Monday, October 30, 2006

In The Dock: The Eurovision Song Contest

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: The Eurovision Song Contest

The case for the prosecution (drmigs)

Eurovision is rubbish. To quote the voice of reason, Jeremy Clarkson, "If you don't agree with me, you're wrong". Cue polemic.

Eurovision had laudable origins. It was a post-war initiative by the European Broadcasting Union to bring some unity to the western countries of a battle-ravished continent. However, unfortunately the current incarnation is a far more cynical affair; it's a media circus for wannabes. Step forward wannabe musicians, step forward wannabe agents, step forward wannabe presenters, and step forward wannabe European nations, Israel FFS!?! Israel doesn't even border Europe. Like Dr Beeching in the 1960s, Eurovision has gone off the rails.

I'll hold my hands up; I'm not a Eurovision aficionado. I've only watched it once, and the only redeemable moment wasn't the Slovenian transvestites dressed as airhostesses, it was my Slovenian friend's face when they walked on stage. This novelty element to Eurovision perfectly illustrates its rotten core. In 2006 it was won by Lordi; Finnish Hard Rockers dressed as trolls. In 1998 it was won by Dana International; a transsexual Israeli selling herself as such. They won because novelty is more likely to win votes than the quality of the music.

The concept of a fair Eurovision is now obsolete. Where once there was (apparently) a contest with countries putting aside politics to foster harmony through friendly competition, now there is a contest of friendly nations scoring cheap political points. The first rule of voting is that if you've got lots of neighbours you get lots of votes. Secondly, political allies vote for each other. If you haven't used up all your votes by now, next come the novelty votes, the mandatory votes for the Irish, and then maybe some appreciation for the music.

Such a voting structure would be offensive if the music were any good. However, the most salient argument against Eurovision is that at present it doesn't have any good songs. A few countries are admirable enough to enter music that reflects their own culture, and get nil point; everyone else enters saccharine middle-of-the-road pop. The music has no merit because the majority of the contestants have no merit. Bands / singers don't enter Eurovision to spotlight their national identity and culture, they enter as a last ditch attempt to fulfil their ambitions of being famous pop stars. Eurovision is a vehicle for self-promotion when you've failed to get notoriety through less desperate means.

Surrounding the desperate and failing musical acts is a circus of limpet agents and promoters sifting for wheat amongst the chaff. Each of these reprobates is ready to use and abuse the naïve dreams of the haplessly deluded contestants in their relentless pursuit of money. It stinks. Moreover, you know that behind the scenes the competition is riddled with primadonnas catfighting for the best contract. This wouldn't be a problem however, if Eurovision were honest about what it is. Instead, Eurovision and the established media attempt to take it seriously. Desperate wannabe presenters yearn for the camera to sell themselves, oh and their country. And all this is presented in the UK by Terry Wogan's laconic fatuousness (don't get me started on Wogan).

Eurovision now only exists because it is a cash cow. But profitability can't justify its existence; if you follow that argument then hell, bring back slavery. In its current incarnation Eurovision will eventually be eaten by its own greed. It has only earned a stay of execution by the proliferation of eastern European countries.

There are two roads that could redeem Eurovision. Think about it; burgeoning egos, novelty, farcical voting and catfighting. It could take the teenage route, or it could be what it really wants to be, come out, and be the camp fest it yearns to be and promote Gay Pride. I'm astonished to find that the former option actually exists. It's a more appealing format as you'd be able to see that the egos would be a mirror for the parents' ambition, the catfighting would actually be shown, and the sharks would be exposed as a result of the media's two-faced piety. The music wouldn't be any worse than it is now either. I still wouldn't watch it but I'd understand the appeal. The Gay Pride route would celebrate the camp farce of the event. Eurovision would become more novel, but it would at least be marketed as such, and would claw back some integrity.

As it is, Eurovision is a sham; it's a pustulent boil that needs lancing, and I want it lanced.

The case for the defence (Mike)

Right then – let’s get one tedious little issue out of the way before we go any further. If your primary objection to Eurovision is that the music on display is “just” pop music – silly, jolly, trivial pop music, which Says Nothing To You About Your Life – then I hereby give you leave to cast your vote for the Prosecution. Because if you’re going to criticise Dana International for not being PJ Harvey, or Katrina & The Waves for not being Radiohead, then there’s no point in entering into a debate with you.

