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History without the history

Lately I’ve been watching the Spanish soap opera Velvet, which is available (subtitled) on Netflix.  It’s set in the late 1950s in a prestigious Madrid fashion boutique, and it’s strongly reminiscent of shows like Mad Men or the BBC’s The Hour (sometimes I refer to it as Los Hombres Locos) in that it presents a sophisticated, elegant period backdrop against which the characters pursue their careers and love lives while dealing with what the viewer considers rather outdated social and moral standards.

Velvet’s main character is Ana, a seamstress at the Velvet fashion house.  Since adolescence, she’s been in love with Alberto, the son of Velvet’s owner.  But both Ana’s and Alberto’s families forbade the match as unsuitable, with Alberto’s father going so far as to exile his son to London to keep them apart.  Seven years* later, Alberto has returned, now the owner of Velvet after his father’s passing, and there’s nothing to keep him and Ana apart.  But the shop is nearly bankrupt, and Alberto has to ask for a loan from family friend Gerardo.  Gerardo agrees, but on one condition: Alberto must marry his daughter Cristina, who has always been in love with him.  Alberto is ready to stand by Ana, but Ana, who can’t stomach being responsible for the closing of Velvet and all her friends losing their jobs, breaks things off with him, instead telling him he must marry Cristina.

I was intrigued by Velvet because of the combination of its time and place–Madrid in the 1950s.  Postwar Spain was stable, prosperous, capitalist, Western European; but it was also a country governed by a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship.  That’s a unique opportunity for storytelling that you’re not really going to find anywhere else (well, I suppose except for postwar Portugal).

So it was jarring to find Velvet–unlike Mad Men or The Hour (or even those short-lived Mad Men clones the networks tried, like Pan-Am or The Playboy Club), which were shows that were always very much anchored in their historical context–presenting a weirdly de-historicised 1950s Spain.

It’s possible to determine that the first series of the show takes place in 1958.  (Alberto, prior to going away for seven years, was present at Velvet’s presentation of the 1951 collection; Real Madrid are pursuing their third European Cup, which they won in 1958.)  But:

  1. A flashback captioned “Twenty years earlier” shows Velvet as being open and prospering with business.  “Twenty years earlier” than 1958 would, of course, be 1938, so this flashback takes place at the height of the Siege of Madrid, when no one in Madrid spent their time shopping for luxury haute couture fashions, even if they’d had the inclination and the resources to.  (The same flashback shows someone riding a bus from the countryside into Madrid as if it were a simple, everyday occurrence.)
  2. A character says at one point that Velvet will open its doors tomorrow morning “as it has done every morning for the past thirty years”.  This, of course, means that the shop opened every day during the two and a half years of the Siege of Madrid.
  3. A closeup of the back page of a newspaper shows a picture of the Spanish league table, with one of the clubs being listed as “Athletic Club“.  Spain had no club named “Athletic” in the 1950s (or 1940s, or 1960s, or much of the 1970s); because of Franco’s edict that all clubs had to use only Spanish-language names, Athletic Bilbao were forced to use the name Atletico Bilbao during his regime.  (Similarly, FC Barcelona were forced to go by CF Barcelona, and they’re still bitter about it.)
  4. Another flashback, set fifteen years in the past, shows Alberto bringing back a hot new record he bought in Paris (which subsequently becomes Ana and Alberto’s song).  Now, you might object that there’s no way the hot new record in 1943 was set to the same tune as the Ronettes’ most famous hit (that’s the best link in the whole post.  Follow it.), but even before we get to that, I’d point out that there’s no way that the hot music coming out of Paris in 1943 was in English.

What it basically boils down to is that Velvet presents a version of “the fifties” that were extremely genericised and were the only decade to last for about twenty-five years.

Now, there’s a lot to recommend Velvet.  I’m definitely going to stick with it through the programme’s whole run.  (There are three series on Netflix right now; the fourth finished airing in Spain in December but hasn’t yet reached North America.)  There’s double crossing and secrets and sexy flirting and I laugh several times an episode.  It’s also full of beautiful people (these are Spaniards, after all) and some lively characters; Ana’s best friends Rita and Luisa are my favourites.  (I’d agree with this review that Alberto and Ana are basically the least interesting characters on the programme; I love Cristina and Raul and Mateo and Patricia as well.)  The show is full of music (all of it in English) that really does sound very 1950s, but maintains a wide variation in genre; the opening theme song is probably the best example.  And it’s a lovely touch, as you can see in the clip of Ana and Alberto’s song up above and in the screencap here, that the actors do such an exceptional job of dancing like actual white people from the fifties.

But to me it’s a shame that the show so deliberately erases exactly that part of its premise that would make it most interesting, and that Mad Men and The Hour did such a good job of embracing.  Maybe that makes it more marketable in Latin America or Europe, I don’t know; after all, I’m hardly the target audience for Castilian Spanish primetime soap operas.  There’s also that it never even considers criticising the old-fashioned morality and social mores that it shows us, as, for instance, when Alberto and Ana decide to keep secretly seeing each other while Alberto publicly becomes engaged to Cristina–essentially meaning that Alberto is having sex with the help while marrying someone from his own social class.  The show is quite open about how hard it is for Ana to watch Alberto and Cristina together, but it’s never touched upon that their plan actually makes both Ana and Alberto really horrible people for deceiving the sweet and friendly Cristina like this.  (For that matter, despite being an asshole, Cristina’s father never really comes in for any criticism for making his loan to Alberto contingent on a secret promise that Alberto will unwillingly wed his only daughter.)

