00:00 Picture Italy immediately after the Second World War, battered and broken. The same goes for the country's people for their sense of self, of self worth. Of course, this could be said of a great number of countries at that moment. But what makes Italy's case peculiar, perhaps peculiarly Italian is that the part of its great plan for rebuilding included the razzle dazzle of a national song competition. The festival di San Remo, which burst into life in 1951, in a live radio broadcast from the casino of a small town in Liguria. Now fast forward 73 years and oh, what stories what songs what scandals we have to tell. Welcome to the Italian files a podcast of conversations about lesser known protagonists, themes and stories of Italian culture, society and history. I'm Thea Lenarduzzi. After the festivals first outing in 1951, things snowballed. By 1955 the contest was on national television and in 1956, modelling itself almost entirely on Sanremo, the Eurovision Song Contest was born. From 1977 the show was such a big deal that it had to move to a much larger fancier venue, which it still calls home today: the teatro Ariston. And it would almost be easier to list the international stars who haven't risked the infamously steep stairs to open the five day long extravaganza. We've had Louie Armstrong, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones, Madonna, it goes on and on. Perhaps for that reason, watching the festival is a kind of national duty. Everyone knows when it's happening, even if they have no interest in it whatsoever. And I'm sure this year will be no different. But it's not all bright lights and good times. Thankfully, Giulia Cavaliere is here to steer us through the festivals, shady aspects as well as its highest highs. Giulia is a music journalist based in Milan and a regular in the pages of Rolling Stone and Esquire Italia, among many others. She's the author of "Romantic Italia", published in 2018, which tells a story of Italian pop music and television via 80 Italian love songs from the 1950s to the present day. She's also a critic on the Extra Factor, this is the show of Italy's X Factor series, all of which is to say that if anyone knows about Italian showbiz, it's Giulia. Julia, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you very much. So many of the love songs that you write about in your book actually debuted at Saturday. Is there a... would you say is there a kind of a typical Sanremo song? Do they all tend to be quite, you know, soft and swoony? We usually tend to call it a Sanremo song, when the song has a great opening moment, a very rich and precise use of strings, with instruments and the orchestra. The model of a great Sanremo song has been the same since 1958. When Domenico Mudugno won with Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare) Yeah, a lot of people will know it, won't they, as Volare
03:19 All over the world that was a great success. Modugno put Italy of the time at the centre of the world. It was the economic miracle, it was on the launchpad, Italy was ready to live its dream. In some ways, I believe that the search of that kind of song, a song that obviously is structurally impossible today, is due to the constant desire that Sanremo sets in motion to make Italians feel great. United in a collective embrace, the one for which Modugno opened his arms in Volare.
04:06 It is precisely that it's kind of an attempt to move the entire nation to share that emotion to create that emotion and to kind of unite everyone in that particular moment. It sounds so cheesy, but it's quite an honourable aim, isn't it?
04:21 Yeah, it's honourable. And it's cheesy too. I think the great thing is try to do it in the best way. The cheesy things.
04:39 Yeah. And so do you think, I mean, when you're thinking I mean, obviously in your book, as I said, there's a number of songs that you talk about that were first sung at Sanremo. Does any in particular apart from the most famous one, the Domenico Modugno's, that everyone will have heard about? Is there any that kind of springs to mind as a particularly good example or a really memorable one?
04:59 Yes, one it's Un'Avventura. It is a song with... I opened the book. It is a song by Lucio Battisti. It was great because Lucio Battisti was great in the popular opinion, but not in the Sanremo opinion when he went in Sanremo. And so he was in San Remo just one time, because he didn't want to go another time and this is a pretty accurate example of what is Sanremo for many artists in Italy. Also today.
05:44 Do you mean that they'll go one time and then not again?
05:46 Or not go, because it's cheesy. Yeah because it's troubled and chaotic and so someone doesn't want to go there and use his art with all the implications of that place.
06:15 Well I guess it's kind of glitzy and loud and so, you know, showbiz. So for an artist like, and you know, I use the word artist, advisedly for someone like Lucio Battisti, he was serious, he wrote beautiful lyrics, he wrote beautiful songs, so you can understand that maybe, you know, to go on a national song competition with all of these bright lights, and as you say, the word you used the most is cheese...
06:40 Yes, it's a demanding situation. I think it's a demanding situation for the artists. So not everyone has the... not the courage because I think that it's not for everyone, not for every artist. And it's for people more than for artists, I think. And some artists are on the radio many times more if they are going to Sanremo, but Sanremo is more for Italians than for Italian artists.
