If Iceland had a national adjective, it would probably be “quirky”. Musically, this is the country which has given us Björk and the ethereal majesty of Sigur Rós. Even the only Icelandic act ever to score no points in Eurovision, Daníel Ágúst in 1989, went on to form GusGus, an electronica/trip-hop collective who gained a degree of indie credibility in the UK in the 1990s.
Sometimes, however, “quirky” doesn’t go far enough, and you need a description more along the lines of “mad as a bag of spanners”. We’ve already discussed Silvía Night‘s experiences in Athens in 2006. Another Icelander who left an indelible impression on the European watching public was Paul Oscar in Dublin in 1997.
The audience in The Point, and the millions watching at home, had just seen the favourite (and eventual winner), Katrina And The Waves, performing Love Shine A Light for the UK. Possibly they expected something inoffensive and fairly bland to round off the night. Instead they got something that Terry Wogan described as “the moment that PVC freaks have been waiting for since the night began – maybe since time began”.
Once the obligatory film showcasing Irish design had been shown and the conductor (Szymon Kuran) introduced, we were treated to the sight of an apparently sleeping Paul Oscar on a sofa, surrounded by reclining PVC-clad women. Once it was time for Mr Oscar to sing, he woke with a start, much like Dracula emerging from a nap.
To this listener, the fact that the song was sung in Icelandic (the “sing in your own language” rule was in place until 1999) lent the song a further sinister feeling. In fact, rather than being a song of praise for PVC and other wipe-clean materials, it was a paean to decadence and hedonism, given a sombre aspect as it becomes clear that the singer is leaving this life behind.
London, Paris, Rome, became empty words
I walked the wide and golden road, blinded by love
False acquaintances, revolved around me alone
I had some caviar, it’s all too late now
For I take my final dance
And bid my life farewell in style
Yet I never regret a thing, never regret
Cristal champagne, pearls, porcelain
Diamonds for dinner, love for dessert
If I love today, it will be in the papers tomorrow
I take a bubblebath, drown my sorrows
It is worth noting that 1997 was the first year in which televoting was allowed (in five countries: Austria, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK). Terry Wogan speculated that this may lead to “post-pub voting”, whereby inebriated televoters vote for amusing or weird songs, particularly if they come later on in the running order. I can personally confirm that at least three of Iceland’s televotes came from my student house in Hull, courtesy of my housemate Gill. In all, one-third of Iceland’s points came from the UK, and 16 out of their final tally of 18 were from televoting countries (two from Austria, six from the UK, and a massive eight from Sweden).
Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson was born in Reykjavík on 16th March 1970. His career in showbusiness started in around 1990, appearing as a drag act in a Reykjavík nightclub. His first album, Stuð, was released in 1993, and his 1995 collection of ballads, Palli, was the best-selling Icelandic album of 1995.
After Minn hinsti dans, he appeared on the Channel 4 programme A Song For Eurotrash one year later, sampling Icelandic delicacies such as goats’ testicles and talking about his love for Eurovision “how gay can you get?” – a prescient comment given that Dana International would win the contest just one week later.
He has also appeared as a judge on the Icelandic versions of Pop Idol and The X-Factor. He is still a regular guest on radio and TV shows and performs as a DJ in Reykjavík nightclubs. He once talked about his larger-than-life personality: “as a working place Iceland will be too small for me. Actually, it already is. But I am an Icelander. I will always keep a home here. My roots are so valuable to me. I wouldn’t change them for a sack of gold.”
Páll Óskar may not quite have made it as a household name outside Iceland. But, for three minutes in May 1997, he made millions of European TV viewers sit up and think “what the f…?” And for that, he’ll always be a Eurovision great to me.
Til hamingju, Páll Óskar.