Date: 11 March 1959
Venue: Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, Cannes
Winning country: Netherlands (2nd win)
Winning entry: Teddy Scholten, “Een beetje”*
(*I have wasted an actual professor’s time on this — thanks Evelyn — and both “‘n Beetje” and “Een beetje” are correct, I’ve mostly opted for the latter cause I don’t fancy typing additional apostrophes)
Wikipedia, on the subject of “’n Beetje”: “the song is more up-tempo than the previous winners had been, as well as being somewhat less serious”. I think those last three words are a pretty apt description for “Een beetje”, a song so blasé about its subject matter that its own disinterest bleeds into the song. The result is easily the worst winner of Eurovision’s first decade, and my first real headache of this blog series as I struggle to come to terms with its irritating indifference.
I do not for one second begrudge a song for being “less serious”. Regular readers of my website will know just how much I enjoy fluff, from bubblegum pop to silly love songs. But it would be an injustice to those songs to call the 1959 winner “fluffy”. This is a song that clearly takes its existence very seriously: for a start, this is the wordiest song we’ve come across so far — and bear in mind this includes a song which was two whole minutes longer. Nor is that extra content hollow padding: within its lyrics one finds references to Faust and Cupid and a tip of the hat to “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”. If “Refrain” or “Dors, mon amour” were highbrow, then Teddy Scholten is positively regal, and indeed she sings the entire song with an indulgent smile, as if she was a matron at an asylum. Nor is the music any looser than Eurovision’s previous efforts: we hear the same tasteful arrangements, the same big-band flourishes — the woodwinds are a little more jocular, yes, but nothing that might scandalise the audience at home.
Where it does set itself apart from its forebears is its attitude, and this is where the song begins to run into trouble, for Teddy Scholten’s attitude throughout the entire song seems to mainly be one of carelessness. Not the casual easygoing type either — it’s the tired, perturbed, “I’m so done with this garbage” type. Of course, this is what the song itself demands: nothing intense, nothing bitter, just some gentle, off-the-cuff ribbing from one lover to another. She’s not supposed to hold his feet to the fire and demand pledges of eternal loyalty. But if Scholten was trying to convey this, then she succeeds too well: she sounds (and looks) like she genuinely doesn’t care. She shrugs her shoulders, she rolls her eyes. She sings her lines so dismissively that it is difficult to imagine any love lost between the lovers — how can you discard somebody’s love when there wasn’t any to begin with? When she says things like “I swear eternal allegiance to you”, you don’t believe it for one second: her heart is obviously somewhere else.
But suppose all of this is irrelevant. Suppose we do not care that Teddy Scholten looks like she’s merely going through the motions, in fact let us suppose that all this is intentional, that her breezy attitude is a way of conveying a “less serious” alternative to many of the songs in competition. But that leads us to another, bigger question: why is it done so badly, so haphazardly? Why does Wikipedia feel the need to slap on the qualifier “somewhat” in front of those two words?
It’s not because this feels try-hard throughout, though it is — the orchestra is jumpy and tense, tiptoeing its way around Scholten’s vocals, and the lyrics use the diminutive “-je” so often that it feels cloying rather than affectionate. But no, it’s because the entire song reeks of apathy: nowhere in the song do I find anything that smacks of effort. The supposedly allusive lyrics subside into mere rambling after one verse (“Net als toen” may have had the same problem but Corry Brokken managed to make it sound candid); Teddy Scholten’s hugely exasperated way of delivering them is just the tip of the iceberg. The verses start and stop with an irritating frequency, the chorus is the same line repeated over and over. The whole song seems to be building itself towards a declaration of love, and perhaps Scholten manages to subtly slip that in along the way — but then the song returns to its jaunty, teasing status quo with a loud honk from the trumpets, and whatever sincerity she had managed to build up along the way is immediately undone.
But that’s not the only sin of “Een beetje”: if this song was limited to self-sabotage, I might actually have appreciated it more. Yet it doesn’t even aim for that; in fact it does not seem to aim for anything at all. Instead, it ambles through its lyrics with an air of impertinence, not really caring if it carries its point across or not; same goes for the music, which goes all over the place and doesn’t get anywhere as a result. Twice I thought the instrumental interlude was over; twice I was proved wrong as they continued to play, turning what could have been an intimate moment into something boring and overworked while Scholten glances uncomfortably around the stage. This is a song that pretends to be charmingly apathetic, so that you can’t see that it’s actually apathetic: towards its subject matter, towards its singer, towards its audience, towards everything.