However, if you’re the sort of sane, well-balanced individual who accepts the need for cultural plurality in music – the serious and the ridiculous, the incisive and the escapist, the realistic and the fantastic – then I see no impossible barrier for you to climb. Eurovision, quite blatantly, is all about entertainment. It’s pop music. It’s spectacle. It’s meant to put a smile on your face – no more, and no less.

But the songs are rubbish and the costumes are horrendous and the voting’s biased and… and… and…

Hold it. Hold it right there. Because I think you’re missing something – and that something has more to do with “indie” notions of credibility than you might imagine.

One of the great joys of Eurovision is its lack of slick, corporatised homogeneity. As far as the major labels are concerned, it’s low priority. As few major international stars have been created by the contest, why should they care? And so they stay away, leaving the selection of the songs and artists, and the staging of the show, to the national television companies of the participating nations. Similarly, the event has never become smothered by sponsorship. Sure, it’s present – but it’s discreet.

Within this comparative marketing void, a strange, self-enclosed world is allowed to develop. There is room here for daft lyrics, wobbly voices, creaking dance routines – and a certain sense of raw amateurishness, which makes for a refreshing contrast with the seamless, focus-grouped, identikit blandness which prevails right across the rest of music television.

And that, when you think about it, is actually rather indie. Like so much great indie music, it’s in the imperfections that the humanity lies. It’s a sign that something “real” is taking place, despite the layers of artifice which surround it. The day that the contest becomes the Pepsi Max Eurovision, hosted by Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, is the day that I’ll stop watching.

What’s more, this is amateurishness with a soul. For somehow – and God knows how this anachronism has managed to survive – the Eurovision Song Contest still adheres to old fashioned, post-WWII-consensus notions of international community and brotherhood. Oh, don’t be misled by the “political” voting – which only a fool (and Terry Wogan) could ever get seriously huffy about, and which has never yet created a winner. As anyone who has ever attended a live final in person will tell you, the competitive element is fundamentally good-natured. Rival delegations exchange flags, cheer for each other, wish each other well. A large number of international sporting events could do well to learn from the Eurovision ethos.

Thus, when the umpteenth dolled-up pop moppet in a row gushes at her press conference about what a great honour it is to be representing her country, there is a large part of her which actually means it, maan – and, in these over-archingly careerist times, I happen to think that’s rather wonderful.

But the songs are still shit, Mike!

Even there, I would disagree with you. There’s an aesthetic at work here which we’re not often exposed to these days. As no Eurovision song is permitted to exceed three minutes in length, and as most of the international audience will never have heard it before, every trick in the book is used to make it stand out. There must be hooks – instant, memorable ones. There must be a kick-ass intro, and a rousing climax – preferably by means of an upwards key change. There must be no room for flab – everything has to be tight, taut, concentrated. Every second counts. It’s as valid an aesthetic as any other in pop, and it’s fascinating to see what the composers and choreographers do with it.

Here are some prime examples of what I’m talking about. Follow the YouTube links, watch the videos – then come back here, look me in the eyes, and tell me that Eurovision entries are all shit.

'All Out Of Luck' – Selma (Iceland, 1999)

'My Star' – Brainstorm (Latvia, 2000)

'Wild Dances' – Ruslana (Ukraine, 2004)

'Boonika bate toba' – Zdob si Zdub (Moldova, 2005)

'Moja Stikla' - Severina (Croatia, 2006)

Boggle-eyed Latvian indie kids? Drumming grannies? An Anjelina Jolie-fied former porn star who rips off her skirt while shrieking “AFRICA PAPRIKA!” Come on, what’s not to love?

(Oh, I can see you smiling from here. Caught you! Hah!)

All of the best “camp” – that over-used, increasingly devalued concept – has a certain sincerity at its core – and Eurovision has this by the bucket load. Now, if you insist on living in a joyless, colourless, dull and worthy world, from which all such notions have been rigorously excised, then you go right ahead – but you can count me out, and millions like me for whom Eurovision is, from start to end, solid gold entertainment.

