From Zack:

Dr. Mikle D. Ledgerwood is a Professor of French and Linguistics and the Chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. He is also a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, which he highlights in his work in European Studies teaching at Samford.

Although Mike, as he goes by, is a former University of North Carolina graduate (the university at which I’m pursuing my PhD), we actually connected through a serendipitous moment because my friend, Bobby, attended a languages conference at which Mike was presenting. The Sunday after the conference I was having dinner with Bobby and he brought up this Eurovision presentation in conversation. Of course, I had to check it out and Mike was kind enough to tell us more about his work and love for Eurovision.


ESC UNITED: Mike, how did you first discover Eurovision?
MIKE: I became acquainted with the ESC when I was an English Conversation Assistant in Nice, France during the 1978-9 academic year. I lost touch with ESC over the years, but was very excited to rediscover it about six years ago, via the Internet, in a serendipitous moment.

ESC UNITED: So I first found out about your work through my friend who went to the Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT) conference. What did you talk about?
MIKE: At my presentation on Saturday, I spent a lot of time presenting about the ESC itself, including the languages of the ESC and the history of the language issue (whether countries had to sing in the majority language of their country or not), were able to use live music vs. recorded, geographic voting blocs  (the French wikipedia site has a very nice map of this), and other more academic aspects.

A screenshot of the SCOLT 2013 program with Mike's abstract
A screenshot of the SCOLT 2013 program with Mike’s abstract

ESC UNITED: And how about when you teach in class? How do you integrate Eurovision?
MIKE: I teach Eurovision songs in all my courses. In language courses, I use songs from the language we are studying, use the lyrics as authentic texts and the performances for social commentary.

One example from France can illustrate this. Over the past few years (until this year) France has been highlighting “la Francophonie”, that is World French Culture and World French. Recent singers have been from Indonesia, the Caribbean, and Corsica.

In culture classes we make similar analyses and focus on the semiotics of the performances as well as the cultural elements. We also analyze the texts at a much higher level than a basic language class. I am even contemplating doing an “Introduction to European Studies” course that would use ESC as a primary text.

Sing-along of “Eres Tu” at the Samford ESC Appreciation Night

ESC UNITED: As someone interested in language, what are your thoughts about the national language restriction being lifted in 1999?
MIKE: While it made me sad, I certainly accept this. You only have to look at ABBA’s success when the rules were first lifted, to see what this can mean. I don’t like the fact that so many countries sing in English and adopt American pop music templates that are often quite retro, but do understand why they do. I’ll comment below on whether some languages just don’t sound very good to many Europeans. However, if the meaning of the lyrics is the key element of a song, it’s easy to see why a country might choose English for maximum comprehension.

ESC UNITED: With that, I’ve noticed that certain countries nonetheless sing in their national languages year after year. France typically prefers to sing in French; Portugal in Portuguese; Spain in Spanish. I sense that it is a manner of displaying nationalism and pride in one’s language. What are your thoughts on this?
MIKE: There is no question that France, Portugal (miss them this year!), Italy, and Spain feel compelled to sing at least half of each song in their native language. They view their languages as important world languages (if perhaps only in music in the case of Italy). They do feel compelled to do anything they can do to counter the dominance of English. As an aside, I do point out the official languages of Eurovision are English and French only. While French has been minimal recently in the contest, I’m hearing that Sweden will have much more French in the broadcast this year.

ESC UNITED: This is sort of a silly question but one that involves current Eurovision news. This past Friday, San Marino released the English version of their entry “Crisalide” for this year. Much of the feedback from fans was that a) the original Italian version was better; and b) they were hoping the artist, Valentina Monetta, would NOT sing the English version in Malmo. A few hours later, Valentina went on Facebook to almost seeming to reassure fans she’d sing entirely in Italian at Eurovision. I’ve seen on the forums on our site that many Eurovision fans in general just like the sound of Italian. Do you believe there is some truth behind the idea that certain languages simply sound great when sung?

A reminder, or reassurance?

MIKE: Stunned by the thought that San Marino’s wonderful song might not be in Italian. It is a completely Italian song. It might even be top ten this year, depending on the performance and choreography (and yes, choreography and performance hugely affect final result. Just look at Albania and FYR Macedonia last year.)

As for some languages being more agreeable sung to the European ear, yes. I can give some reasons for this. I’m finally taking a few voice lessons for the first time in my life from a young (Samford voice major) tenor in my (Episcopal) church choir. In Western music languages with pure vowels and syllables that are cv/cv/cv (consonant vowel) are much easier to sing in. In fact, he has me sing in total vowels at times, as does our choir director. Thus Spanish and Italian are easier to sing in. Even German and Slavic languages are. English is tougher and French tougher yet. A language like Dutch or Hebrew that both have lots of the “ch” sound (think of “loch” with a Scottish accent) are way tougher to sing in and are viewed as “uglier” by most Europeans. While I really like this year’s Israeli song, top 20 is very best I think it’ll do.

ESC UNITED: It’s often interesting to see the results of songs that are poorly translated into English; it seems that it’s sometimes for the sake of being more accessible to more people. The song ends up with awkward lyrics – Latvia and Moldova’s entries in the past few years are good examples, particularly 2010 and 2012 for both countries. It’s nice to see that Moldova this year has decided to sing in Romanian; Iceland too, is singing in Icelandic for the first time since the language restricted was lifted.
MIKE: If Iceland had sung in Icelandic last year, they might have won, or at least been in the top three. Very pleased to see that they will this year, even if the song is not top ten. Glad to hear Moldova has finally gone with Romanian. I heard the English version. Not so good.  As for bad English translations, that’s part of the charm of Eurovision, unless the translations are especially egregious!

