7 May 2023 ☼ Artist: Måneskin ☼ Artist: Theodor Andrei ☼ Eurovision ☼ Pop Music ☼ Music Criticism
Last time I told y’all that I was having a lot of fun with Eurovision this year, and that if demand was sufficient I would come back here and write about Romania’s entry. Demand was sufficient, by which I mean, I really wanted to come back here and write about Romania’s entry. And I have to do it now, because Romania performs in the second semi-final on Thursday, and I have almost no hopes of seeing it again in the Saturday final. Furthermore, unlike “Who the Hell Is Edgar?,” “D.G.T. (Off and On)” isn’t witty or comprehensible enough to have much in the way of post-Eurovision legs. If I’m going to get you to read a monologue about this song and its singer, now is the time.
So: everybody, meet Theodor Andrei.
Here are the things you need to know about Theodor Andrei, besides that he was selected in Romania’s national final (and reacted adorably when he won):
Theodor’s has been hitting the rock ‘n’ roll theme pretty hard, saying “Long live rock ‘n’ roll” in multiple interviews. As best I can tell, no one has asked him explicitly what he means when he says “rock ‘n’ roll.” Which is a shame, because it’s one of those phrases where everyone thinks they know what other people mean when they use it, and no one can exactly define it; the Overthinking guys tried to pin down which Eurovision songs are rock and ended up with a giant multiple-spreadsheet-requiring headche. Meanwhile, since Theodor seems like a very charming dude and the Eurovision run-up isn’t known for hard-hitting interviews, no one’s explicitly asked him if his invoking rock ‘n’ roll isn’t an attempt to ride Måneskin’s coattails.
When Damiano David said in Måneskin’s 2021 victory speech, “We just want to say, to the whole of Europe, to the whole world, rock ‘n’ roll never dies!”, it came across as endearing and also odd: because one, who was worried about rock ‘n’ roll dying in the first place? And two, if you as a group were worried about rock ‘n’ roll dying, why would you take that sentiment to Eurovision, a stage where (2006 being the honorable exception) it never lived to begin with? And then we’re back to: what is this “rock ‘n’ roll” y’all keep talking about, and how did it acquire meaning for performers in Italy and Romania, who see no contradiction whatsoever between having a rock ‘n’ roll vision and, well, Eurovision?
And what happens when that particular vision crosses back over into America? Well, then you get one Jeremy D. Larson reviewing Måneskin’s album Rush! for Pitchfork:
There is a listener who has been pulled into the world of Måneskin. I can sense their excitement, their carefree spirit, their urge to bite their bottom lip and pantomime bending a guitar string as an affirmative gesture. I know that, in this massively popular Italian band, this listener has discovered a rare and powerful thing. Måneskin are not just three men and a woman who play traditional rock music and—if you can believe it— all wear eyeliner. To this listener, Måneskin are something far more important: an alternative.
Things do not get better for Måneskin from there: Larson’s review includes “absolutely terrible at every conceivable level,” “a sweaty and effortful album that always seeks attention and never commands it,” and “optimized for getting busy in a Buffalo Wild Wings bathroom.”
So now we not only have rock ‘n’ roll, whatever it is, not dying, but instead going to Italy and producing something that inspires Pitchfork to revive its tradition of takedowns, and meanwhile taking a detour into Romania that has a number of listeners/viewers going, “Oh, honey, no.” Because Theodor’s “D.G.T.” doesn’t work in a way that has nothing to do with the song’s quality, or Theodor’s talent or energy—it’s those rock ‘n’ roll signifiers. It’s his painting “Make Love, Not War” on his chest for the national final performance and then talking it up in every single interview, as “Make Love, Not War” hadn’t long ago become an empty phrase. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t dead; it’s worse—it’s outdated.
Okay, fine, but still: what is it? Not just guitar, or a bluesy riff; you get Theodor to talk about the actual music of “D.G.T.” and he freely discusses it as a blues-rock-hip hop-pop mashup. (For the record, Theodor, I don’t hear the hip-hop part.) I think, from watching all those interviews, that when he says “rock ‘n’ roll” he’s talking about a certain freedom of expression, and creativity, and youthful spirit, and energy, particularly sexual energy. Theodor is 18 and creative and horny, and rock ‘n’ roll gives him an outlet for the creativity and the horniness alike; why not?
