Eurovision loses its focus

The Song Contest has been spoiled by acts that actually want to have a proper music career.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

Two hours of watching badly dressed people from other countries, singing songs with clichéd tunes and incomprehensible words.

Another hour of voting on the songs, informed by petty regional politics and warped taste. Incredibly, this is watched by hundreds of millions of people in Europe and around the world.

Hey, hey! It’s Eurovision time!

For our non-European readers, a quick synopsis. The first Eurovision Song Contest was broadcast in 1956. It grew out of an Italian event, the San Remo Song Festival, whose aim was to bring countries together in post-war Europe and aid reconciliation. But it was also an excuse for the major European state broadcasters to test simultaneous broadcasts across the continent long before satellites became widely available.

Over the years, the contest has grown to the point where countries now have to qualify (apart from the UK, Germany, France and Spain). It has been the launchpad for two globally successful acts: Abba, from Sweden, and Celine Dion, from Canada (a country not often regarded as part of Europe). For long-suffering British viewers, it gave us Brotherhood of Man and Bucks Fizz. More often, however, it has been a case of performers surviving in spite of a Eurovision appearance rather than because of it.

Not many Eurovision songs live on in the memory. The major problem is that words are a central component of enjoying pop songs, so songs in another language face a technical barrier. One way around this is to sing in another language, especially if your language isn’t widely understood. It is no accident that Abba won singing in English. As a reaction to this, in a fit of cultural pique, Eurovision insisted on acts singing in their native language – which may explain why plucky little Ireland has won a record seven times and Finland has never come higher than sixth.

Another approach is to sing words that mean pretty much the same everywhere, which means that Eurovision gives us songs that could not have been written for any other reason – like Lulu’s ‘Boom-Bang-a-Bang’ and the Netherlands’ 1975 classic ‘Ding, Dinge, Dong’. ‘Rock and roll’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Diva’ have all featured in winning choruses, two of these songs being victorious for Israel, another country not commonly thought to be part of Europe.

One of the pleasures of Eurovision in the past was listening to the utterly cynical attempts by songwriters to include such words. One Scandinavian entry, sung by a group of middle-aged pub performers in bad sweaters as I recall, seemed to be a roll-call of American singers on the dubious basis of being a tribute song. It bombed.

Even more cynical were the attempts to have as few words as possible, as epitomised by Norway’s 1995 winner Nocturne, which had all of 24 words.

For better or worse, the native language rule has recently been scrapped, leading to victories for songs in near-English like Sweden’s Take Me to Your Heaven. Perhaps this is a popular chat-up line in Stockholm’s singles bars, but I doubt it.

In fact, most entries for Eurovision, especially in the less-photogenic past, seem to have been sung by failed cabaret acts, wearing costumes made by the bass player’s granny and doing dance routines that might serve as exercise programs for the over-80s. As such, it didn’t matter that Britain was represented by Cliff Richard because we only had to take one look at the kebab shop staff representing Greece or Turkey to know that we were culturally superior.

And then there was the best part of the whole show: the voting. In general, Cyprus gives Greece 12 points. Greece gives Cyprus 12 points, and it always will until Turkey gets out of northern Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Turks give Germany 12 points. Germany usually reciprocates. Must be all the gastarbeiter. The Baltic states usually vote for each other. Nobody can be relied on to vote for Britain. Clearly, we need to get Gibraltar into the contest somehow.

But times have changed. Suddenly, Eurovision has gone all professional. You can always rely on the odd mad entry from a nation of Eurovision also-rans (for example, Germany), but too often these days countries are represented by acts that actually want to have a popular music career. The contest has been spoiled by catchy, inoffensive songs performed by acts that have managers, stylists and choreographers, usually from countries that don’t have much else going for them. Last year’s winner was Latvia, and the year before was Estonia.

The other big shift is that Eurovision seems to be competing with Gay Pride as a focus for the celebration of all things camp. Perhaps the best entertainment last year was provided by Slovenia’s cross-dressing air hostesses. They’ve even got Lorraine Kelly doing the warm-up shows on BBC3. How gay can you get?

It’s easy to poke fun at Eurovision. It’s practically a national sport. But there’s a little bit of me that wishes that those hundreds of millions of people could be watching the best music that Europe had to offer, not the losers that couldn’t get a look-in otherwise. After all, we’ve got Pop Idol for that kind of thing.

This year’s favourites are tATu, a pair of Russian women who pretend to be lesbian schoolgirls. At least there will be something for the straight, male audience to watch, then.

Rob Lyons is a loyal Eurovision watcher and failed contestant. You can download Rob’s failed 2002 Eurovision entry by clicking here.

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Topics Culture


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