You’re either a Eurovision lover or you’re not. At least, that’s what I’ve always thought. It’s the music competition that stops a continent and entrances much of the rest of the world - particularly Australia - with its unashamed devotion to Europop, but some have managed to resist its charms. I was one of them until I went to Europe.
As a child of the '80s, the news that I was heading to Germany to attend a film festival came with its own soundtrack, if only in my head. Nena’s glorious "99 Luftballons" went by in my brain on repeat, its bouncy beat and synth stylings impossible to shake. Given the song spent five weeks at number one in Australia following its 1984 release and has been a radio mainstay ever since, that’s hardly surprising.
Three decades of hearing a particular tune and learning its German anti-war lyrics by osmosis will do that. Today, the upbeat track is still a staple of any ’80s-focussed music channel countdown and many a suburban pub has it on rotation.
A string of German lines and a reference to Captain Kirk kept swirling through my mind - and soon, so did a realisation: if there’s one place I was destined to hear "99 Luftballons", it was in the city the song sprang from. And when a Nena album was among those available on the in-flight entertainment system during the last leg of my flight - alas, not the band’s German self-titled release or their international record that shared the track’s name, but one of its lead singer’s later solo efforts - I was certain it was going to happen.
Getting into a cab at Berlin’s Tegel airport only boosted my confidence. The radio was already blaring as I took my seat, and once jingles and slogans gave way to music, Martika’s "Love… Thy Will Be Done" started echoing throughout the car. What followed during the short drive was a playlist of '80s and '90s pop classics. Not a single reference to luftballons, let alone 99 of them, but a collection of tracks worthy of any mixtape from the era. If it wasn’t for the intermittent interruptions by commercials, I would’ve easily believed I was listening to one - and not just because a sleep-deprived, 24-hour trip around the world can mess with your thinking.
That was just the beginning of 16 days of '80s and '90s mania. Every cab, cafe, bar and restaurant seemed to be playing the greatest hits from the decades of my youth, and every car hurtling past as well. Muzak versions of Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean" and Wreckx-N-Effect’s "Rumpshaker" seeped into elevators, sitting down for a drink came with a serving of Belinda Carlisle and George Michael, and posters plastered around the city advertised a concert featuring Rednex. If the last name doesn’t ring a bell, then the Swedish group’s novelty track "Cotton Eye Joe" will.
While below-freezing temperatures meant the weather was far colder and the outfits much warmer, the near-constant soundtrack felt like stepping into the '80s nightclub setting seen in Black Mirror’s "San Junipero" episode. Here, Berlin was a pop heaven and a place on earth. Luftballons still didn’t materialise in any number throughout the course of my stay, but something else did - a strong appreciation for how much Germany seems to love pop. It is the country that gave us "Mr Vain" by Culture Beat, "Mambo No. 5" by Lou Bega, "Another Night" by The Real McCoy, "Rhythm is a Dancer" by Snap and even "Blame It On the Rain" by infamous lip-syncing duo Milli Vanilli, after all.
Indeed, when you’re in Europe, surrounded by the style of music the region wholeheartedly celebrates and in a nation that has participated in more Eurovision Song Contests than any other, it’s impossible not to catch a dose of their enthusiasm. If there’s this much pop music around during a regular February, imagine how much there will be come May?
It’s positively joyous to experience a place so enamoured with something that always fills the air - it’s infectious enough to make someone who has never watched Eurovision excited about tuning in. I mightn’t have managed to be in the right place at the right time to hear "99 Luftballons" in Berlin, but come May 13, I’ll be watching Germany’s 2017 entrant, Levina, give the world a taste of "Perfect Life".
The Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast over SBS’s Eurovision weekend - Friday 12 May, Saturday 13 May, and Grand Final Sunday 14 May at 7.30pm on SBS with LIVE early morning broadcasts begin Wednesday 10 May at 5am on SBS.