As such, I will defend it unto my dying breath, with all of my shiny, superficial little heart and all of my shallow, sparkling little soul. I urge you to do the same.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs and Mike. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your verdicts - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger Pete Ashton said...

I'm going to have to side with Mike and say "innocent" though I hope never to have to suffer the bloody thing ever again. Live and let live, but don't live next to me please.

9:25 am  
Blogger Damo said...

I vote for the defence. I can't stand talent shows, reality shows, awards ceremonies and any of the like. So anything that subverts the standard by being so completely ridiculous gets my vote. We all need a laugh every now and then.

In other words, I approve of Eurovision for (nearly) all of the reasons that the prosecution disliked it.

11:10 am  
Blogger Martin said...

I'm with Mike. Lordi on Eurovision? Fab. The prospect of an entire Lordi gig? Horrific. The same goes for the majority of Eurovision artists, and unlike conventional talent shows you don't have to sit through a tedious stream of teens convinced that this is their big chance and they'll, like, die or something if they don't win.

7:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The songs so ARE shit, but even that has nothing to do with the outcome these days. It's mostly about politics. The voting is entirely predictable. The contest should have been retired years ago. Guilty as charged.

11:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For someone who has only seen the programme once, you seem to say a good deal about the thoughts and intentions of the participants. I saw it myself this year, for the first time in years and found that I was won over.

I didn't think that the bands who got virtually no points were the admirable own-culture ones, they were the rubbish. An entertaining novelty performance won, but it was not a saccharine middle-of-the-road one either.

None of it was the sort of music I'd usually listen to and I may not watch it again for a few years. But, take it at face value, let yourself be entertained - not least by old Hairy Wogan's indignation at the bias in the voting and you might find it as innocent as Jeux Sans Frontières was.

I agree with Mike, not guilty

12:07 pm  
Blogger mike said...

A list of the countries who have won Eurovision since tele-voting replaced the jury system in 1998:

Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece, Finland.

As most of the accusations of "political" voting centre around the former republics of Yugoslavia, I would suggest that it hasn't got them very far.

My take: political voting can provide a modest boost to a good song, but it can't save a bad song. In order to place highly, a song needs to pick up votes from all over the 40-odd voting nations.

Incidentally, the annual swapping of 12 points between Greece and Cyprus used to receive boos in the hall. These days, it is more likely to elicit ironic cheers...

12:25 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

Sadly, given the current political climate, Royaume-Uni hasn't got a prayer for quite some time and we end up with Daz Sampson making a desperate plea for people to 'vote for the music.'

I can see his point, but I wouldn't have thought that was ever going to be a winning strategy in his case.

1:50 pm  
Blogger Chig said...

Oh, where to begin? I should declare my hand and say that I've covered Eurovision since 1998 for gaytimes magazine and been to seven of the last nine contests. However, it doesn't bother me if people don't like it. I don't like cricket, so I don't watch it. I'm disappointed though that the 'prosecution' case has been written by someone who has only seen it once. Not surprisingly, some of the 'facts' in the prosecution case are just wrong. For example, the idea that every country sends 'wannabes' to Eurovision is inaccurate and betrays a UK-slanted perspective. In many other countries, artists who are current and/or have been successful for years would sell their own families to represent their country. They don't do it for the fame; it's a huge honour. As for friendly voting, how come Finland, surrounded by four other Scandi countries, had been (along with Portugal) the most friendless country in Eurovision for 45 years? In some years, they've had no points at all from their neighbours. If it's all so predictable, how did those friendless Finns manage to win this year? (They scored points from all except three of 37 countries, IIRC.) They won because they were UNpredictable and tried something different. I could go on, but I won't. I vote for Mike!

PS. Martin, I went to a Lordi gig last Friday and it was brilliant! It's not the type of music I normally listen to, but their have some very catchy tunes and the stage show was the best musical theatre (okay, pantomime) I've seen in years. Metaaaaaal! Sorry, got carried away there.

1:51 pm  
Blogger LB said...

Unsurprisingly, considering my pop sensibilities, I am going to vote for the defence also. I religiously watch Eurovision every year, in its entirety. I find it funny, upliftinh and above all, great entertainment.