I get the impression Måneskin started out similarly motivated. “To us, rock music is a vehicle to express ourselves and have fun,” Victoria De Angelis told Guitar Player Magazine. In a Rolling Stone profile, she said of “I Wanna Be Your Slave,” “The song is about feeling free to be whoever you want and there’s no right or bad things.”
What you have, then, is rock ‘n’ roll as attitude: as preoccupation with expression, with feeling; “blunt, rude, popular,” “vulgar,” “pantheist,” “infinitely tolerant,” “selfish and sensuous.” The quotes are from a 1987 book called The Triumph of Vulgarity, in which Robert Pattison, an English professor, puts rock ‘n’ roll in the context of first the nineteenth-century Romantic movement and then in Walt Whitman’s poetry. Pattison’s analysis isn’t exactly popular in itself; I can’t even find much commentary on it. (This survey, for Philosophy of Music Education Review, compares Pattison to some other theorists on rock’s Dionysian excesses, and suggests, fairly, that Pattison took lyrics far too seriously.) But it helps explain both why Theodor might, when faced with the biggest stage of his life so far, choose to talk about rock ‘n’ roll, and why rock ‘n’ roll might not be helping him.
I talked about Pattison’s argument at greater length in Part 7 of the Ninety One Series, to explain why vulgar rock music doesn’t lend itself well to Marxist analysis:
The rocker’s goal [Pattison writes] is pure feeling, not pure consciousness. The subject of his feeling is his individual self, not his social class, and the object of his feeling is not history but the universe as it is right now. The present moment alone is valid, and the historical class problems that are the essential matter of Marxist speculation become for the rocker momentary fantasies.
For now let me sum it up as: rock ‘n’ roll is acontextual. It is meant to communicate feeling, and and anyone can feel, regardless of race or country or social class or language or any other kind of background. It’s American in origin, but you don’t have to be American to embrace it, or even know anything about America. Take, say, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”: you don’t have to know anything about Steppenwolf to enjoy the song. The lyrics don’t need explaining. The song is self-contained. What is “Magic Carpet Ride” about? Letting the sound take you away. Feeling. That’s it.
Acontextual fun is not the primary value of pop critics these days. Again, I went into this at length in the Ninety One Series (if you think I’m long-winded here, hoo boy), but suffice to say that the trend since the late 1970s, and especially since the mid-2000s, has been towards considering pop in context: “taking it seriously,” as Tom Ewing wrote in his 2015 taxonomy of poptimism, which is really a list of all the different contexts one could put a song into. Over in Part 7 I suggest that this is part of the legacy of the Jamaican-British Marxist scholar Stuart Hall, who approached popular culture, including music, with the question of how it might be used by audiences, especially audiences lacking power. To the critics descended from Hall’s work, rock ‘n’ roll’s refusal to think about how it might be used means it just ends up servicing existing hierarchies. A song like “Magic Carpet Ride” is meant to affect everyone, which means it ultimately aims for no change at all.
This is why Lawson starts his pan of Måneskin with a fanciful query about the average listener. If Måneskin had a built-in audience that could plausibly be described as marginalized—people of color, indigenous groups, queer folk, trans folk, non-Americans and Europeans, or even just “teenage girls”—then that context would require Lawson to take Måneskin more seriously; insulting them would imply insults to whichever group they were empowering. But the average Måneskin listener is implied to be people too uncool to realize that eyeliner on guys was transgressive maybe half a century ago. Who wants to self-identify as that?
I don’t think Lawson’s in the wrong, by the way. I’m not a Måneskin fan; I think they’re cute and “Zitti e Buoni” is fun, but I was not impressed by “I Wanna Be Your Slave” or “Supermodel”. The problem Måneskin has with Rush! is, they changed contexts. They were a little Rome rock band made good; then they moved to LA and started working with the likes of Max Martin, bidding for pop stardom with an album that includes the lyrics But cool kids, they do not like rock / They only listen to trap and pop (Justin Bieber) / And everybody knows that rock and roll is shit / But I don’t give a fuck about being a cool kid. (I listened to “Kool Kids” for the purposes of this essay; it somehow makes Damiano David sound like Michael Palin’s Gumby.) They’re trying to stay acontextual, to invoke a spirit of rebellion and anger, while benefiting from the current pop networks. It’s a hoodwinking, and Lawson calls it as such.
