Updated: Feb 20
Is it possible to divide time between then and now in the same way that countries can be divided and maps redrawn? And if that is possible, where do those historical lines lie?
Or perhaps, more poignantly, is there what can be described as a before period, when our memories, sealed and carefully ordered, can be isolated from the present, from the day to day and how we live today?
In 1990 the world, and particularly Europe, suddenly found itself in something of a lull, between the then of the Cold War; of certainty locked in fear, dominated by the threat of nuclear war, and the now of 9/11, ISIS and Trump.
The Cold War had been about boundaries, of lines drawn on maps and was defined by brick walls and barbed wire fences just as it was by ideologies and political methods. Its end, when it came, brought with it (especially in the first chaotic rush of Germans through open border gates) the promise of an exciting future for all.
Indeed, between the then and now there was, for a brief time, reflected almost in the fireworks exploding above the Brandenburg Gate, the promise of a peaceful and united future and of a Europe reborn.
Occasionally, moments are caught on television, more so than in the passing voices of radio, or as framed in the self-consciously impertinent front pages of newspapers and magazines, designed and occasionally destined for archives and scrapbooks. It is television that snapshots the transition of the past into the future and which captures it between the commercials and episodes of Coronation Street and the rolling news that comes and goes, and which provide the background to whatever it is we should be doing when not watching the news.
You can save television and relive it in a way that is impossible with any other medium; you can snatch it, bits of it, on YouTube and in cloud storage and review it at your leisure; those moments caught purely by chance, after the moments have gone, and in the process, you can revisit the past in the present, and remember.
On 5 May 1990 the thirty-fifth Eurovision Song Contest came, curiously, bizarrely and poignantly, from Zagreb, in Yugoslavia. Or to be more precise, it came from Croatia. The previous year the competition had been held in Lausanne, Switzerland because Celine Dion had won Eurovision the year before when had been staged in Dublin.
Ireland would come back to haunt Eurovision as a repeatedly winning nation throughout the 90s, freezing the contest in a string of victories that slowed down the television spectacle into a woozy, reassuring comfort blanket of familiarity that would not lift until the end of the decade and the approach of the millennium. Eurovision was in its old state then, in 1988; formal, slow and adrift from the demands and desires of its viewers, possibly because those viewers did not interact with the show in the way they do today.
There was no overt camp in Eurovision in 1988, no rainbow flag-waving, no disco-dancing, no smirking euphoria at the lunacy of an annual television show watched by hundreds of giggling, gaggling millions. The contest had no commercial breaks, no irony, and no tabloid glamour. What it did have in 1988 was Celine Dion, her tears smearing her make-up, as she won the competition with a single point in the final vote of the evening.
Think back and remember.
Dion brought the contest rather regally to Switzerland the following year, then disappeared for a bit, before becoming the global superstar pop balladeer that she is today. In her wake, the earth beneath Europe‘s feet began to slowly, tantalisingly shift during 1989, as sometime Yugoslavian pop group Riva took to the stage in Lausanne, to sing the last song of the competition and in the process changed everything.
Yugoslavia had never won Eurovision. In 1989, Yugoslavia was non-aligned, communist, had some tourist-friendly beaches and quaint old towns, much patronised by European holidaymakers, made some amusingly unreliable cars and was distinct from the other nations of the communist East by not being outside of the Warsaw Pact.
Under the post-war (post-World War II, as opposed to post-Cold War) leadership of General Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia adopted a quasi-independent, socialistic economic model that nearly worked (with the support of a certain amount of foreign aid) and which delivered a relatively modern state welcoming to the West and suspicious of the East. As part of Tito’s regime, any hint of ethnic tension within his federated Yugoslavia, made up as it was of different religions, peoples and with its diverse histories and regional affinities, was crushed by the oppressive force of disciplined and well-trained police and military, and by an economic model structured around regional cooperation and as epitomised in the city experiment of Sarajevo.
Sarajevo, now there’s a word you don’t hear much of today. You heard a lot about it between 1992 and 1995, when it was burning, bombed and terrorised night after night on the television news.
Tito had supported the growth of Sarajevo as a place where the different peoples of Yugoslavia could live together in peace. It was his model for the future of the federated country; the people would live peaceably together because there was no other alternative, and it was his death in 1980 and the dissolution of the old federal order which plucked at the threads holding his vision of a collectivist Yugoslavia together, giving, in turn, the opportunity for political power built on ethnic violence and division, which Slobodan Milosevic grasped with such vigour as the 1980s turned to the 1990s.