There are at least three or four decent pop records every single show, in my opinion. Energetically performed, live (lest we forget) and as over the top as you can imagine.

One thing I often find odd, though, is why the UK entry is almost always *rubbish* when our charts are filled with some decent lowbrow throwaway pop.

oh, and I bought Johnny Logan's album.

2:04 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

Not that the case for the defence seems to need any more assistance, but surely Eurovision's one of the few television programmes that you can hold a party around? The times I've spent voting for the best and worst songs, dress, and physical appearance of the groups...

Actually, I'm not sure that's going to help.

3:28 pm  
Blogger Ian said...

I admit I was predisposed to vote for the defence anyways, but Mike's sublime account of all that is wonderful about Eurovision would have won me over anyways. Not guilty!

And kudos to all involved for not mentioning ABBA - not because they're bad, but because over here in Canada at least, no-one mentions the damn thing without mentioning ABBA.

7:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've only been able to experience Eurovision via the internet, and I think it's terrific for precisely the reasons outlined by the defence.
It's not slick, it's not MOR-commercial and it never fails to surprise me with its combination of gems buried amidst the daffiness.
Not guilty.

10:09 pm  
Blogger Chig said...

Ian, you've mentioned Abba! :-)

11:23 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

I almost hate to do this, and the indie snob in me is feeling a bit sick, but I'm going to vote for the defence.

Partly this is because of Mike's defence, but mainly this is because I can't deny sitting in front of the tv with a scoresheet, beer and my friends and marking each act on various categories (including dance routine and comedy factor, if my memory serves me correctly).

I don't tend to watch it now, but how can anyone be upset that it exists? I love the fact that this is considered such a statement of belonging that the "newer" European nations are apparently all clamouring to get involved.

More power to it, I say.

You should have seen the crowd outside Rock City when Lordi was playing too. It was brilliant!


8:16 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

Gina G was robbed, by the way. We had her top by miles !

must have been the dance routine, eh?

(cough cough)


8:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with the defence on this one...
Although in defence of the prosecution it is true about the political voting...look at all the countries voting who get their gas from Russia...but the political voting only affects who comes in silver or bronze, not gold.

I watched it this year in Vilnius with a Norwegian, French chap, Australians and Lithuanians, each taking it in turn to wince and revel. And we loved Lordi a little too much. LT United however were pretty terrible, but they reflect the taste of the country (in my opinion) as they went through a protracted Pop Idol style contest, and they were the supergroup made from the Lithuanian Sting, Elton, Phil Collins etc.
And we liked the flirting between voting reps and the hosts! Tremendous fun, so long as I don't have to hear "We are the winners" ever again.

10:33 am  
Blogger Ben said...

At the risk of coming across as a miserable killjoy, I'm siding with the prosecution. Mike had a lot of work to do in convincing me to vote otherwise, but I'll admit that some of his points hit home.

For one thing, I agree that drmigs is wrong in suggesting that Eurovision exists as a commercial enterprise. On the contrary, it's largely untainted by commercialism, and as such is something of a novelty.

I also appreciated the comments about the demands of the form. I hadn't realised there was a strict three minute rule, and it could potentially be interesting to see what different composers (and different countries) do with the same form.

Where Mike lost me, though, was in the suggestion that Eurovision is in some ways an "indie" event. I followed that line of thinking for a while, but ultimately feel it's all too contrived, an attempt to get the rockists onside. Not buying it, I'm afraid.

Neither am I buying the key point about the strength of the songs. Admittedly 'All Out Of Luck' and 'Boonika bate toba' were enjoyable enough, but I thought 'Moja Stikla' was absolutely dreadful and in any case these are very much the exceptions that prove the rule. I'm partial to a good pop song - but the chances of coming across one of those at Eurovision is very slim.

Any event that can give coverage and exposure to a song as bad (and downright wrong) as Daz Sampson's 'Teenage Life' demands to be prosecuted.

11:48 am  
Blogger Damo said...

"Teenage Life" was the fault of A Song For Europe, not the Eurovision Song Contest.

11:54 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Got to side with Mike and the defence.

Eurovision's one of those things that I've got more and more into as the years have gone on, to the point where I was listening to Ken Bruce on Radio 2 trying to describe the scene.