Where does that leave Theodor Andrei? I guess you could argue that he shouldn’t have gone rock ‘n’ roll. If you look at his competition, you can see a number of pop songs that practically beg the listener/viewer to go searching for the context: “Who the Hell Is Edgar?,” clearly, but also “Samo Mi Se Spava,” “My Sister’s Crown,” “Mama ŠČ!,” “Heart of Steel” (alternate title for the last one: “We’re Ukrainian, We Had to Hold Our National Final in a Bunker to Avoid Being Fucking Bombed, We Don’t Care If You’re Not Supposed to Go Understated at Eurovision”). “Soarele Si Luna” is a lot more interesting if you know it’s riffing on Moldovan folklore and not Game of Thrones. Even the slight “Breaking My Heart” benefits from knowing a little bit about the K-pop aesthetic Reiley’s drawing from. (And yes, I know I should quit trying to bring up Ninety One in every conversation, but: it’s the same visual dialect as “E.Yeah.”) Meanwhile the other rock songs, such as “Promise” and “Blood and Glitter,” look emptier by comparison.
I’ll get back to Theodor in a second, but first: at this point you’re probably saying, “Jessica, you’re trying to hoodwink us yourself, just because you or Pitchfork might like context doesn’t mean greater pop audiences like context.” Fair! The part I’ve left out is the relationship between context and reach. When you’re trying to pull in as many people as possible, context becomes a burden; more people want to listen to a pop song than study it. But if you’re looking to cultivate a group of “true fans,” then context becomes a useful tool: because the true fans are the ones who are going to invest time in you, to pore over every detail of your work, to, say, spend way too much time writing long essay series (not that I’ve ever done this, nope, nope, don’t know what you’re talking about) and discussing the potential callbacks and hidden messages with fellow true fans. As entertainment pipelines have fractured and it becomes harder and harder to reach a wider audience, groups might be more likely to offer a smaller set of fans a bargain: context in return for an investment of time (and money). The most successful acts use both strategies: Taylor Swift’s clearly very good at it, but you can see BTS weaving back and forth, trying to hook new fans with the deliberately bland “Dynamite” and then using side projects such as “Daechwita,” with its visual and lyrical references to Korean culture, to separate the casual listeners from the committed ARMYs.
And then there’s “D.G.T.,” which is about love and lust and not about Theodor’s context, except for his decision to keep the original Romanian lyrics for most of the song (which was originally a collaboration; he added the English second verse when he decided to submit it as a solo track). Asked about it, he simply calmly asserted that Romanian is a beautiful language. He’s not wrong; but the song’s not Romanian otherwise. It’s not meant to be. He’s not telling the story of what it’s like to be an ambitious theater kid in Bucharest. He’s guessing, probably rightly, that most of his audience wants to hear about love and lust first, and life in Bucharest a very, very distant second.
But without that context, all we’re left with is his invocation of rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll is old. “Magic Carpet Ride” was released more than half a century ago. To English-speaking audiences, “rock ‘n’ roll as presented by Romanian theater kid” is fresh but harder to grasp, and just plain rock ‘n’ roll is not just critically derided but played out. I like Theodor Andrei a lot better for the context I’ve been able to dig up for myself: the ambitious-theater-kid part, and Diana’s involvement (seriously, they’re adorable, I hope this creative and romantic partnership pays off mightily for both of them), and their inclusion of sign language in the “D.G.T.” choreography, and “Arogvnt,” which plays as if he recorded it in the five minutes before being bodily thrown out of the studio. But I chose to research him and not, say, Yellowjackets or Scandinavian noir or sewing techniques. Other people will choose to spend their time differently. Context might cement your fans’ interest, but it also creates a barrier to entry.
Winning an audience for your creative work has never been easy, and I suspect people who lament who hard it is today as opposed to days gone by are falling victim to survivorship bias. But it does seem to continue to be damned difficult. (Not just for musicians: here’s a longtime fiction author saying bluntly, “I feel bad for new writers coming in right now.”) Måneskin is trying to stay global, and I don’t think they’re going to be happy with the results, in the long run. (I don’t think the members of BTS will be, either, although Bang Si-hyuk does sound awfully pleased with himself.) Theodor Andrei is almost certainly not going to win a universal audience for his universal message. Which is why I wanted to write this, before he disappears off our collective radar. The impulse is partly selfish—I did all this thinking and now I want to share it with someone—but also he deserves to have his work discussed. The spirit of rock ‘n’ roll I don’t really care about; Theodor Andrei’s creative energy, long may that live.