too–and if ever there was a nation that had perfected the art of tabloid journalism, this is it. The difference is that there’s also a culture of entertainment which hasn’t been lost somewhere in the CSI footage of dead bodies and unlikely lab experiments. We’ve forgotten how to be merely amused–now we demand that we’re actually (in the truest sense of the word) awed when we look at a screen.
There are exceptions to this on both sides of the Atlantic, of course. And it doesn’t exactly explain the cheesiness factor of Eurovision; but Eurovison is, I suspect, a beast so unique that it will defy any categorization, any sociological explanations that we try to attribute to it. The only thing left to say about the song contest, then, is this: it all has to do with Graham Norton’s commentary catchphrase. “He’s huge,” Graham said so many times over the course of the evening that I lost count, “in the Balkan states.” Greece’s Ricky-Martin lookalike? Huge in the Balkan states. Azerbaijan’s entrant? Huge, I’ve heard, in the Balkan states. Meaning that we should all look Balkans-ward to find the secret to that amazing Euro-pop sound.