Some belated comments on Eurovision

A Eurovision post, a whole week late? That’s s-l-o-w blogging, even for you, Aethel.

I know, I know. It’s a function of the way I like to experience the contest – which is to watch the grand final first, then the semis (because I find the main event less fun if I know the songs in advance, but I also like to know the songs that didn’t make it through), and to do it all in a slow, gentle way. So I didn’t actually watch the second semi until Thursday just gone. Add a day or so for me to channel my thought drizzle into a small, muddy puddle and – hey, presto! – out comes this post.

(Oh, and for the record, I use the terms ‘we’ and ‘us’ liberally throughout this post to refer to those of us who live in what’s currently the United Kingdom.  I do appreciate that ‘we’ is pretty strained in this year of the Independence referendum.  Personally, as someone who supports YES, I’m looking forward to the day when the independent countries of Scotland and (what remains of) the UK can combine with Ireland to form our very own bloc in Eurovision voting.  Hopefully that day will come in 2016 and then, think about it, between us we’ll be able to ensure our respective countries get at least 22 votes every year…)

I can’t claim to be a Eurovision superfan, unfortunately. I wish that I was. The guiding principle of the contest – in place of war, nation shall make (perhaps just ever so slightly naff) music unto nation – seems thoroughly lovely to me.* And almost all the Eurovision people I have met have been very much my kind of people: open-hearted and determined to celebrate the thing they love, utterly unconcerned with the comings and goings of fashion (but with, in most cases, a delightful tendency not to take the whole thing too seriously). Sadly, there is some deficiency in me that means I just don’t quite get it, whatever it is, and I can only watch Eurovision as a sympathetic, well-disposed outsider. I like it, I pay attention to it, I enjoy it – but I don’t love it, in the way real aficionados do.

It follows that you shouldn’t, when you’re reading this, expect anything of genuine value or insight. I don’t really know what I’m talking about (no change there, then…), and these are just my personal opinions. I certainly intend no insult or disrespect to proper Eurovision fans, or to any of the acts who have represented us down the years, who have all, I’m sure, done their level best. That said, one of the things that I see and hear written and said most often about Eurovision, usually as part of an inquest into a(nother) lacklustre position on the leader board, seems utterly wrong-headed to me: the oft-repeated question “What do ‘we’ have to do to have some success at Eurovision?”

This isn’t, it seems to me, a remotely difficult question to answer. It is, surely, clear what is required for us to do well at Eurovision: we need to play our ‘A’ game. If we had sent Susan Boyle in the Year of Susan (by which I mean the year when she was at the forefront of the international music scene), Adele in the Year of Adele, or One Direction in the year of 1D we would have strolled it. I’m not saying we would have necessarily won – that would have depended on how good the other entries were and, of course, some of the points theoretically available will never be awarded to a Western European nation, come what may. But sending those artists in those years we would at least have been certain to amble into the top half of the left-hand side of the leader board.

We didn’t send those artists. In the Year of One Direction (2012 saw their biggest global sales to date) we sent Englebert Humperdinck, who had his Year in 1967. In the Year of Adele (2011) we sent Blue, who had their Year in 2001. And in the year of Susan (call it 2010, since she emerged too late for entry in 2009’s contest) we sent Josh Dubovie who, without wishing to be mean, has yet to have a Year – he’s still only 23, so it may well be ahead of him. Previously, we have sent such acts as Scooch (2007), Daz Sampson (2006) and Jemini (2003). Again I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t think many people would describe any of those as the defining, internationally acclaimed artists of their respective years.

The reason this is a particular problem for us is that – in contrast to some other countries – competing in Eurovision has little to offer successful UK artists at the peak of their career. The UK music market is a large and mature one (being the biggest-selling artist in the UK is a lot more lucrative than being the biggest-selling one in, say, Belgium), and it’s also one with a strong international reputation. Successful UK acts are already well-placed to pick up radio play and promotional TV appearances across Europe, without needing the boost of Eurovision. All of this explains why there’s little incentive for major British artists to enter Eurovision.

But it’s worse than that, because there’s actually a significant disincentive. For a UK act, doing well at Eurovision would see them marked out as naff – and so harm their long-term domestic career prospects – but finishing anything other than first is seen as a failure, and also harms their long-term domestic prospects. Participating in the contest would open bands and artists up to a whole world of potential downsides, with almost no potential upside to balance against it, so it’s no wonder those who are currently doing well run a mile from Eurovision.

This is why I’m not especially critical of the fact that the BBC people responsible for putting together the UK’s entries haven’t managed to do what we need to in order to succeed. It’s a complex problem with something of a Catch 22 at its heart – artists are damned if they do well, and damned if they don’t. It’s not that it hasn’t occurred to the BBC that Susan Boyle, Adele and One Direction might have done well, it’s that those artists would never in a million years agree to take part. It may be perfectly clear why we can’t do what we need to do to succeed at Eurovision – but that’s not the same thing as saying that the question of what we need to do is hard to answer.

So let’s move on, then, to a different question: given all the circumstances that apply, what can we do to maximise our chances of Eurovision success? Well we could just mark time, and wait for a successful artist to emerge who likes Eurovision for its own sake, and is prepared to do it for that reason. The problem with this approach is that it could be a long wait – and with every year that passes in which the UK entry fails to do well, the stigma of taking part will only intensify.