07:18 Yeah. And I think that you sort of touch on something there. Because that's part of the appeal of Sanremo. It's always been about the people. It's always been very democratic in its spirit, hasn't it? I mean, established singers and newcomers people you've never heard of share the building. They're performing original songs to be judged by the jury made up of experts and journalists, the orchestra and the public at home. And as was the case with the rock group Maneskin in 2021. The winner then has the opportunity to represent Italy at Eurovision so it's all this kind of very cleverly and carefully orchestrated democratic exercise. Yeah. I mean, I think that's quite unique. Really, I can't really I mean, I can't say I know a lot about some contests in other parts of the world, but it seems like something to be proud of.
08:10 Yes, yes, because if I use my memory, I have to say that for a long time, there has been no talk for example of Eurovision here in Italy. But it's something that has returned to be mentioned, and considered interesting for many, since television became a thing to talk about on Twitter. Exactly like Sanremo, in a way. I think in the last few years with for example, with the Amadeus' artistic direction Sanremo is... Amadeus is trying to keep Sanremo that was for years in a kind of bubble, in connection with the reality of things with web, social media, Fantasanremo. And the result is that Sanremo has increasingly returned to being something to watch at all costs. And something that is cool to talk about. A few years ago, if you weren't 60 years old and you said that you stayed at home and watch Sanremo you weren't cool at all. Now you are.
08:42 So this is a really interesting development that kind of how do you modernise this institution? Almost it's very old fashioned institution. It's something I definitely want to talk about more in a moment. But I want to just backtrack a little bit and just see if we can go a little bit deeper into what makes this particularly Italian. So we're talking about love songs and what a kind of a classic Sanremo type song is a typical Sanremo song. And the word that we used again and again was cheesy, it's soft, it's crooning, it's love, all of this sort of stuff. Do you think that all of that says something about Italians, about Italian society more broadly?
10:05 I think that there was this idea and there is also but there was especially this idea of being all connected in a way to speak to each other and to love and to embrace and to be the same things also if you are in different social situations and different classes and different places in Italy, in the South or in the North, and once Dino Buzzati, a great Italian writer, wrote for Corriere della Sera a piece about, a nonfictional piece, about his travel to Sanremo to speak about the festival. And he said that the real festival is on the couch at home, not at Sanremo. Because Sanremo is crazy, is chaotic, but the real meaning of Sanremo is at home watching the television, listening to radio speaking to each other about Sanremo.
11:29 Sitting on the sofa with your family and your friends...
11:32 Yes, yes. Sitting down.
11:33 That's a nice idea. So you've told us about Domenico Modugno and everyone knows that song. So that's obviously I mean, it's basically Italy's alternative national anthem if we're honest, but that's an example of tremendous success from Sanremo. But that's not always or even often the case, is it? It doesn't often translate to success in the charts. Is it? Is this still true or you know, has the festival managed over the years do you think to get closer to being a more direct route into commercial audiences?
12:03 Regarding the success of the songs, the real victory of a Sanremo song still (and I think more than before) does not happen at Sanremo but on the radio, the radio is the place that says you are the winner. Not Sanremo. The Sanremo competition is apart from Sanremo the festival because it's full of examples of songs that won Sanremo and then did not have a great success. But sometimes a song that was last in the chart wins in the real chart of the songs that played, the most played in the radio or most played at home, on everyone's Spotify now everywhere. So it's not connected the success of a song inside the festival and outside the festival.
13:08 Right, it has to happen beyond the festival. This is maybe quite a big question. But do we need to think of the history of Sanremo as in fact, the history of Italian television and its audiences? The festival was kind of created it was radio first. But then it went into kind of primetime television slots around the time that every household was steadily acquiring a television set. So the two things sort of go hand in hand?
13:34 As the years went by, I think Sanremo became more and more a TV show. Not a music show. In this way, there is a connection between Italian television and Sanremo because it's more and more as a television show, a primetime show.
13:52 Yeah. And I suppose in the early days, it would have been, you know, the bar down the road, the cafe had a television, so everyone would go to watch it in the bar if they went to watch it. Whereas now it's something that happens in people's homes because everybody has a television set and an iPhone and... Yes. And yes, it was a great moment for the Italian television. But I think that television now is not so important to Italy, I think in the 90s or in the 80s yes, Sanremo was a great spectacular... today it is the only one, the only great moment of the television shows in the whole year so I think that is the time... Okay, I make an example. I have no television at home. I'm always going to be watching television just for Sanremo and also there is a relation between the fact that Sanremo is a TV show and not so much a music show and it was in relationship with the commercial issues. Television with its commercials and promotional spaces, moves a lot more money than music. So Sanremo is a commercial show about television and about commercials and not so much about music.
