Eurovision: Camping it up behind the Iron Curtain

Yes, host nation Azerbaijan is authoritarian, but boycotting the Eurovision won't fix that. So go crazy and sing along.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

‘GUD EEFENING, YOOROPP! WELCOME TO DA YOOROVISHION SONG CONTEST 2012 – LIVE FROM BAKU, AZERBAIJAN!’ So declared the male half of last year’s winning duo, Eldar from Ell/Nikki, to greet us at the start of this year’s three-part festival of kitsch, camp and three-minute slices of pop fun that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

It’s now traditional to start the show with an overexcited introduction from a slightly amateurish presenter who speaks in weird, strangulated vowels – and with Sara Cox doing the BBC intro to Tuesday’s first live show, this year was no different. It all started as a humble little song contest back in 1956 – featuring just seven countries – as a way of testing live TV links between a few near neighbours in Western Europe. Oh yeah, and there was probably some stuff about uniting a continent divided by war through the power of music and all that. Now, however, Eurovision is a poptastic behemoth, featuring 42 countries this year. It’s been so big in recent years that there are now two semi-finals feeding into the final, which will be watched by something in the order of 100million people worldwide.

The host nation this year – thanks to Ell/Nikki’s victory in Dusseldorf, Germany – is Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic just north of Iran. Home to just under 10million people, about 98 per cent of its surface area is actually in Asia – but it’s got one tiny little pinkie in Europe and that’s good enough for us. (Heck, Israel competes in Eurovision and it’s not in Europe at all.) As hosts, the Azeris will be kissing goodbye to a substantial chunk of the nation’s GDP in order to put on an extravaganza in the purpose-built Crystal Hall.

Other Azerbaijan factoids: the country has got quite a lot of oil and gas, but it isn’t big on democratic rights, it seems. The current president is Ilham Aliev, who was elected with 76 per cent of the vote in 2003 (to many cries of ‘foul’ from locals and outside observers). He took over from Heydar Aliev. Are you detecting a theme? Yes, it was son taking over from dad. Heydar was the Soviet boss of Azerbaijan from the early Sixties to the mid-Eighties and ruled independent Azerbaijan from 1993 until his son got the job. (Old Pa Aliev died a couple of months after his son was ‘elected’.)

Gay rights have been another issue in relation to Azerbaijan’s hosting of the contest. The fact that the biggest public event in the country’s history is also the world’s biggest, gayest TV party of the year is rather ironic. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 2000, but it seems that being ‘out’ and gay is still very far from easy in Azerbaijan.

As a result, there have been calls for a boycott of the contest. But the fact that there has been a deluge of press coverage about Azerbaijan is both an advert for the country’s existence and awkward for the authorities, who now face a week in the world media’s spotlight. The government has even promised not to censor the foreign press. I guess that’s progress, even if Azeri protesters are being swept off the streets as soon as they pop up, lest the world think that all is less than harmonious in the country. A boycott would have done little to improve civil rights in Azerbaijan – liberty is something the people of Azerbaijan themselves have to win – and it would have ruined Eurovision.

But back to the show, where the three presenters – Eldar, Leila and Nargiz – are still engaged in clumsy, awkward we-don’t-normally-present-live-TV banter. A little understanding is required, though. It can’t be easy doing a one-off live TV music show in front of an enormous arena full of people. That’s especially true given that they are doing it in English – at best their second language – to an audience of millions of people, the vast majority of whom will also speak English as a second language, if at all. The result is pretty painful. But then again, so is much of the music that follows.

That said, Eurovision has come a long way from the ding-bang-bong-a-long tunes of the past, where singers delivered nonsense lyrics that meant the same (ie, nothing) to everyone. There are no more Finnish elk herders singing folk songs and barely a traditional national costume in sight. After a few years of trying to make everyone sing in their native language – which was a bit unfair on those whose native language was spoken by 0.01 per cent of the voting Eurovision audience – contestants are free to sing in whichever language they choose. Which is almost invariably English. Even the culturally defensive French have entered a song in English (and bloody good it was, too).

Countries that want to make an impact on the world stage now devote considerable resources to the business of winning Eurovision, bringing in outside songwriting talent and performers. The result is a final show featuring 25 new songs, each one well-staged and choreographed, with a big prize at stake at the end. Why would you put yourself through the months of karaoke torture of The X Factor, The Voice or American Idol when you can have it all this in one show? At least a handful of the songs each year are now pretty good. And if they’re not good, they are often staged in such a loop-da-loop bonkers fashion, they’re at least entertaining (like Tuesday’s opening number from Montenegro). And if they’re not entertaining… well, they are only three minutes long. There’ll be another one along very shortly.

In Eurovision, even the voting is fun. Okay, it does get a bit wearing after an hour of presenters from 42 different countries (everyone gets to vote, even if they don’t qualify for the final) all preceding the announcement of their scores with ‘GREAT SHOW, BAKU! WE LOVE YOU HERE IN NICOSIA/LISBON/OSLO/REYKJAVIK!!! WE HAVE NO OTHER WAY OF EXPRESSING EXCITEMENT THAN THROUGH EVER-MORE HYSTERICAL SHOUTING COS WE’RE SO CRAZY!!!’ But there’s still excitement to be had as the results unfold. And thanks to the introduction of a split vote – instead of all of a country’s votes being awarded by a televote, it’s now 50-50 with a national jury of music experts – the usual bloc voting isn’t quite as predictable as before.

In short, Eurovision rocks. And it only rocks the more because this year’s UK entry is being sung by Engelbert Humperdinck. The 76-year-old legend – The Hump to his friends – is singing ‘Only Love Will Set You Free’, co-written by the guy who co-wrote ‘You’re Beautiful’ for James Blunt. After Andrew Lloyd Webber’s effort in 2009, this is as near as we’re ever likely to get to Britain Taking Eurovision Seriously. The song has got all the subtlety of a Hallmark greetings card and should play well with your granny. That said, Sweden’s entry is the warm favourite with the bookies.

For once, I won’t be at home to watch the final. Instead of irritating my other half by hogging the TV for three hours, I’m off to watch it all at a proper Eurovision party. So, if you see a drunk and beardy man staggering around Great Portland Street in London on Saturday night around midnight, shouting ‘GREAT SHOW, BAKU!!!!’, please ignore me. Thank you.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

David Bowden is away.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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