ESC UNITED: So tell our readers about your Eurovision event that you just hosted on Samford’s campus.
MIKE: Samford University had its inaugural “Eurovision Song Contest Appreciation Night” which I hosted last Monday night on campus. We had about a hundred students attending. Almost everyone seemed to have a good time.

The format of the event was:
1) Me explaining what ESC is, its history, politics, and its famous songs and performers
2) Showing some video clips of famous songs, including having the entire audience sing along to “Eres tú”
3) Watching a clip of the highlights of winning songs from 2000-2012
4) Having the audience vote for its Eurovision 2013 favorite song after watching two highlight videos of the 39 entries for this year
5) Having a karaoke and a virtual duet of two winning songs while the voting was tabulated (karaoke done by a student of mine, I did the virtual duet)
6) The result of the voting. We’re planning on having this event every year in April. Next year hope for more participation by students now that many know what it’s about. They’ll also have more lead time to prepare an “act”.

From Samford's ESC Appreciation Night
From Samford’s ESC Appreciation Night

ESC UNITED: What were some of the famous songs featured at the event? My guess would be “Waterloo” and the like.
MIKE: I decided to choose a few only. I wanted a variety from over the years. So, I began with “Blu Dipinto Di Blu”, better known as the “volare” song. After that, we did “Waterloo” as you expected. Then we did the “Eres Tu” that everyone sang along to (funny story about that later on). Last famous song was “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” that my advanced French students love. I also love “Poupee De Cire,” some of the British songs, and many Israeli songs. One of my absolute favorites is Sebnem Paker’s Turkish song done with traditional instruments before the rule changes about live orchestras and majority languages not having to be used.

ESC UNITED: What was the reaction to the winners from 2000-2012? It’s quite an eclectic mix! Going from The Olsen Brothers to Lordi to Loreen.
MIKE: The reaction ranged from “cool” to “incredulity”. Almost everyone was taken aback a bit yet intrigued however.  It was obvious that the audience didn’t expect the variety at all.

ESC UNITED: So who won the audience vote?
MIKE: I showed the audience two different highlight videos of the 39. I asked the attendees (faculty and students) to only vote for their top song, figuring that would make tabulating much easier. And wow! It turned out that attendees picked 23 different countries for number one!

Tied for fourth and fifth were Malta and Azerbaijan. Tied for second and third were Ireland and Georgia. Number one was Greece! Yes, it was for “Alcohol is Free”. And quite surprising! At a Christian university yet! Clear winner though. It got twelve first place votes. Next two got eight each.

ESC UNITED: So at my office today, we actually had a researcher who did his studies at Samford years ago. He said that it was quite a conservative school when he went there. With Eurovision being very LGBT-friendly, do you think there was any clashing of values?
MIKE: Well, the LBGT-friendly aspect wasn’t very obvious in what the attendees at the event saw.  There was a bit of unease over the perhaps mocking words of Lordi’s “Rock Song Hallelujah” winner from Finland among a few students.  Just a few.  The fact that Greece won probably indicates that my University is quite a different place now from what it used to be.  As an aside, LGBTE issues are now seen very differently now than they used to be in the United States.  This is true for the whole United States.  While my views on LGBTE issues are my own views and do not reflect those of my University, I have felt comfortable supporting LBGTE here.  I have stickers on my office door and cars to that effect and have gone through training to be able to help LGBT students here.

ESC UNITED: What is your favorite Eurovision song?
MIKE: What is my favorite ESC song of all time? You can watch my performance on Youtube from the Samford event to hear the answer!  Yes, I did do a virtual duet of my favorite ESC song, “Molitva”, the ESC winner from 2007.  I dressed up like the lead singer, Marija, as well.  General hilarity ensued, especially since I was a man dressing up as a woman, dressed up as a man.  Even got some “catcalls” when I hit high notes.  And yes, did sing in Serbian.

Quite possibly the first interpretation of "Molitva" by an American!
Quite possibly the first interpretation of “Molitva” by an American!

ESC UNITED: Do you think the US will ever embrace Eurovision, as non-EBU countries like Australia have? Why or why not?
MIKE: To be honest I doubt that it will, although I think it could. If we had a broadcaster imaginative enough to do what Australia does and set up a experience here similar to what Australia does, it certainly could.  I would be happy to help with this, if anyone would like to ask me!

ESC UNITED: Thanks for your time Mike. Any other thoughts you have on Eurovision and your Eurovision-related research!
MIKE: Yeah, check out the French Wikipedia site for geographic blocs in voting.
Found that fascinating. You’ll have to scroll down to nearly the end of the article to see the map of alliances. Perhaps what is most interesting is seeing how former enemies are allies in Eurovision! I can translate, give links, as needed for those who can’t read French. As another total aside, I did post an FYI note on main ESC Facebook site about Samford event and my SCOLT talk. Turns out that the video of students singing “Eres Tu” was picked up by a major FB ESC site and reposted with very nice comments–in Slovakia!

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  1. Roy van der Merwe

    April 19, 2013 at 07:12

    This is a very comprehensive article and takes a while to take everything in. This also illustrates exactly what ESCUnited wants to achieve – highlight what [eople outside of Europe feel about Eurovision.

  2. Matt

    April 19, 2013 at 04:31

    I loved this interview. Thank you so much for this. Mike is very articulate and I enjoyed reading the interview.

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