15:31 They're mixing up the format a bit and trying to appeal to younger audiences with Twitter and memes and Fantasanremo and all of that sort of stuff it's all part of an appeal to the younger generation. And I suppose that's what they're doing as well with this year, I think the show is going to be cohosted by the influencer and digital entrepreneur, Chiara Ferragni, who in terms of popularity she's almost like an Italian Kim Kardashian. Is that sort of a turning point do you think? Are we seeing a kind of rebirth of Sanremo or is it, as as you seem to be suggesting I think, just it doesn't quite work?
18:54 I don't know. I think that for the show it is a great rebirth. Obviously. Great audience, great numbers, great money, money, money, money. It's a capitalistic way of intending the music show, so Sanremo is not for someone who loves music, I think it's for someone who wants to speak about music for a week and then it's like... imagine that there are on the planet just 28 songs and try to choose the one you prefer but they mostly are terrible. So if you find 1... 2... 3... 4... 5 songs, good, it's Wow. But just just one, just one is a good year.
18:54 I mean, in terms of, you know, people wanting to just speak about music, talk about music for a week and then they'll move on with their lives... a big part of that has always been the international guests. Yes, such a great emphasis on this. So in 1984, it was Queen In 1996 was Bruce Springsteen. We've had David Bowie in '97. And then there was Placebo in 2001. So it's always been a stage that has welcomed and really hyped up these international guests. There have been scandals and all sorts of goings on, but which for you, would you say is the most memorable international appearance?
20:27 I still remember David Bowie, I was 12 years old and the following year my encounter with his music, his figure, his way of approaching art would change my life forever. But that year I saw him quickly on the stage, I didn't realise what a huge thing he was up there, with his little thank you to the end, and Mike Bongiorno greeting him. It was crazy. I remember Placebo live very well...
21:01 That was extremely embarrassing... I found that just so pathetic, because it was completely out of context. And it was as if the audience and the audience at home I hadn't been warmed up enough. Yeah. Okay. So tell us. Tell us what happened, put everyone in the picture. What happened? Yeah, Brian Molko... How to say it? He broke the guitar on stage and it was very.... it was not a strange thing, obviously. It's a great rock and roll tradition but it was not in the right context. It's out of context. And the are old people watching. Yeah, well, I mean, part of the problem was that many people in the audience in the live audience there in the theatre, were booing them. So it was a very angry reaction to being heckled. Yeah, yeah, I think that was not not very... it's a bad show. It was a bad show. It was badly done. I think in the 80s, for example, Carlo Massarini that was here in Italy a great musical mind in the 80s was the cohost of Sanremo Festival in 1987, 1988. And he looked after the performances of these international stars and invited guests to the festival obviously, and I love to see after obviously on YouTube, Depeche Mode in 1986 That sung Stripped if I remember, and the Smiths in 1980s. No way they were in Sanremo. Oh my goodness 1987. And Paul McCartney in 1988. I love him. I mean, that doesn't surprise me Paul McCartney. I can totally imagine. The Smith is just completely mind blowing to me. I'm gonna have to look that up after after this conversation. But I mean, I suppose something I hadn't really appreciated then when I was younger, is how much that performance, the performance of the international guests is a way for older viewers to get to hear what what their grandkids are listening to to hear, you know, what the younger generations are being moved by. And that's quite an important thing, I think to be able to understand a little bit about each other in that way. Yeah, it was a great moment and because several more united family so you see the brother, the older brother, father and his sister and little brother watching the great names of the International hall of fame and it was great now it's not great at all because they invited mostly soccer players or other Italian bigger returning musicians, like Eros Ramazzotti or Laura Pausini... great names but you so many, many times so it's not...you don't like obviously Laura Pausini like you love the Smiths, so poor times. So you think that you think that the the Sanremo invitation to international artists has sort of lost its shine? It's not as intriguing as exciting a proposition anymore? No, no, it's not a proposition anymore. And it's all in Italy. Not so many international artists or international viewers of the show. I think. They prefer to invite the great Italian names or the influencers, the actors, soccer players, or tennis players or swimmers... Lots of beautiful people. Yeah. I don't like sport at Sanremo. Yeah, it doesn't. Again, it doesn't belong. It's just, it's a different game. I am against the sport. This is my... I am against sport in Sanremo. But I think there's something particularly kind of offensive about making people watch while they're sitting on their sofas, eating chocolate making people watch these incredibly beautiful fit people. I think what I've always loved about Sanremo really, is that if you're like me, you dip in and out. I mean, to be honest, I probably haven't watched it for more than 10 years. I can't remember the last time I was home and my parents had it on, but when you do dip in, it's the same act still going, you know, like Paola e Chiara, my dad's favourite Anna Oxa it's still again, it's like dropping back in time and presumably, that's what the organisers are having to bear in mind that they need to satisfy those people who want to see the same old thing again and again, at the same time as trying to modernise and it's such a difficult you know, dance to do. Yeah, so I think that they try