Which begs the question: why? Why does “Een beetje” feel like such a sloppy job, its lack of heart and substance transparent underneath its chipper exterior? And more importantly, why did the juries not only accept this piece of hackwork, but also collectively decide it was the best song that Europe had to offer for 1959?
A lot of it, I think, has to do with America. I’ve cited American rock music as Eurovision’s bête noire a couple of times already, but there was no denying it as the decade drew to a close: the kids were having a lot more fun than the adults were, a point best exemplified by how the Contest had rewarded nothing but sombre ballads for the past three years. Perhaps there was a feeling, in amongst the songwriters of Europe, that it was time for a change; that it was time to show the world that they, too, knew how to let their hair down when the occasion called for it. And so everyone had turned up at Cannes with lighter, frothier offerings — Austria sang about Viennese calypsos, Denmark sang about love while imitating a children’s TV presenter, and debutant Monaco sang about dead harlequins. (Maybe they do joy differently there.) There was just one small problem: Europe had no idea how to let its hair down. In 1959, the European conception of a thrilling night (in the minds of the Eurovision audience, at least) was listening to a dozen musicians sing ballad after boring ballad. (A singer from faraway Sweden! The excitement!) Any attempts at light-heartedness were precluded by the problem that nobody really knew how to do it — or at least, do it convincingly.
Very few of them bothered to figure it out: they were Europeans, after all. They had much better things to do than work out genuine emotive songwriting. In that context, “Een beetje” then comes across as a very transparent attempt to fake insouciance in the absence of the real thing. If there is any levity to be found in the song, it is an awkward, hollow sort, one that does not understand (and does not care to understand) how levity works. It may been enough for the juries of ESC 1959, but six decades on it stands out only because of the weak way it closes out the 50s: careless, insincere, and wishing for nothing more than to get it over with.
This is genuinely a very bad year: out of the eleven songs on offer, I detest at least eight of them, and I’m not sure I don’t dislike my own third place either. The Dutch entry ranked FOURTH for me this year — that’s right, there were seven songs worse than Teddy Scholten. But let’s get the contenders out of the way first: France won third with their drawling, lazy ballad “Oui, oui, oui, oui”, a song so boring that the hosts naturally foisted it upon their audience a second time during the “winner’s” reprise. (The singer looked so self-satisfied in his performance that I genuinely felt an urge to punch the screen and end this entire project right on the spot.) The UK, on the other hand, started their excellent collection of second places with the extreme trifle “Sing, Little Birdie”. I suppose it’ll do, if only because the singers seem to genuinely enjoy their song; any more lightweight than this, and they would surely have drifted away.
Twee though it is, the UK finds itself in my third place as well: I have to admit there’s a certain charm to the cutesy vibe, and the husband-and-wife have very infectious smiles and even more infectious melodies. Then we cross a huge gulf in quality before arriving at the two I unequivocally like: Italy sent Domenico Modugno again, this time with a drippy ballad delivered with the vivacity and sudden emotional turns of “Volare” and which somehow manages to avoid diminishing returns. But the real star of the show is — surprisingly — Germany, who sent out the Kessler Twins to play off each other with the duet “Heute Abend wollen wir tanzen geh’n” and show off their flirtation skills. This was not a very enjoyable Contest, but it’s to these sisters’ credit that they genuinely seem like they’re having a good time — they even managed a nicely synchronised dance in the middle. It’s no Michael Jackson debuting the moonwalk, but you take what you can get.
|PLACE||ACTUAL RESULTS||MY PICKS|
|1st||Netherlands, “Een beetje”||Germany, “Heute Abend wollen wir tanzen geh’n”|
|2nd||United Kingdom, “Sing, Little Birdie“||Italy, “Piove (Ciao, ciao bambina)“|
|3rd||France, “Oui, oui, oui, oui“||United Kingdom, “Sing, Little Birdie”|
France throws us an unbelievable curveball, and he’s just such a bastard.