ESC Frankfurt 1957 — “Net als toen”

Eurovision 1957

full show

Date: 3 March 1957
Venue: Funkhaus am Dornbusch, Frankfurt
Winning country: Netherlands (1st win)
Winning entry: Corry Brokken, “Net als toen”

Anyone who thinks that gimmicks in Eurovision are a modern thing should look at the 1957 Contest. After everyone in ESC 1956 had turned up with near-interchangeable ballads, the ten participating singers arrived in Frankfurt looking to distinguish themselves through more visible means. Debutants the UK brought an opera singer. Germany brought out a telephone — the first prop used in the Contest — and spoke like sixteen different languages. The Danes dressed their singer in sailor garb and had him kiss his duet partner (and then forgot to tell him to stop, leading to a very prolonged smooch). The trouble is, none of these felt like they were anything other than gimmicks: that Danish kiss, for example, feels less like a genuine attempt to convey intimacy, and more like a craven attempt to cover for a dull song. It may have been scandalous to the Europeans of 1957, but sixty-five years on, it just looks awkward and rehearsed.

The Netherlands had also brought in a gimmick, but it was far more subtle than the rest: until he steps forward for his energetic solo, you might not even notice violinist Sem Nijveen standing behind Corry Brokken; even if you do, you wonder why he’s standing there instead of in the orchestra. When Nijveen plays, it’s all very understated — he doesn’t seem particularly passionate, choosing instead to trill his instrument in the background while Brokken laments her dying relationship. The entire effect is not unlike one of those strolling violinists you get in fancy restaurants, the type that runs up to your table and serenades you for ages while your food slowly goes cold.

But is this not an accurate representation of the song? “Net als toen” describes exactly the kind of talk you might overhear at a fancy restaurant. Specifically, you’ll find those words in conversations between couples who are out on a date night simply to find some way of salvaging the relationship. “Don’t look at me as if you think: ‘are you still alive?’” pleads Brokken. “Be nice once more, just like then.” We’re used to images of 1950s housewives as submissive, insecure, perhaps even naïve; yet the Dutch woman here is frighteningly direct, even to our 21st-century ears. It speaks to how close they used to be: she knows what he thinks, and isn’t afraid to spit it out in his face. Last time, we heard Lys Assia taking ages to spell out what she wanted; barely nine months later, Corry Brokken is describing their relationship so candidly that you can’t help feeling glum for them as well.

Yet it’s not an angry invective against her husband either — this is 1957, after all, and they’re simply too grown-up for all the childish name-calling stuff a younger couple might have indulged in. That’s not to say that the tension isn’t there: those long hours of argument, the exhaustion of letting that ardour slip away, everything is pouring forth in those few sentences. But not only is it delivered with a smile and a wink, it even sounds natural: there are no poetic flourishes, no toxic declarations anywhere. It’s all delivered in an everyday manner, starting and stopping like they were having a normal conversation, one that just so happened to be about their decaying relationship. At one point, she even interrupts herself: “am I still that woman with whom you once — when was it again? — wanted to have that little adventure at all costs?”

It’s that kind of detail that takes the song to another level. The intimacy is still there, it’s just been buried under layers of neglect and melancholia. Brokken’s performance on the night is a masterful tightrope walk: she sounds hopeful one moment, regretful the next. She smiles into the camera, but it’s a wistful smile: we’re getting more joy out of this than she is. Occasionally she looks downward, just as her thoughts trail off — she’s spent so much time thinking about their relationship, trying to make it work, trying to make him work. It’s just the right amount of emotion for this song: a little more sincerity, and we would have noticed the desperation in the lyrics; a little less, and it would have come off as a dismissive, hopeless toss-off. As it is, she holds her ground while still agreeing to meet him halfway. When you think about just how many songs, ESC or non-ESC, past or present, are about loss of control, “Net als toen” becomes a song that carves out its own brilliant niche.

