Revolution in the Airs – An Irishman’s Diary about Portugal’s Eurovision winner and Laurie Anderson in Dublin

Portugal’s Salvador Sobral celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev. Photograph:  Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Portugal’s Salvador Sobral celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

 

I didn’t watch the Eurovision on Saturday night, because life is too short. But after a self-imposed exile in the kitchen, reading, I did return to living room in time to see the thing that had won. And like many people, I was shocked to discover it was an actual song, with a pleasant melody, simply performed.

Then there was the accompanying mission statement. Of course this came before the victory reprise. So when the singer criticised the culture of “disposable” music, all “fireworks” and no substance, I made the mistake of being cynical. “You mean, like the Eurovision?” I asked the pony-tailed visage on screen.

But I was silenced by my 12-year-old son, who had been rooting hard for Portugal all night. He lectured to me to listen to the song before being judgmental. It turned out he had a point.

I couldn’t remember the Portuguese ever winning before (they hadn’t). But in my role as the parent who has a boring historical story for every occasion, I did recall a year in which their entry launched a revolution. It was 1974, when the rightist dictatorship of Marcello Caetano was still in power in Lisbon.

Military opponents planned a coup for the night of April 24th, three weeks after that year’s Eurovision. The preliminary signal was to be the broadcast of the Portuguese entry on radio. Then, after midnight, another song – hitherto banned – would be also played, indicating that the seizure of power had begun.

And so the “Carnation Revolution” came to pass. The Caetono regime was overthrown (he flew into exile in Brazil), to be in replaced by a transitional junta, which cleared the way for free elections and the 40-odd years of democracy since.

Continuing the history lesson, I told my kids that a band called “Abba” had won the 1974 Eurovision and for decades afterwards had been more famous than Portuguese democracy (they’re still so well-known, in fact, that even the 12-year-old had vaguely heard of them). As for the song that sparked the revolution, that finished last.

But I always like to end my history lectures with a moral. So by way of conclusion, I expressed the hope that in finally winning the Eurovision after half a century, Portugal might have started another, smaller revolution: this time against the tyranny of manufactured pop music. I foresaw Simon Cowell, or maybe Louis Walsh, in the role of Marcello Caetano.

Twenty-four hours after the Eurovision, I was immersed in another musical institution whose direction has been questioned of late, the National Concert Hall. The occasion was the second of three Dublin performances by the avant-garde artist, Laurie Anderson. Which to me was more evidence of the venue’s welcome eclecticism of recent times. But some people disagree, I know, including the promoter Pat Egan. On this page last Monday, he lamented that the NCH’s new policy was costing him slots for the many “sell-out” shows he presents there, typically involving pop and opera classics.

Although Anderson is a long way removed from that kind of thing, by coincidence, the term “sell-out” did also feature in a public interview she gave before Sunday’s concert. As she explained, it was what some fellow artists called back in 1981 when a song called O Superman made her briefly a pop star.

She could hardly be accused of having calculated that development, since the hit in question was an eight-minute-long reflection on technology and war, musically complex, and performed against the backing of a single-syllable utterance – “ha” – repeated staccato throughout. You certainly couldn’t dance to it.

But even accidental commercial success was not easily forgiven in the art world back then. And so Anderson was considered a “sell-out” until somebody invented the more respectable designation of “cross-over” artist. Then she was all right again.

She hasn’t troubled the pop charts much since. While the celebrity lasted, however, she found herself being “screamed at” on public appearances. Some people enjoy this gateway drug to celebrity. She just found it “silly”.

There was no screaming during her Sunday performance, which was by turns funny and profound, but always – based on my limited experience of performance artists – surprisingly sane.

As for her greatest-hit collection, she performs O Superman “every ten years or so”, and this wasn’t one of those occasions.

But having written the song in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, she said it still sounds new every time, because the US is “always fighting the same war”.