Anyway.  Not what I expected, but I’m still watching.

I

*Those seven years are an interesting thing.  When Alberto is sent away, he and Ana are pretty clearly adolescents–say, eighteen years old, preparing to elope because their families disapprove of their love–and there are references later on to indicate that Alberto went to London instead of going to the same “school” the men in his family have attended in his family for generations.  Yet when Alberto returns to Spain seven years later, he’s just a month shy of his thirty-first birthday–meaning that the boy we saw preparing to run away from home with his girlfriend rather than go to “school” was meant to be almost twenty-four years old.

Eurovision!

Last week was Eurovision, always one of my favourite afternoons of the year.  Lisa and I were honestly really impressed with the music this year, at least in the final (I didn’t watch the semi-finals)—usually Eurovision manages to turn up ten or twelve solid songs that I like, but this year I’d say it was somewhere around twenty, out of twenty-six entries.  Even the UK had a strong song, and that’s not normally something I get to say.

That did mean there was a lack of gimmicky weirdness this year.  The closest we came to that was the buxom, revealingly-clad peasant girls Poland sent onstage to churn butter and wash clothes during their song.  But apart from that, every entry let its song do its singing.  (Yes, that means Conchita Wurst won on the strength of her song.)

So in the absence of oddity, I guess I’ll just be highlighting my favourite songs this year.  Well, I’ll start with Lisa’s favourite, which was Belarus.  Here’s “Cheesecake” by Teo:

I really liked Iceland, though I did understand immediately that it had no chance of winning.  Iceland has vastly different songs every year, but I’ve noticed that they pretty much always manage to come up with something that I like a lot.  I was torn here whether to use the song’s music video or else use the live performance.  I decided on the live performance, because I think it serves the song better, but if you like Aquabats-style low-budget enthusiasm, I encourage you to check out the video.  “No Prejudice” by Pollapönk:

But my favourite song—hands down, in a year full of great songs—was Spain.  I thought this was hauntingly beautiful, and honestly it had me from the opening chords.  Again I had a tough time choosing which performance to put here.  Ultimately I went with the live performance because I really liked the rainfall effect they created onstage (Boy asked if it was really raining inside the auditorium), but I did think that the dancing segments in the music video were pretty sexy.  “Dancing in the Rain” by Ruth Lorenzo:

And one last word, on the interval entertainment, while voting was in progress and while the votes were being tallied.  This is normally, you know, just something to watch for twenty minutes.  And I have to say, I think Eurovision hosts have a pretty tough job: they have to banter in English, not their native language, and they have to do it slowly enough for an audience, many of whom do not speak the language terribly well, to follow along.

This year the interval entertainment was genius, and it was made so largely through the comedic abilities of the hosts, especially Pilou Asbæk (who, Wikipedia tells me, appeared in The Borgias in 2013, though it doesn’t say in what role).  The Museum of Eurovision History skit and the ode to the number twelve were hilarious.

Until we meet again, in Vienna.

I

A second chance to make a first impression

There’s a contest going on right now! To pick a cover for the new edition of A Traitor’s Loyalty.  You can check out the entrants (and vote!) here.  And then head back in a few days to vote again once the finalists have been pick.

I’ve got a few favourites, but I honestly like every submission so far.  I’ve always had only one idea about the book’s cover, and several people have obviously had the same idea and have come up with some neat variations on it.  But others have gone a different route and come up with moody, intriguing covers too.

Anyhow.  I really hope you’ll vote.

I

Would ABBA’s famous 1974 winning song have been titled “Dunkirk”?

I’m so very pleased to announce that A Traitor’s Loyalty is now shipping. Anyone who’s preordered should now have an estimated delivery date, and for anyone who’s somehow managed to get this far without placing an order, both Amazon and BN.com list the book as currently available for delivery. No idea why the ebook editions haven’t been made available yet, though.

So that news, combined with the topic of my last post, has had me thinking about how the Eurovision Song Contest might look in the world of A Traitor’s Loyalty–that is, how it might look in a Europe dominated by a victorious Nazi Germany. Pop music is something that commonly gets at least mentioned in Second World War-based alternate histories, usually with a reference to the Beatles (something which Traitor has already managed before we’ve even finished its prologue), but so far as I’m aware, Eurovision has never been a part of that. That’s odd, really.

Eurovision was born of a wave of pan-Europeanism that swept through Continental Western Europe in the 1950s: the European Coal and Steel Community (the first step in what would eventually evolve into the European Union) was founded in 1951, the European Cup played its first matches in 1955, the first Eurovision was held in 1956, and the Common Market and EURATOM were both founded in 1957. The first question, then, is whether or not there’d have been the same sort of impetus for European community in a Nazi-dominated postwar Europe as there was in a democratic postwar Europe.

