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Why is the Sanremo music festival so important to Italians?

The Sanremo Music Festival has returned to unite Italy in song, comedy and sometimes, mockery. As the competition kicks off on Tuesday, it will likely be the topic of conversation all week - here's why it remains significant to Italy 72 years after it began.

Italian singer and showman Rosario Tindaro Fiorello, aka Fiorello, Bologna's Serbian coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and AC Milan's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic perform during the San Remo 2021 music festival.
Italian singer and showman Rosario Tindaro Fiorello, aka Fiorello, Bologna's Serbian coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and AC Milan's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic perform during the San Remo 2021 music festival. (Photo by Marco RAVAGLI / AFP)

Italy’s most famous song competition is back for another year at Theatre Ariston, which has been the venue for the festival since 1977.

The official title, Festival della canzone italiana di Sanremo, is held in the Ligurian seaside town of the same name and, this year 25 artists will compete for the winning spot over five nights from February 1st – 5th.

As it’s been held continuously since 1951, Sanremo takes the title of the longest-running national televised singing competition.

That makes Sanremo even older than the Eurovision song contest – and it was in fact the inspiration for the famously cheesy European music competition.

READ ALSO: Sanremo: Ten things to know about Italy’s answer to Eurovision

Within Italy, the history, and therefore nostalgia, is just one reason why most of the country will be glued to their television screens all week.

The cultural event seems to whip up excitement among broadcasters, journalists and viewers alike, as social media channels are awash with promotions and jokes about the participants ahead of the contest.

At first glance however, the appeal of the show is not always that obvious to outsiders.

So just what is it about the festival that pulls together an entire nation, regardless of whether they fall into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camp?

Here’s a deeper look into this curious Italian tradition.

It creates icons

This is where the Sanremo Music Festival differs from Eurovision: it is often a springboard to real fame and launches songs that stand the test of time.

It has led to the success of epochal songs such as the 1958 winning track ‘Volare‘ (the real title is actually ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu‘) by Domenico Modugno, ‘Quando, quando, quando‘ by Tony Renis, ‘Che sarà‘ by Ricchi e Poveri andFelicità‘ by Al Bano e Romina.

US singer Christina Aguilera duets with Italian singer Andrea Bocelli on the stage of the Ariston Theatre in San Remo, during the 56th Italian music festival in 2006. AFP PHOTO/Tiziana Fabi

Singers such as Andrea Bocelli and Laura Pausini can thank this music competition for their careers too. Last year’s winners Mäneskin, who went on to take the Eurovision trophy with the same song Zitti e Buoni, were also launched into the spotlight by Sanremo and will return as guests in 2022.

READ ALSO: ‘Zitti e buoni’: The Italian vocab you need to understand Italy’s Eurovision winner

If you’re new to Italy’s most famous music festival and slightly non-plussed by it, rest assured that it is in fact globally renowned and pulls in the already rich and famous. Previous big-name international acts include Stevie Wonder, Cher, Shirley Bassey, Robbie Williams and Queen.

The audience is involved

Some Italians will tell you they watch the event for the whole five days straight, others will profess they’re not (but they really are).

This is one Italian tradition that gets everyone involved, which is now much more interactive thanks to the public online voting element.

Each act will perform their original song with the winner eventually selected by both a jury and the online vote.

After each of the 25 artists has performed their song twice, Friday is something of a break as international and Italian cover songs are performed.

READ ALSO: Sanremo: Andrea Bocelli’s duet with son brings down the house

Then, all the original songs are performed once more on Saturday, before the winner is announced.

It is almost laughably long-winded

How many times each act performs their song gives you a clue to how long each day drags on.

This aspect of the festival is light-heartedly mocked each year on social media, as posts and memes describe how dogs will need to take themselves on walks or how, thanks to the competition running until the small hours of the morning, you’ll struggle to simply keep awake throughout.

The social media participation

In fact, the memes and social media gags are now just as anticipated as the event itself. Some viewers joke about the pain of watching the songs, but how it’s all worth it for the jokes online.

As some point out, this could be more of an attraction for younger members of the audience. Any slip-up, such as that of the Italian singers Bugo and Morgan, who were supposed to perform the song ‘Sincero’ together in 2020, are ripe for getting ripped.

When it was almost two o’clock in the morning and it was their turn at last, Morgan went on stage alone and started to sing, changing the lyrics in an apparent attack on Bugo, who then left the stage even before he had the chance to sing a note. They were then disqualified from the competition.

To join in with the song and slating, broadcaster RAI1 will be screening the competition every evening from 20.35, and in streaming on Rai Play throughout.

The event is back to 100 percent capacity with the Covid ‘super green pass‘ after it being held behind closed doors to an empty theatre last year.

Member comments

  1. You forgot to include Eros Ramazzotti in your list of those who became famous being part of Sanremo. Eros competed in Sanremo 1984 through 1986 (three times). He came in first place in 1986 with his hit “Adesso tu”. But his international recognition and fame grew over the three years he was part of the competition.

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”