Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Disco, Exotic and Historic (and sometimes both)

This blog is about to get all Eurovision, all of the time (well, at least for a few posts), so we have decided to begin with a trip to Eurovision Past.  Specifically, Kira unearthed this 1979 classic, 'Genghis Khan':

You may be saddened to learn that this song, which was Germany's entry, ranked only fourth in its year.  How did disco come to this, you might ask?  Why did Germany present a song that had a leaping Genghis Khan flying around the stage like he belonged there, you might ask?  There are historical precedents for this song and I would like to suggest that two impulses fused here: exotic disco and historic disco.  Both were chart-topping approaches to this style and left their mark in numerous ways, not only in this Eurovision entry.

Exotic disco

The sound in 'Genghis Khan,' to me, borrows heavily from the 1974 one-hit wonder by Carl Douglas, 'Kung Fu Fighting,' particularly with the gutteral 'huhs' and such:

This video makes even clearer how weird the whole premise of this song is.  First, you have Carl Douglas who is dressed is some kind of vaguely East Asian outfit, performing a song about an 'ancient Chinese Art.'  Of course, this song is in no way accurate of any individual culture or tradition (or martial art), it is simply mixing them all together into possibly the single most Orientalist disco hit.  And this song was a hit: it was number one in countries around the world, which is really hard to believe.  It is hard to believe to me.  Number 1?  Really?

However, in this particular performance (which is taken from a 1974 Dutch show), it is clear that Douglas is little more than mere entertainment.  The hosts of the show are the ones who have the 'real' conversation, even blocking out the music at points.  Similarly, the song distances the potentially 'exotic' performer by having him (literally) put on an exotic costume.  Thus, the exotic is now at an even further remove, mitigated through two cultures.

Why make disco exotic?  I suspect that such 'distanced' performances helped in lessening the bold--and explicitly black--songs that initiated the shift from funk to disco.  Compare this to Shaft, a man who defies the potential limitations of his environment.  As his 1971 theme song and opening title sequence demonstrates, Shaft is more than willing to upset the status quo, walking around Times Square like he owns the place.  He goes even further in his defiance through his occupation (he is serving as a branch of the law, but he appropriates the law for his own causes as a private eye) and in his ability to stop cabs when they deign to get in his way:

Carl Douglas with his kung fu fighting is nowhere near the same potential disruption that Shaft could be.

There are other examples of this type of exotic disco, such as this 1976 Kool and the Gang hit later featured on the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever:

I like how everyone gets lost around 2:22 when the beat almost disappears.  This is a great track: the band plays super tight and the harmony is very much 'exotic' in its unexpected dissonance.  I hear more of old jazz tracks like Caravan here than I do 'Kung Fu Fighting.'

Nonetheless, the exotic had its entree into disco and remained.  Then along came...

Historic disco

This category might seem like an oxymoron, but I assure you that it played a vital role in disco's global success.  To whit, the single most successful Eurovision song to date:

A few things that ABBA got right here:

1) Very catchy tune
2) We may not remember the intricacies of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.  But we get the gist (you win, I lose, I am facing my imminent defeat and it doesn't seem so bad)
3) It's in English.  Crucial to win.  If you're curious, there is a version in Swedish.
Benny and Björn, being no fools, knew that the English version would win over more of the crowd (and possibly audiences worldwide), so they opted to perform that one.
4) The hats.  Although this had little/no lasting impression.

The year was 1974, 'Waterloo' became a huge hit, and ABBA's international stardom began its rise.  Also, this song launched historic disco, which I am broadly defining as 'disco that features something to do with history, although honestly it is usually pretty vague and we are just gleaning the general gist of stuff.'

The next major hit to follow 'Waterloo,' I would suggest, is Boney M.'s 1978 'Rapustin.'  Because why else would you decide to write a disco song about a figure from history?  I'm still not entirely sure, to be honest, but I do think that 'Waterloo' had something to do with it.  Also noteworthy: Boney M. was another European group (Belgian/German/something) looking to break big.  They also recorded in English.  However, this was not a Eurovision song:

...which is kind of a crime.

It was, however, a huge hit, reaching #1 in Germany, Austria, and Australia (it was #2 in the UK and Switzerland).  If you are wondering how, you aren't the only one.

The logical extension to all of this, then, is to take exotic disco and historic disco, fuse it together, and create The Ultimate 1979 Eurovision Song.  Sadly, 'Genghis Khan' didn't quite make it.  It had the exotic, but perhaps it had too much exotic--or perhaps it had no need to 'Other' its performer in the first place.  It had the historic, but lacked a certain je ne sais quoi in its depiction of its biographical figure.  It has lived on, though, thanks to YouTube, because now all Eurovision entries can live on there forever.

1 comment:

  1. Can "Rasputin" fit into both the "historic" and the "exotic" category? The opening Russian violin line sounds very 1970s intentionally "exotic" to me. Also, I'm thinking about the fact that this song is premiering during the Cold War. There was certainly an exoticization/fascination/curiosity for Russia that I feel like Boney M is tapping into.