ESC Luxembourg City 1962 — “Un premier amour”

Eurovision 1962

full show

Date: 18 March 1962
Venue: Villa Louvigny, Luxembourg City
Winning country: France (3rd win)
Winning entry: Isabelle Aubret, “Un premiere amour”

Context really does change everything. My hatred of “Un premier amour” bordered on the irrational for quite a long time: I thought it was one of the worst songs to have won Eurovision, its air of mystery coming off as unnecessarily pretentious for quite a simple affair as first love. Then I listened to the entire Contest, and I finally saw why it won that year.

1962 is not one of the better years of Eurovision. There are myriad ways one can ascertain this, but the most revealing method is to look at YouTube. There is, I have discovered, a whole cottage industry of YouTubers making “top xx” lists on previous ESCs; they are usually a very good reference on which songs have withstood the test of time to become fan favourites. With most contests, there are usually a few favourites, as the diverse tastes of the Internet commentariat clash and conflict, and usually I simply confirm the validity of my own peculiar pick when that happens. On the 1962 Contest, however, the verdict is almost unanimous: “Un premier amour” is not only widely acclaimed as the best song of that particular contest, it is also one of the best ESC songs of the 60s, and if Chris West is to be believed, perhaps of all time. There are very, very few commenters who argue that Isabelle Aubret does not deserve the crown, that this is a song of immaculate beauty, mystery and charm — the only serious competition comes from Germany’s “Zwei kleine Italiener”, a song so kitschy and lightweight that any comparison immediately becomes a laughable proposition.

And yet it’s that comparison I want to talk about: because yes, “Un premier amour” is one of the best songs that the 1962 Contest had to offer. Its atmosphere is bewitching, its lyrics hypnotic; it is impossible for me to say why it should not have won. But this is more due to the EXTREMELY dire state of the competition, a slate of songs that range from the merely forgettable to the absolutely asinine. There were things that one can massively dislike about the winning song, as I will demonstrate in the next few paragraphs. But compared to those songs, Isabelle Aubret sounds as good as the Three Tenors.

It is not true, of course, that Aubret had anything close to a bad voice in the first place; in fact her vocal performance is probably the greatest argument you could make for this song. Say what you like about the boring Contests of the early 1960s (and oh, I will), but good Lord did we get some very good singers during that era, perhaps some of the best singers the Contest ever got in terms of songcraft. Back then they had no overly complicated gimmicks muddying the waters: it was just “here’s a good song, sing it with feeling”. As the years rolled by that got buried in complex choreography and a downturn in the quality of songwriting; Isabelle Aubret’s smoky, alto voice is perhaps the closest we got in the history of the ESC to the platonic ideal. It is undeniably an excellent fit for the song, which likewise sounds mysterious, ethereal, shrouded in fog: the little tinkles in the background as Aubret hypnotically intones “un premier amour, premier amour, premier amour” send shivers up your spine.

I don’t like it. Perhaps it’s just me, but first loves always feel like they should be sunny, youthful, exhilarating; “Un premier amour” sounds like it’s been designed to explicitly dissuade you from ever falling in love in the first place. Some of it has to do with the lyrics: quite a few of us would rather forget our youthful indiscretions, so the idea that one “will always shudder at the memory of this love” just sounds wrong. But the main culprit is the atmosphere: what is meant to sound fey and charming instead comes across as haunting; the swirl of strings and piano chimes, presumably meant to evoke nostalgic desire, instead suggests a fragility threatening to give way to immense darkness. (I tried whistling this while walking down an empty stairwell today, and it instantly felt like the temperature had dropped by a few degrees.) Perhaps this is the point of the song: after all, the intensity of first love can prove narcotic, traumatic, monolithic — a whole fiesta of emotions that we youngsters can barely parse, let alone understand. But if that is indeed the case, then the writers overplayed their hand, for this song is a sweet memory that has curdled into a nightmare; it is the dark wood in a fairytale, and you enter at your own peril.