The other solution that’s open to us is to send better songs, irrespective of who’s singing them. (When I say ‘better songs’, by the way, I mean precisely that. This year’s ‘Children of the Universe’ was in no way a bad song, but it wasn’t outstanding and – especially given that we sent in Molly a performer who is still improving – it needed to be.) In theory, this ought to be all that matters, since Eurovision is ostensibly a song competition. In actual fact, of course, it’s a singing competition, with the majority of the public, at any rate, voting for their favourite performance rather than their favourite song. (The jury deliberations are secret, so it’s not possible to know why they voted as they did, only how they voted.) It follows that just sending better songs won’t be enough to make a night-and-day difference in the UK’s placing. But it might be enough to see us waft gently up the leader board – and that might in turn be enough to persuade a bigger name artist to enter, and so propel us even further up.

Of course, writing the words “send better songs” is easy. Actually identifying what would constitute, in the context of Eurovision, a good song is the hard part. It’s also something that I’m not well-placed to comment on. Obviously there’s the small matter of me not being a professional songwriter, but it’s also abundantly clear that my musical antennae (even when I recalibrate them to their Maximum Pop setting) are incapable of detecting what is good and bad at Eurovision.

For example, I thought the strongest song this year was Belgium’s entry, ‘Mother’ (it sounds like one of Queen’s sentimental ballads, I think, and not just because it’s sung by a counter tenor), and that didn’t even get through the semi-finals. And of the songs that did make it to the grand final, I thought Finland’s was the best, and that came 11th. (I was very happy to see Conchita Wurst win, by the way, but for the quality of her performance – and who she is – rather than the song she sang, which on its own merits I would rank somewhere in the middle of the pack.) At the other end of the scale, I was at a loss to understand why Denmark’s entry, ‘Cliché Love Song’, seemed to be universally regarded as so terrible. There were frequent suggestions that it could only have been a ploy to make sure they couldn’t win, and so wouldn’t have to host again next year. Personally, I thought it was a catchy, disposable pop song, sung by a man who – although he was faintly irritating – gave by no means the most annoying performance of the evening.

So, yes, I’m not the person to turn to when it comes to working out what precisely we should send to Eurovision to give ourselves the best shot of doing well. But I do think this is the approach to which wiser Eurovision heads than me should apply themselves for next year – to think not about who we should send, but about what song we should send. Songwriters have much less at stake than performers at Eurovision because, for all that they’re named in on-screen captions, only a handful of people pay enough attention to notice who they are,** which should mean that bigger names could be persuaded to take part.

I know the UK team did try this approach a couple of times – inviting Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren to write the 2009 entry, and Stock Aitken & Waterman the 2010 one – but their mistake then was to approach songwriters who were, without wishing to be mean, not entirely likely to have their fingers on the pulse of the contemporary pop sound. In the same way that the ideal Eurovision performer would be an internationally successful artist of the moment, the ideal songwriter for Eurovision would be someone who has written several international hits of the moment. As I say, I’m not the right person to identify who that would be – but they could do worse than ask Ryan Tedder if he’d be interested.

* – In the light of recent events, talking about the peaceful co-existence aspects of Eurovision might seem a stretch, but the enthusiastic booing of a couple of Russian 17-year-olds by an arena of fully grown adults didn’t seem very Eurovision to me. There’s a dismaying tendency right now to dismiss the entire Russian population as though they were all fully paid up members of the Vladimir Putin fan club. In fact, only a little over 40% of Russians voted for him at the last election (he got 64% of a 65% turn-out), and it’s far from clear that even that 40% understood themselves to be voting for their president’s subsequent adventures in military expansionism and homophobia.

** – There are occasional hidden rewards for those of us who do take the trouble to read the songwriter captions. Looking at Iceland’s entry this year – which seemed a wholly typical wedge of Euro-cheese, even down to the brightly coloured stage outfits – who would have guessed that John Grant had co-written it? Yes, that John Grant: crafter of austere songs with bitterly ironic, self-lacerating lyrics, writer of the bleakest but best album of 2013. I mean, I knew he’d moved to Iceland, and I guessed that he couldn’t always be as miserable as he seems on that record, but I would never have had Eurovision down as his next career move.

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2 Responses to Some belated comments on Eurovision

  1. Kapitano says:

    I got a phone call last week, asking whether I agreed that “Conchita” was “a giant step forward for trans acceptance”.

    They them had to explain that someone called “Conchita Wurst” was a transvestite with a beard who’d won eurovision. Which had apparently been on TV recently. And that I, being a gay man, must be a big eurovision fan, and read all the blogs of LGBTQ politics…and use words like cis-gendered and neuro-typical in everyday conversation.

    Now that people accept me for being gay…I’m not gay enough for people. Acceptance doesn’t always lessen stereotyping.

  2. Hi Kapitano,

    It’s always annoying when people make assumptions about what you’ll be interested in just because you’re gay, isn’t it?

    The person you were speaking to misdescribed Conchita Wurst. She refers to herself as ‘a member of the LGBT community’, and I believe she prefers female pronouns. But so far as I’m aware she’s never specifically labelled herself as either trans or gay, and I’d guess it’s pretty unlikely she’s a transvestite (which is to say someone who dresses in particular clothes for purposes of sexual gratification).

    I actually think that – in this era of marriage equality, when all the focus has been on those of us who want to live more-or-less conventional lives at the expense of those of us who either can’t or don’t want to conform – Conchita is a breath of fresh air. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the kind of person who can fit seamlessly into society as it’s currently organised. But equally there’s nothing wrong with not being that, which is something I think we’ve been in danger of losing sight of over the last little while. I think it’s certainly still the case that those of who can’t or don’t want to “pass” for mainstream are far less accepted than those of us who can.

    Hope things are going ok for you, Kapitano

    A.

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