by Drew Holmes
Sitting in the hotel room and hearing the commotion from the hall, I suddenly realized we were surrounded by Lithuanians.
We had spent the last week in Tallinn, Estonia, and were looking to get out of town for a few days. Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia, was the logical choice. Birthplace of the Estonia Song Festival and home to Tartu University it is the vibrant academic and cultural center of the country. It even has a leaning house, the Baltic version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Featuring a medieval town square lined with restaurants, cafes, and the Estonian National Museum it was just different enough from Tallinn to entice us to make the trek.
After a day of seeing the sights, we settled into our hotel room for what we hoped would be a restful evening. Turing on the TV, I encountered something I had not seen before: the Eurovision Song Contest. Before I left the US a friend from Denmark had mentioned she looked forward to it every year, so I expected something akin to American Idol.
What I witnessed was like nothing I had imagined.
Open to active members of the European Broadcasting Union, the Eurovision Song Contest features diverse and sometimes flamboyant performances by musicians representing their home countries. These performances range from folk singing to heavy metal stage productions and everything between.
That year, 2006, the contest was held in Athens and the metal band Lordi represented Finland. I have never experienced anything like it in person, but the closest thing I had seen to their performance was videos of the metal band Gwar. It was a spectacle for the eyes and the ears, with outrageous costumes and their aptly titled song Hard Rock Hallelujah. Unsurprisingly, they won.
While that was an image forever burned into my brain, what really made the contest memorable was the performance by the Lithuania. Featuring a group of men in 1980’s style suits singing the simple lyrics “We are the winners of Eurovision” in the style of a schoolyard taunt. This blatant pandering to the audience at home was just the right mix of chutzpah and humor.
Given Estonia’s proximity to Lithuania and the young and hip nature of Tartu, the significant contingency of college-aged Lithuanians in the hotel that night was hardly surprising. As soon as the performance started, they were shouting and cheering as if the group could hear them all the way in Greece. The hotel rocked with boisterous energy as room after room joined in the celebration and any notion of a quiet night in was dashed. Though Lithuania did not win, the pride these young adults showed in their performing group and county was inspiring.
What was most striking about that evening was the overflowing national pride those students felt. While we Americans strongly identify with our sports teams, the level of rabid fervor at artistic expression and performance was greater than any athletic fandom I have ever witnessed.
As the show ended and Lordi gave the home audience an encore performance of Hard Rock Hallelujah, I felt a twinge of jealousy that we do not have this kind of celebration of creative performance here in the US. But for one night, I was in awe of the power of music to unify entire countries for something as simple as a song contest.