Elena is in love with a wide boy and just needs her mama to tell her what to do
By Alper Ali Riza
‘El Diablo’ is a pop song by Elena Tsagkrinou with allegedly satanic lyrics. The Church of Cyprus says it should be withdrawn as Cyprus’ entry in the Eurovision Song Contest on the grounds that it is blasphemous and does not represent the pious in Cyprus.
The lyrics of Elena’s song are banal but to be fair not many pop songs sound good in cold print. Like many Eurovision entries these days, they are in English.
I fell in love, l gave my heart to el diablo
I gave it up because he tells me I am his angel
Tonight we’re gonna burn in a party
We’re wild as fire that’s on the loose
Hotter than sriracha on our bodies
Ta-Taco tamale that’s my mood
All this spicy melts my icy edges.
It’s heaven in hell with you
Mama-mamacita tell me what to do
Lo-la-lo-la-Ioca I’m breaking the rules.
I am not sure why non-English speaking countries render their songs in English but that’s a story for another day. The issue at the moment is whether the lyrics of El Diablo constitute blasphemous libel. Blasphemy at common law involves insulting religion in a way that tends to shock and outrage the feelings of believers. Blasphemy was given statutory force in Cyprus after independence in 1960 and basically protects religion from sacrilege. And, no, the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Cyprus’ constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights does not give any one the right to insult the religious sensibilities of others; it is a qualified freedom to express oneself within the constraints of decorum backed by law.
The so-called sting of the libel in the lyrics of ‘El Diablo’ is in the passages about falling in love and giving her heart to the devil, being his angel and the state of being heaven in hell.
The way I read the references to the devil and to hell in the lyrics is that they are obviously metaphorical – the devil is just an analogue. Yet they shocked and caused outrage in some quarters, so can the lyrics be blasphemous even if they are used metaphorically? To which the answer is of course not, provided the song does not exploit the ambiguities of metaphor.
Not every song with devil and hell in it is blasphemous, let alone satanic. Elvis Presley’s 1960 hit ‘You’re the Devil in Disguise’ refers to the devil but has not caused offence to anyone’s religious sensibilities.
You look like an angel
Talk like an angel
Walk like an angel
But I got wise
You’re the devil in disguise.
The difference between ‘Devil in Disguise’ and ‘El Diablo’ is that Elvis gets wise whereas Elena needs her mama to tell her what to do; she knows her lover is a bit of a wide boy but she is head over heels and is asking mama what to do.
The use of the word devil in everyday speech is not blasphemous. When Jesus was in the desert he was tempted by Satan and said famously “get thee behind me Satan.” The expression is used in modern parlance to shoo away temptation, which is exactly what the singer in ‘El Diablo’ is trying to do by asking mama for help to withstand the sweet temptation engulfing her with this devil of a lover.
Sometimes people fall madly in love with the wrong kind of person. I remember the case of a British journalist who fell in love with an Iranian politician and member of the revolutionary guards who was not a nice guy and who was executed by the regime in the end. She wrote about her affair after he was killed and said that what attracted her to him most was the ‘gangster in him.’
It happens the other way when men fall for femmes fatales. An example from French literature is the story of Manon Lescaut, which is also an opera by Giacomo Puccini. The rich aristocratic Chevalier des Grieux falls passionately in love with Manon and they elope to Paris where she betrays him shamelessly with rich Parisians and becomes a prostitute and he is complaisant and even lives off her immoral earnings. She is deported to America, where he follows her to New Orleans in Louisiana and stays with her through thick and thin to the bitter end when she dies, and he returns to France a broken man, penniless and destitute.
Sometimes affairs are doomed because both parties share a demonic streak. This psychological phenomenon is known folie a deux and is best exemplified in the story of Bonnie and Clyde who shared a murderous psychopathy during the Great Depression in America.
The theme of shared psychopathology is also the subject of the Netflix TV show House of Cards. The ruthless ambition of President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the ultimate power couple, is classic folie a deux. Underwood is the devil personified who explains his evil deeds to the viewer as the series unfolds.
His wife is devil woman personified too and together they scheme to tyrannise America as President and First Lady, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who have not seen it yet, except to say that I am watching it a second time during lockdown and it is even more compelling this time.
The president and his wife pretend they have an equal relationship, most relationships, however, are unequal, and ‘El Diablo’’ is nothing more than a metaphorical song and dance about an unequal relationship.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a retired part-time judge