But the greatest contribution of “Net als toen”, in the long run, is perhaps the most obvious. The song is adamant about what it wants, from the title down: “net als toen”, translated from the Dutch, means “just like then”. What Brokken craves is a reset, a return to a time when all the tiredness and exasperation never even existed. She wants to be youthful, sound youthful again — “find me beautiful and charming again, then the world will be just like then: a wonderland”. But the world can’t be a wonderland: they are impossible creations, something that only children believe in and which are always hazily fleshed out. Living in a wonderland means shutting out reality, creating your own tiny little bubble — just like what Lys Assia did the previous year with her nostalgia, actually. This time, however, our singer seems to have a much clearer idea of how they can get back to this youthful paradise. “Bring me roses again, blush again when you see me…” For a few brief moments, Brokken sounds positively radiant, her voice warming at the mere thought of being seduced like this once more.

But that’s all they are: thoughts. Because “Net als toen” knows in its heart that they cannot be young again: it’s “just like then”, not “let’s reset to then”. Its bones are too ancient to play at the games of youth; it’s got a classical violinist warbling in the background, for God’s sake. Yet it doesn’t try to hide the truth like its forebears did — it embraces it. “Yes, you’re getting fat and your hair is turning grey/ But you still can flirt, believe me”, Brokken says with a wink and a smile, and it’s the sweetest line in the whole song: the him in the past is gone forever, but she’s perfectly happy to make do with the him in the present. With that realisation, the 1957 Dutch song sets itself apart: instead of trying to recapture the vague sense of a lost past like ESC 1956 did, it understands that the only way forward is to soldier on. It may not be as forward or taboo-breaking as the other gimmicky entries were, but it gives us the first signs that Europe was ready to look ahead and shake off its self-importance — and that it no longer felt the need to take itself as seriously anymore. “Net als toen” showed the way forward — and that, perhaps, was the greatest gimmick of all.

Rating: 8/10

Best song

With the introduction of open voting, we got to see some actual results (and actual voting biases in action). France’s offering came second this year, thereby establishing the French language as the dominant stultifying oppressor for years to come. Okay, “La belle amour” is a decent enough ballad, but I felt like this would have fit in much better the previous year: it’s elegant and dramatic, classic Eurovision fare, yet it’s also the kind of song you forget immediately after it’s finished (a depressingly frequent recurrence for me in this series). Close on its heels was the Danish kissing song I mentioned earlier: “Skibet skal sejle i nat” frequently tops rankings of songs from ESC 1957, but it just feels so predictable and soporific — if you’re looking for a trailblazer, you would do just as well with all the other songs.

It’s with some relief, then, that we turn to the ones that I actually liked. Last year I picked Luxembourg as my favourite, and their strong streak continues this year: “Amours mortes (tant de peine)” is a lovely little Gothic entry, one that mourns a dead lover but doesn’t forget to make it pretty in the meantime; it was this song that told me that 1957 was a much better year to look forward to. (Danièle Dupré doesn’t even look like she fits there, she looks way too haunted and ethereal to be human.) Then there’s Germany: at the start of this piece, I spoke of their telecommunications gimmick, but that said I genuinely did enjoy “Telefon, Telefon” — there is so much going on here, yet it’s so tender and reflective that it never wears out its welcome. But at the end of the day, I have to go back to the Netherlands’ entry: “Net als toen” is just a masterpiece of relationship writing, and its intimacy still shines six-and-a-half decades on. Never mind 1957, this feels like it could have won in 2017 (and, as we’ll see, it kind of did)…

1stNetherlands, “Net als toen”Netherlands, “Net als toen”
2ndFrance, “La belle amourGermany, “Telefon, Telefon
3rdDenmark, “Skibet skal sejle i nat”Luxembourg, “Amours mortes (tant de peine)

Next time

A sleepy, boring ballad comes up against an all-time classic, and you’ll never guess which won.

2 thoughts on “ESC Frankfurt 1957 — “Net als toen”

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