RIGA - Eurovision is a good target for the armchair comedian in all of us. Every song seems to have one of three set beats, presumably so that the people at home don't get too confused. And then there are the lyrics, half of which seem to have been pulled straight from a kindergarten-level English book.
Here is Marija Naumova's hit "I Wanna," which won Eurovision 2002 for Latvia: "I wanna you to hold me in your arms / I wanna you to show me shooting stars / I wanna you to tell me sweet l'il' lies."
"I've heard it all," says Naumova, also known as Marie N, a gorgeous angel-faced brunette of 32.
I met Naumova on Feb. 8 at Marie N Studio, her non-profit enterprise which teaches dancing and singing to children and adults. It's one of her many post-Eurovision projects, along with her charity concerts and odd performances in musicals. She's also thinking of putting together a travel agency.
We sat on short wooden kid-sized stools. The background noise was made up entirely of the stop-start sound of a piano lesson in the next room. We spoke in English, though at times she found herself falling into French 's she's been spending a lot of time in Paris lately, where her world music bent has earned her a near Jerry Lewis-level following - in search of the odd word.
"Yes, you can hear good music," she says. "But good music is not for the masses."
So what is good about Eurovision?
"People of all nationalities are at home, watching TV, drinking beer togetherâ€¦People can forget about war. There are no politics in the show. There's a lot of betting, kind of a [friendly] casino feeling."
Unlike "American Idol" or the United Kingdom's "Pop Idol," which manufactures semi-permanent icons, Eurovision winners tend to disappear pretty quickly. After Europe decides which country has given the world its best bad song for the year, it tends to move on to important matters.
Naumova is an exception. An ethnic Russian who was born and raised in Latvia, she has become a symbol for her small country as it reorients itself away from its Soviet past and toward EU integration. Last November, she became a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Latvia and has found herself in the middle of countless one-time projects, like a concert for the victims of Beslan, that are inspiring and heartbreaking.
Naumova studies yoga and dislikes organized religion. Think of her as a more intelligent version of Britney Spears, who because of her position, tends to be asked more loaded questions by the odd American reporter.
She's quick to say that Latvia was not occupied by Russians, but by communists, though she well understands the complicated nature of making such a claim. Of the current tensions between those who speak native Russian and those who speak native Latvian, "Politicians know how to separate and rule."
One of her great grandfathers and a few great granduncles were generals in the White Army, but whatever stigma that might have carried for her family, no one seems to have noticed. "My grandfather was a smart man and he knew how to keep that stuff away from his family."
Her mother was an actress and her father was a criminal psychologist from a town outside of Vladivostok. They were a "clever family" and made sure the young Maria learned Latvian. Today she sings in Russian, Latvian, French, English (languages she has mastered), Portuguese (which she is learning) and once in Japanese (she read a transcription). "Music is the only thing that matters, not language."
She remembers growing up with children's songs from Soviet cinema, which she misses. Russian pop folk, she says, can't reach outside the country. Something just gets lost in translation. Jazz was famously banned in the Soviet Union, but she remembered hearing it played pretty openly. One of her father's friends sent them jazz records from America. Ella Fitzgerald. Lena Horne. Billie Holiday. Like most people, she loves the black voice, which she hears most often now in the Afro-French sounds that surround her in Paris.
For better or worse, these seem to have been her two great influences.
Two weeks after I interviewed Naumova, the American embassy sponsored a special concert at the Small Guild in Riga's Old Town featuring Odetta, the 76-year-old gospel singer who famously performed at the March on Washington following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. It was a posh affair, with the embassy crowd well-represented. After an hour of singing in that black voice Naumova loves, a Latvian teenage choir took the stage to sing a few old time spirituals. Finally, there came Marie N. "I believe God is love and love is all around us," she told the audience, introducing her rendition of "Amazing Grace."
After an hour of hearing Odetta's deep cracked voice lead the audience in old-time renditions of "Rock Island Line" and "This Little Light of Mine," there was something Baltically white and practiced about Marie N's performance. It was cheesy but heartfelt. "Amazing Grace" is one of the rare songs that you can't ruin no matter how hard you try, and in her interpretation, the song felt Latvian and American, new-age spiritual as well as traditional, old south and Christian.
Every country needs icons. Latvia could do worse than Marie N.