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Sanremo è Sanremo: The Story of THE Italian Music Festival

“[…] Italians fall into two categories: those who watch Sanremo, and those who lie.”

It’s one of the most important and oldest musical festivals in the world. Followed by millions of people in Italy and abroad every year, criticised by many, seriously despised by just a few. 

Over the past 70 years, for a week every year, the Italian song festival of Sanremo has been catalysing attention on the otherwise quiet Ligurian town, attracting the best Italian pop singers

Continuous criticism, the advent of talent shows, and a global pandemic haven’t been able to arrest it. Sanremo is unquestionably THE event in Italian pop culture. 

Watching the countless videos from previous editions on Youtube is like opening up a time-capsule, digging into the culture of that particular decade: the sound, the hairstyles, the dresses… 

Like many other similar manifestations, Sanremo Music Festival was born under the not-so-artistically-inclined-inclined premise of capitalism.

In January 1951, the PR agency of Sanremo’s Casino organises a song contest to liven up the Ligurian Riviera’s off-season. The event is broadcast by the Italian national radio, and sees only three contestants performing twenty songs. The winner of that year is Nilla Pizzi with Grazie dei Fior, a melancholic rumba that proclaims the singer’s future success. So much so that the following year Pizzi goes back to win first, second and third place, marking an unbeatable record.  

From 1955, every edition of the contest has been broadcast live on the national TV channel, creating much anticipation every time. “Sanremo”, as the festival is often affectionately called, also formed the basis for the Eurovision Song Contest started in 1956. The music festival has been used as the Italian way to choose the country’s contestants in its European counterpart. (Italy has won Eurovision on three occasions. The most recent being last year, when the rock band Måneskin galvanized the public by winning both competitions one after the other).  

Back to its first years, Sanremo’s most remarkable achievement was the introduction of a new style which developed in contrast to the excessive sentimentalism and insularity typical of Italian music from previous decades. It was time for a happier genre, a musica leggera (light music), made of everyday language and catchy tunes. Winner of the 1958 edition of Sanremo, Domenico Modugno’s Nel blu dipinto di blu, aka Volare, became the perfect embodiment of the new style, and a symbol of Italianess tout court.  

Today, at least three generations of Italians have memories about Sanremo.

Mine are related to the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, the “Golden Age” of the Festival. By then the manifestation had come out of an identity crisis that had lasted throughout the 1970s, and was reaffirming itself as an unmissable event.

Those were Sanremo’s glory years. When nobody wasn’t even thinking about spending-reviews, the Festival had the means to invite on its stage international stars like Peter Gabriel (jumping on the audience in the stalls holding on a rope in his 1983 performance), Queen, Duran Duran, Whitney Houston (who famously gave an encore of All at Once in 1987), Elton John and RuPaul, David Bowie, Madonna. 

The keystone of this renaissance was the Über TV presenter Pippo Baudo. 

An experienced TV host, Baudo holds the record of festivals presented: 13 editions between 1968 and 2008; and the record for conducting the most-followed Sanremo ever. The 1987 finale was watched by 18.300.000 people.

In 1984 Baudo wrote a page of the history of Italian TV by giving visibility to a group of steelworkers protesting against job cuts, inviting them on Sanremo’s stage – an unprecedented move. Yet the moment in which he revealed his super powers had yet to come. 

On the evening of 22nd February 1995 a protester looking for media attention climbed over the gallery’s balustrade of the theatre hosting the festival, interrupting the show – and wearing a sweater of questionable taste. In front of 17 million Italians watching it live on TV, a stoic Baudo leaves the stage, passes over police and carabinieri gathered there, and reaches the man whose alleged intention is to throw himself down. 

“I’ll help you!” you can hear Baudo promising to the heckler. “I give you my word of honour”. Baudo’s microphone is conveniently switched-on. 

The man is eventually convinced, and the two climb back to safety. 

Big round of applause. The crowd claims their hero, singing his name in stadium-chant fashion: “Pippo!” “Pippo!” “Pippo!”. 

It’s the salvific power of TV, which succeeds even when the police are powerless.

I vividly remember the episode. 

As a kid, Sanremo meant I was allowed to stay up late – that time of the year only – to watch it with my parents. A proper rite of passage into the world of adults. 

Those eternal nights in front of the TV; the solemn moment in which each song is announced in that particular old-fashioned way; the thrill of being surprised by the looks of the singers… 

My real memories get mixed-up with the countless videos from past editions that I was able to find online, years later. I built my personal Sanremo Story that way.

It’s a Festival made by Anna Oxa performing È tutto un attimo (1986) in a black sheath dress, hooded, navel out. By Patty Pravo going down the stage’s steps in a Versace lamé dress, with a futuristic-Japanese hairstyle and an oversize fan, while her song Per una Bambola (1987) plays in the background, the days in which singers would lip-sync their own songs! 

By Mia Martini singing Almeno Tu nell’Universo in 1989, a few years before prematurely passing away. And then again, 19-year-old Laura Pausini competing in 1993 with La Solitudine, and Giorgia winning the Festival with Come Saprei in 1995.

As a teenager, Sanremo ended up with all the other expressions of popular culture I generally rejected, until it started to interest me again more recently, mainly after talented singers like Mahmood took part in it.  

Because, as the famous slogan goes: “Sanremo è Sanremo” (“Sanremo is Sanremo”), and, in the end, it’s impossible to overlook.  

So while we’re waiting to be entertained by this year’s edition, remember that Italians fall into two categories: those who watch Sanremo, and those who lie.