The beauty of Eurovision is the element of fun which comes with it. If that were lost (due to over-commercialisation) then I might reconsider, but as it is, I'm firmly on the side of the defence.

12:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last year I woke up the morning after the event, fully dressed, on my sofa, and with the yellow sun of the F.Y.R. Macedonia painted on my face. Unfortunately, this is not because I got horrendously drunk and passed out. I actually got a migraine before leaving for the Eurovision party I was supposed to be going to and never woke up from my ‘quick nap in a darkened room’. However, any event that is exciting enough to bring on a migraine deserves to be celebrated. Not guilty!

1:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch! Thought I was going to be on my own for a while. At least there's a bit of solidarity. I must admit Mike put up a good defence, however, I'm still not swayed by most of the arguements put forward in the comments. Oh, and if I am a joyless curmudgeon, I'd argue that it's the likes of Eurovision that made me that way!

I echo Ben's sentiments about the Indie arguement and the taste of the music links. A quick look at the A-Z section will highlight that although I like indie, my taste are far more idiosynchratic and eclectic; quite frankly the music in Eurovision bores me. Its not that it not meaningful, its just that to my ears its dull.

On the only viewing it once arguement, well, I couldn't bare watching it again. My sentiments about the wannabie culture is a case of 'say what you see', and that's what I saw. Sorry. Ever since the annual furore has irked me.

On the commercial angle, I didn't have time to expand this. I said it was profitable, not commercial. It may not be burdened by advertising, but the program is sold to TV companies in each country. Although EBU is 'non-profit' (presumably at the end of year budget), the greek TV company alone made a 7 million Euro profit from this year's show. You can't tell me that the eligibility of Georgia, Armenia, Eygpt, Lebanon, Jordan, Isreal, Morroco, Algeria and Tunisia doesn't have a whiff of mulah about it.

With the voting, I'd argue that Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine are all likely to be at least boosted by the neighbour and politics factors I highlighted. And the Finland example doesn't hold up. Whilst Finland has three land borders, they are in largely unpopulated areas. Culturally, Finland is pretty individual, to the point that its language is one of the best preserved in Europe. If you wanted an example of an isolated European nation, Finland is a good example. How did they buck the lack of votes from isolation? Novelty, not music.

Despite all the above, it probaly comes down to the simple fact that I just don't like the music. However, what tips the balance is that the whole voting procedure doesn't work for me (conceptually or practically). In a moment of weakness I'd side with Pete's comment 'Live and let live, but don't live next to me please.' But since I'm prosecuting I'm afraid I still think its flawed and my impression is that something needs to change. Although, saying that, I accept I'm clearly I'm in the minority. Well done Mike, it looks like Eurovision is safe.

10:03 pm  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

The Eurovision Song Contest is as innocent as the lovely Dana.

10:28 pm  
Blogger Del said...

I'm going to have to go with the prosecution. Partly cos it's getting mullered and I feel sorry for drmigs, but mainly because Mike completely failed to mention the Eurosong episode of Father Ted, and their entry 'My Lovely Horse'. If that had been included in the otherwise robust defence, I would happily have sided with it. But as it stands, I cast Eurovision into the inferno.

11:37 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Cheers for your comment Looby - very much beg to differ on the ratio of good to bad music point though...

Sorry your vote wasn't counted in the final verdict, but I must have been in the process of tallying up when you were commenting.

1:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm way out of time to participate in this debate, but I thought I'd add a comment anyway!

I'm going to side with the defence, mainly because I love Eurovision, so you'd never have convinced me otherwise. The best thing about Eurovision is it's a great excuse to throw a themed party every Spring. True, not all the songs might be to everyone's taste, but that's true in real life as well. I can't abide rap, I love hard dance, and whilst I like a lot of indie music, I can't stand the whole attitude of "aren't we so great because we stand here playing guitars, looking like we haven't got 2 pence between us and not smiling with it".

The great quality of Eurovision, and anyone who has been to a live final will tell you this, is the camaraderie of the event. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, gets on. It's just great fun. And in a world of massive record companies, polished pop stars who get dropped after 3 singles, downbeat indie bands, gun-promoting rap and faceless dance-music, a little bit of fun is what we need.

11:33 pm  

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