Overthinking Eurovision 2017: All Things Flow

Can Francesco Gabbani reconcile western materialism with eastern spirituality in Italy’s 2017 entry in the Eurovision Song Contest?

As you already know if you’ve been following our Eurovision videos — and if you haven’t, why not start? — Italy showed up loaded for bear this year. Historically, there seem to be two meta-strategies for winning Eurovision (not counting sleazy vote-trading shenanigans). The first choice is to enter into the original spirit of the competition by trying to write a good song. (I never get tired of telling people that Serge Gainsbourg’s “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” which is a stone cold classic, was also a Eurovision winner for Luxembourg in 1965.) The second choice is to embrace the glorious travesty that Eurovision has become, by trying to go viral: that is, aiming less for good than for compellingly weird. (I also never get tired of linking to Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” which won for Finland in 2006.)

Italy’s entry this year, “Occidentali’s Karma” by Francesco Gabbani, manages to pull off both strategies at once, which is a pretty neat trick. On the one hand, it’s a genuinely catchy song. But the lyrics are weird. Not with the goofy, transgressive weirdness that a lot of B-type Eurovision songs typically adopt. Rather, they’re weird because they’re deep, with allusion stacked on allusion in a showy, self-conscious way that just cries out for a deeper analysis. It’s not so much that the song feels like it’s trying to go viral, as it feels like it’s trying to get itself annotated on Genius. (And sure enough…)

If you were cynical, you could just call this good marketing. Whatever gets people talking right? And it’s working: “Occidentali’s Karma” is the odds-on favorite in the Eurovision betting markets. In a sense, writing a blog post that’s like, “Hey, here’s the real hidden meaning of ‘Occidentali’s Karma'” is just playing into Italy’s hands… but whatever, it’s just too juicy to resist. So without any further ado, here is the real hidden meaning of “Occidentali’s Karma.”

The key phrase in the song is also probably the hardest to understand. Panta rhei. This isn’t Italian, it’s ancient Greek:  a slogan attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. It means “All things flow,” which on its own isn’t exactly informative. Really, panta rhei needs to be understood in the context of Heraclitus’s other, more famous one liner, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” If you step into a river, you’re stepping into water. But if you come back and step into the same river again, that water is long gone. So are you really stepping into the same river? Okay, so maybe when we say “river” we aren’t talking about that specific water. But Heraclitus isn’t really talking about water either. Panta rhei: all things flow. Every part, of every thing, is in a state of constant flux. So when you come back and try to step into that river, not only is it not the same water, you aren’t the same you. Or as Heraclitus put it in another fragment, “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.”

What does this have to do with singin’ in the rain? Nothing: and that’s the point. Again, we have to read this line in its context. “I’m singing in the rain, just singin’ in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I’m happy again.” I don’t know about you, but reading Heraclitus does not make me feel glorious. Learning that nothing persists from moment to moment does not make me happy again, because it means that there’s no “again” in which to be happy, and no “me” to be happy in it!

And we can go even deeper here: does anyone remember why Gene Kelly (or rather, Don Lockwood) says (or rather, sings) that line in the musical? It’s because he just figured out how to save his acting career, and also made out with Debbie Reynolds. It’s not because it’s raining, it’s in spite of the rain. Focusing on his personal triumphs, he is able to ignore the rain. So what we have here, really, is two very different ways of thinking about water. Heraclitus looks at the river, thinks about it very carefully, and decides that—all things considered—he himself probably doesn’t exist. Gene Kelly looks at the rain, thinks about his awesome life, and acts like the rain doesn’t exist.

So how could you possibly combine these two worldviews? Well, you can’t. Not really. But you can fake it. It’s easy to just say panta rhei; the hard thing is to believe it. And this is basically the way that modern Western culture engages with “Ancient Wisdom” more broadly. We adopt the outer form of these teachings — going to hot yoga, getting the Kabbalistic sephirot tattooed on our upper buttcracks — but we don’t absorb what they really mean. We don’t actually want to be spiritual, we just want to say we’re 🙏 spiritual in our Tinder profiles. It’s not so much a matter of wanting to have our cake and eat it too, as it is of realizing that cake is an illusion that leads to suffering, enmeshing us in the endless, miserable cycle of birth and rebirth… and also, we really want to eat that cake.

“Occidentali’s Karma” is a critique of this tendency — but it’s also an example of it. (Quoting Heraclitus in the chorus of a Eurovision song is just about as authentic as getting an Etz haChayim tramp stamp.) If this song ends up winning, it’s pretty safe to say that everyone who voted for it will have totally missed the point. And maybe that’s just what we deserve. Maybe it’s fitting that, when we occidentals steamroll into a subcontinent, enslave its people, and repackage their sacred teachings as motivational posters and refrigerator magnets, we’re not actually able to absorb those teachings by consuming them in magnet form. You want to condense a life-changing belief system that’s been studied and refined by thousands of people over thousands of years, down to a slogan? Great! Now you get to just have the slogan. And that is also your punishment.

Hmm, it’s almost like there’s some sort of… cosmic book-keeping system, in which every good or bad action gets paid back further down the line. I could swear there’s a word for this. It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Stokes has been writing for OTI since the very beginning. (No seriously, he wrote the first post on the site.) He’s probably the guy to talk to if you want to pitch an article about music theory or horror movies. Check out his 50,000 word exegesis of Cowboy Bebop, his threepart series on plotting in early video games, or his alternate rules for Monopoly.

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