17 May 2013

Power ballads and funny hats: why Eurovision matters

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. Tragically for me it isn't some sort of ironic interest based on poking fun at the funny hats, weird beards and implausible busts – I actually have the wretched thing in my diary and look forward to it each year, although up until now it's been something of a secret shame.

Carola sings Evighet in Melodifestivalen 2006 (STV)
The Swedes are to blame. In 2006 I lived in Stockholm, and they take Eurovision rather more seriously over there. Melodifestivalen is the country's annual talent show that selects their Eurovision entry, and I was horrified to find my friends, who previously exuded Scandinavian cool, staying in to watch it with unnerving enthusiasm. Carola was the eventual winner: her act was typical schlager, a wonderful Swedish word that sums up all the craziness of Eurovision-esque power ballads, cheesy dance music and lengthy hair billowing with wind machines running at full tilt. Carola's song reached #1 in the domestic charts, was promoted around Europe and finished a very credible fifth in the year Finnish monster rock act Lordi swept away all before them.

But I think the whole Eurovision business neatly sums up some of the failings we have in understanding our European partners. Our entries – recently more towards the nul points end of the spectrum – mean we've become accustomed to sneering at the madness on stage each year, and consoling ourselves with just how good the British music industry really is. The red tops do their best to drum up interest in whatever act the BBC has strong-armed onto a plane, but inevitably singing in Eurovision is seen as a hospital pass, with the contest joining siestas, eating horses, long road trips Eastwards and all the other clich├ęs we like to belittle Europe with. We're just too cool for Eurovision.

So when it comes to the actual contest finals the unfortunate performer we've dispatched invariably doesn't stand a chance against acts who are rather more established, and who see Eurovision as an opportunity to build their profiles as commercial recording artists. I had no idea who Bonnie Tyler is, so I asked my cousin, who described her thus: 'I think she's a... something from the... I'm not entirely sure actually'. The Sun charitably called her a veteran. Either way her Eurovision song won't be gaining much airtime in the bars and clubs around London, whereas the opposite was true for Loreen in Stockholm last year.

We did actually choose someone decent a while ago – Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a song for Jade Ewen in 2009, took her on tour around the Eurovision nations and ended up delivering our best result in years. Casting my mind back I seem to remember Britain being genuinely excited about the 2009 competition because Jade actually had a chance of winning. Her career progressed as a result, showing that Eurovision is worthwhile if you actually engage in it seriously, rather than dismiss it as a stitch-up by scheming foreigners.

Likewise griping about bloc voting (when all the Nordic countries vote for each other, etc.) betrays another misunderstanding about Europe. In the democratic voting-by-text era people still stubbornly dish out high points for their neighbours – just as we do with Ireland. But this primarily reflects the degree of cultural integration across the regions of Europe, which makes sense when you put it in context with UK voting – many of the German acts feel like something we might actually hear on the radio, whereas Latvian music just sounds weird. As a result Germany and the UK regularly (indeed reliably) vote for each other. Just don't call it an Anglo-German voting pact – it's just another one of Europe's many little cliques built on proximity and interaction.

First published by Egremont on May 17th, 2013