to connect these older names with the young names with the things that have resonance on social networks, social media and also all the great names, but Sanremo is also a game of labels. You say that they have announced Paola e Chiara, these great names are also connected with labels. The strange way to make the decision to have someone for the artistic direction I say, it's not a linear way to choose who have to be asked where to be in the festival. The timer the time it's a connection of powers. Right so what you're saying is that basically presumably the the music labels the big labels will sort of almost like buy a certain amount of access, say, and they'll say look, we've got we want these nine artists. And Sanremo will accept that and then they'll have you know, another label saying and I want these and so it's all kind of organised. Yeah, so they are organised and also they put the.... it's a game yes it's a game it's a game of power everything, the television they make so much money... It's all a game and I suppose it's the sadness is that it's perhaps not as fair a game is not as as it might have been at the beginning. And you know, I talked earlier about it being democratic, but actually it turns out it's quite corrupt. That makes me think of there has been plenty of moments astonishing moments in the history of Saturday. Well, some of them have been quite dark and one of the ones that comes to mind now hearing what you say is the year that this guy calling himself Crazy Horse kind of charged up onto stage to declare the whole thing corrupt. And then there was another year I mean, some mad stuff goes on. You never know what's gonna happen. But one year the presenter Pippo Baudo ended up having to talk someone down who was going to throw himself off of the balcony. And you never know what you're gonna get. Do you? It's time in which everyone knows that there are so many, many, many, many people watching. So you create so many crazy effects. All the machine is crazy because people want to watch a night in the Ariston Theatre and they buy tickets for crazy expensive tickets and they are there and they try to have their 15 minutes of celebrity also as audience and that is crazy. That makes people think to be able to have that 15 minutes of fame also being the audience. Also if they are the audience are not the people on the stage. So this is crazy. Yeah, this is the unique intensity that you get from from it being a live broadcast as well. If something happens is that you have to just roll with it. It's really interesting. It's almost like a social experiment... Thinking about the kind of the bigger picture of Sanremo and how it played such a big part in the creation of Eurovision, Italian contestants haven't really had that much success in Eurovision I think we're talking you know three wins out of 48 attempts or something like that it's a pretty bad record the first win just to put everyone in the picture the first winner it was in 1964 with Gigliola Cinquetti's song Non ho l'eta per amarti, which means I'm not old enough to love you, which is a very creepy, very creepy lyric so we'll move on quickly. And then the second time was Toto Cutugno in the 1990 with a song called Insieme 1992, Together 1992, and then finally, year before last it was quite famously now Maneskin's victory with this song called Zitti e Buoni which basically means shut up and be good. You know, what's going on here? Why do you think Italy has such a poor Eurovision record? Winning Eurovision or going to Eurovision? Because I think everything in Eurovision is terrible. I have never perceived Eurovision so important but in last years wow: Eurovision after the Maneskin became a thing to talk about, so I don't know why because... I think Toto Cutugno 1990 made a song about Europe, united Europe so it's kind of a nice sentiment yes it was not a great thing but in the spirit of time but about the other songs I think that Eurovision is a chaos and was boring with bad bad bad songs. It's like Carnival. GIULIA: I don't know why there's all the attention on this competition because it's not cool, it's not interesting, it is not important but also for success for attention international attention it is a great thing obviously for the artist because you see what happened to Maneskin. They've been tremendously successful Yes yes and this is obviously important for artists who win the competition but So if I'm reading between the lines here you won't be watching Eurovision but you will be watching Sanremo yes I prefer Sanremo of course because Eurovision is a chaos with a crazy voting system crazy voting system. I really don't like it. I mean the voting system is mad I mean that needs to change Totally mad. It is like watching in Italy. It's very boring also very bad songs. Plus I have to say that I work a lot the week of Sanremo, many hours, so the last thing I want is to repeat the experience after a while. So it's a really I suppose what we're what we're saying here is you know, if anyone else has Eurovision fatigue and thinks it's all a load of nonsense and the voting system is ridiculous. They should redirect their interests and go right back to the source because without without Sanremo there would be no Eurovision so just get serious and watch Saturday, March 7 for If you want to watch something if you prefer to read a book you have my love As long as it is your book surely. Well on that bombshell telling people not to watch television we've been talking about we really turned the tables there... like an Andy Warhol moment. Exactly, exactly. Well, that's that's what we strive for here. Thank you so much for your time. Giulia Cavaliere there, the author of Romantic Italia with its tantalising subtitle Di cosa parliamo quando cantiamo d'amore: what we talk about when we sing about love, do track down a copy. That's it for today. You have been listening to the Italian files created by Fill the festival of Italian literature in London and supported by the Italian Cultural Institute in London. It was produced by Emily Naylor, more from us in two weeks time.