It’s even more prominent when we reconsider Isabelle Aubret’s performance: a lot of comments have focused on her delicate power, the way she ably navigates through the complex emotions that come with that first love. Yet her interpretation just has this somewhat uncanny feel to it that tips it into creepiness. The hypnotic way she stares off into the distance, the way she caresses her face — it’s not so much ecstasy as it is trauma. For comparison, I’m reminded of Aubret’s other appearance at the Contest: in 1968, she came third for France with “La source”, a song describing the violent rape and murder of a young girl (“they were there waiting, three he-wolves, for this lamb/ Her flesh much too tender, their appetites much too great”). That was a much more unpleasant song, yet Aubret’s tone has shifted very little: we hear the same despondent tone, the same troubled expressions. And that’s fine: the emotions she displayed suited “La source”. But they do NOT suit “Un premier amour”.

That frigidity, that aloofness, is probably why “Un premier amour” strikes a sour note for me. I mentioned last time that the Contests of the early 60s found the artists slowly opening up — songwriters were slowly discovering the power of emoting like an actual human, and were applying this wonderful new knowledge accordingly. The 1962 French entry is part of this progression: it’s the quietest winner we’ve had for a while, and it’s certainly one of the most contemplative; you’ll have to run back to at least 1957 to find a song so willing to get so down and dirty with the narrator’s emotions. When they do it right, it can be devastating: we saw it in “Nous les amoureux”, and we’ll talk about another example I love very soon. But “Un premier amour” sounds nothing like those songs. It sounds emptier and more sinister, like it was penned by a person thoroughly broken by their first love. It has emotion, certainly — but I’m not sure this is the kind of emotional experience a normal human being would desire.

The score I have given below is arbitrary. It reflects my personal tastes, and some of the time that aligns with quality, other times it does not. When I give “Un premier amour” this score, I do not deny this song’s technical finesse, and I do not deny that many people find beauty and joy within its powerful mystique. I just wish I could love it the same way they do.

Rating: 4/10

Best song

As I’ve alluded to in this piece, the situation in this year was absolutely horrific, with snoozefest after faux-jaunty snoozefest parading across the stage. (The Villa Louvigny suffered two power cuts during the Contest. Even God Himself was bored.) Rather surprisingly, the UK could only manage a measly fourth this year, so instead it was up to François Deguelt, returning for Monaco two years after his stellar debut to snatch another top-three position. Sadly the exciting danger that marked his 1960 entry is nowhere to be found in “Dis rien”, making it just another one of those dull and showy ballads that represent the old guard. Likewise returning from 1960 was Camillo Felgen of Luxembourg, who grabbed third with “Petit bonhomme”, and there’s nothing I’ve said of the Monegasque entry that can’t be applied to the Luxembourgish one as well. (Intriguing spoken-word section, though. Completely incongruous, but still intriguing.)

Right then, to the actual “good ones”, quotation marks very much intentional. France is my fourth place this year, just under Belgium’s entry: normally so enamoured of funereal dirges, they managed to come up with the surprisingly competent and swinging “Ton nom” — it’s not anything amazing, but it has the warm glow that many of the other songs in this year’s selection lacked. Then we have Italy, basically just being their normal excellent selves in “Addio, addio”: a swirling but intricate tune, loudly enunciated lyrics, and hey presto, another second place for me. When it came to melodrama and passion, though, even the Italians had nothing on Spain, with their absolutely barnstorming tune “Llámame”. I have seen singers squeezing out every drop of emotion inside them for a performance, but Victor Balaguer literally contorts his face into different shapes just to get the words out, and that’s the kind of dedication you just have to reward. (Also, that brass section is just impeccable. I don’t like trumpet-based fanfares, but my God.)

1stFrance, “Un premier amour”Spain, “Llámame”
2ndMonaco, “Dis rienItaly, “Addio, addio
3rdLuxembourg, “Petit bonhommeBelgium, “Ton nom

Next Time

The stars converge on the BBC, all of them depressed as hell.

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