Ethnic cleansing. Another word that divides the now from the then. That and the concept of a united and integrated Europe looking to the future as one.
Yugoslavia embraced the Year of European Tourism (an EU campaign showcasing the diversity of the continent as a driver for economic growth) as its theme in its staging of the 1990 contest. Yugoslavia was hosting that year because Riva had won against the odds in Lausanne the year before (in the process pushing the UK into second place, earning the wrath of Terry Wogan, who pronounced the Yugoslav win as being the death of Eurovision].
Or of Europe. Or perhaps both.
Riva sang its jaunty pop song Rock Me the year before. Riva was energetic, telegenic and the Eurovision juries must have seen the opportunity for a bit of song and dance and handed Yugoslavia the crown. Or perhaps it’s was just Yugoslavia’s turn to win. Whatever the reason, cue much smirking on the part of Eurovision devotees over the prospect of the synchronised marching of military men bearing doves of peace, of flower-waving children and stern-faced television presenters welcoming the television world to Yugoslavia the following year. Cue also an amusing diversion from the Western dominance of the competition, as the television cameras of the world turned upon Yugoslavia in 1990.
Except the 1990 contest turned out to be somewhat and unexpectedly different from what had gone before.
JRT [and its production partner RTZ] spent a reputed £4 million on the staging of the contest [an unheard-of amount of money at that point], involving the best BBC technical talent in its staging, and in the process surprised critics with a television event that was modern, relaxed and imaginative, if a little wobbly in its production. The Spanish entrants, Azúcar Moreno, may have been confused by the mid-cued playback of its backing track (a popular Eurovision outtake ever since), but in many ways, 1990 was the beginning of the new Eurovision as not so much formulaic as entertaining and more a show than a contest; laced with animation, computer graphics and the kind of running narrative which has subsequently become the template for each staging of Eurovision up to the present day.
The 1990 Eurovision Song Contest opens with an (in retrospect, grimly ironic) introductory video taking the viewer on a musical journey through contemporary Yugoslavia; visiting its universities, towns and parks, where the different people of the nation play the Eurovision [indeed the EU] theme, Ode to Joy, in a variety of styles.
Then, later in the contest, during the voting, an advert for Yugoslavian tourism is played and in it the country does indeed seem beautiful, the film itself elegiac and reassuring; a vision of a modern country, looking to the future against a backdrop of smiling faces and laughing, beautiful people revelling in a kind of chic newness; before gleaming glass buildings and bustling waterfronts, of Benetton fashions and green forests, of games and recreation, nightclubs and restaurants, and at its heart, all these people living and praying and dancing in harmony and peace. It is a bold statement of a nation so yearning to be part of Europe’s potentially prosperous future in all its multi-coloured, bustling glory.
Except that the vision was a fraud because even as the live broadcast was taking place, Yugoslavia was already slipping towards the violent division that would see the bloodiest conflict the continent had seen since the end of World War II. By the time the programme had even been broadcast, Milosevic had forced a change of the Yugoslavian constitution, which in turn would lead to Slovenia and Croatia leaving the Federation and then, within twelve months, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia would declare independence. Chaotic civil war(s) would follow, with UN Protection Forces first arriving with limited effect in June 1992, after which they would stay in place until 1994.
Bloody atrocity after bloody atrocity would follow, as regional instability would threaten the continent, leading eventually and exhaustively, to Western military intervention in the form of NATO bombs and the brokering of the Daytona Agreement in 1995 which would, to a fashion, bring an end to the war [in western former Yugoslavia, at least]. Milosevic’s fall from grace would come later, with his arrest on 1 April 2001 and then his extradition to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia hearings in The Hague, charged with genocide in June of that year.
Toto Cutugno won the 1990 contest, by the way, with Insieme, 1992, which was a rousing anthem about European unity.
From the song and dance of Eurovision came the sobriety of a continent that gave up its dream of a new Europe for the unknown terrors of a confused and fractured world that had, for fifty years previously, been held in stasis. The dividing of the old from the new got snagged in a television event in 1990 and was not able to free itself fully from that curious entertainment moment. All that remains of that optimistic, sunny vision of what could have been, is song and dance, and an impending catastrophe more horrific than anyone could have imagined.
The 1990 Eurovision Song Contest is a weird and off-kilter popular cultural moment that could have brought nations together, but which now serves as a testament to the thwarted ambitions of a Europe that would never be the same again. Rock me, Baby.