It seems to me a certainty there would. Germany has emerged from the war as the unquestioned dominant power on the European mainland, but now faces the prospect of an indefinite Cold War against Great Britain and the United States. So they’d be looking to bind together their new subject states and allies, to give them some sort of common identity. First there’d be the military alliance–in the book, the German satellite states are allied into the Warsaw Pact, just as the Anglo-American alliance that opposes them is named NATO–but it wouldn’t stop there.

It was a key part both of Nazism and of all the other fascist movements across Europe to involve the State in every sort of cultural activity–to blur as much as possible the distinction between the government and the national culture. This was just as much true of music as it was of anything else, and a Eurovision-type European music festival seems an obvious way both to celebrate each country’s national character and to try to tie them together with a sense of pan-Europeanism. Plus, Eurovision was partly conceived as a way to show off cutting edge technology–broadcasting a single event live to all of Europe. The Nazis were very proud of German technological innovation and would have loved the chance to highlight it like that.

Of course, Eurovision in this world would still be a rather different beast than in our own. It would be German-dominated, for one thing. Would each year’s contest still be held in the country that won last year’s competition? Or it would be held in Germany every year? In the 1970s and 80s, Eurovision was often held in Britain, as the BBC became something of a default producer for the programme whenever the winning country proved unwilling or unable to stage it themselves. At the very least, we’d expect that role now to be filled by Germany instead.

We can expect the music to be more conservative, too. Historically, Eurovision made the transition to pop music in 1965, when “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” won for Luxembourg, even though it was written by Serge Gainsbourg (French) and performed by France Gall (also French). But that won’t happen in this world–Nazism firmly disapproved of beat music in general, viewing it as African and therefore degenerate, and with Nazi Germany in a cold war with the USA, there’s no way the Nazis would be willing to accept the specifically American phenomenon of rock and roll.

(Actually, Serge Gainsbourg’s musical career is an interesting thing to consider. As Jews, he and his family had to flee Paris during the German Occupation. What happens to them once France is permanently established as a fascist dictatorship under Nazi influence? Do they end up murdered in the camps–or Purified, as it’s described in A Traitor’s Loyalty? Or do they somehow make it out alive, to Britain or America, where Gainsbourg has a high-profile, scandalous career?)

In fact, it could well become an accepted thing that Eurovision entries are meant to show the “national character” of their countries–so Germany would enter songs that “sound German”, Italy songs that “sound Italian”, etc.

The contest would be much more political. It’d be many years before we saw Britain participating, or any of the European members of NATO (Portugal, Greece and the Republic of Sicily). And while the appearance of fair play would be maintained, with national juries voting for the winner, the voting would of course be susceptible to influence–Germany would somehow never go more than three or four years without winning, and those countries that are essentially just German puppet states (France, Croatia, Slovakia) might simply have to accept that they never win, so as to make sure that those countries that are allied to Germany theoretically of their own free will (Spain, Sweden, Italy) get the wins they expect often enough.

Eventually, though, Britain will end up joining the contest, just as, in real history, Britain eventually ended up joining the Common Market, or the Soviet-bloc countries eventually ended up participating the European Cup. That’ll be a tense, awkward moment, though, just like both of those things were in real history. (There was one season in the mid-60s when the Soviet-bloc teams all withdrew from the European Cup after UEFA decided to pair them all against each other in the first round, segregating them from the Western European teams.)

Britain debuting at Eurovision could become an important moment, for both sides on the Cold War. Everyone wants it to go right. We could even see something spectacular, like, say, the Beatles serving as the country’s first ever Eurovision entrants; it’s established in Traitor that the Beatles enjoy at least some popularity in 60s-era Nazi Germany. In fact, at one point there’s a photograph is described, showing a jubilant crowd of German children watching Hitler meet the Fab Four in Berlin during their 1966 goodwill tour of Continental Europe. It’s occurring to me now that what should be showing is Hitler and the Beatles meeting at their Eurovision Song Contest appearance. Damn, that’s a missed opportunity.

But that would also mean big changes for Nazi Eurovision. You’re not going to be able to keep pop music out of the contest once you’ve got the Beatles competing. (The Beatles being Britain’s first ever entrants in 1966 means that 1967 might still see Cliff Richard singing one of the contest’s most famous ever songs, “Congratulations”.) And if it’s going to be important to the German leadership that Britain and the other NATO countries continue competing, there’ll have to be a sense that the juries really are voting freely, based on songs’ merits.

That, then, takes us up to the early 70s, which is where we leave off, since the novel takes place in 1971. That’s a shame, since it means we miss considering what happens to ABBA, who won the 1974 contest with “Waterloo”. It’s perfectly possible ABBA still manage to represent Sweden in the mid-70s. Sweden haven’t been conquered by Germany in Traitor, they’ve simply allied with them, so there’s no Nazi-implemented fascist regime that would repress pop musicians of the ABBA sort. (Though there’d still be the cultural pressure of having Nazi Germany as your main cultural influence.) But how well is the Eurovision community going to look upon a song that celebrates a British defeat of a would-be European conqueror?

Maybe that’s what the sequel can be about.

I

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