Anybody who knows me, knows that the Eurovision Song Contest is my religion.
You can keep your Bible, you can keep your prayers, but give me three minutes of Balkan turbo-folk with some over-the-top choreography and I’ll be the holiest man alive. I can’t be quite sure what it is about Eurovision that makes me so obsessed but I know that I am – my name’s Michael, and I’m an addict. Perhaps it’s the excitement of the voting and the theme of pan-continental competition, maybe it’s the glittery dresses and synchronised dance moves, or it could be that one television show somehow manages to tell us a lot about ourselves and our neighbours year in, year out.
There’s no denying Eurovision has a bad rep, a hangover from the 80s and 90s when it seemed to go off the rails a little bit and countries just sent clichéd pop trash with a costume change and hoped for the best. But we must remember that was pretty standard in the music scene at the time, look back at videos of pop songs from the nineties and crap was all the rage. Nowadays, at least in the past couple of years, the music that is featured at Eurovision is much more current, modern, and very representative of the global music scene. In many countries, this has been recognised and the contest has been re-birthed and seen unparalleled growth and popularity, but here in the UK that almost-collective hatred of anything that is European seems to be reason enough to dismiss it as being what it was almost two decades ago. Whenever I tell someone British that I love Eurovision, or I’m going to see Eurovision in whichever city it happens to be, the seemingly automatic response is ‘WHY?’. Likewise, when I tell someone from the continent of my sordid love affair, they respond with a grin or a rendition of their country’s most recent winner.
When you think about it, this actually makes quite a lot of sense. For British people, Eurovision is a comedy, a spectacle of sorts – something that you watch with your friends on whatever Saturday it’s on, get really drunk and laugh at all the foreigners swapping points with each other (while conveniently forgetting that our dearest neighbours Ireland have came to our rescue to spare us from humiliation on more than one occasion). For many other European countries it’s a source of national pride, it’s where you send your biggest and most famous artists, throw millions on stage designs and promotion, and watch in anticipation of a potential victory.
In a much broader sense, is this how we view Europe and how Europe views us? Is the way that the UK watches and takes part in Eurovision reflected in the way it see its position on the continent? There’s no denying that the Leave vote back in June sent shockwaves across the country, and indeed the world, mainly because nobody expected it to happen. But when you realise that we ridicule the one true annual get-together of European countries, it’s possible that we start to see Britain hasn’t actually been a part of Europe for a long time. Perhaps hating on Eurovision was simply an outlet for the hatred of Europe and the EU. Of course, this was not the first time Brits had went to the polls in regards to whether they should pull out of the EU or not, they did the same back in 1975 when the result was a much friendlier one than this year’s. It’s interesting to note that the year after this last referendum, the United Kingdom actually went and won the Eurovision Song Contest with the biggest points average of all time. Was this Europe’s way of saying ‘you’re part of us, we belong together’? The UK has found itself languishing near the bottom of the leaderboard for a good part of the 2000s, and you can’t help but wonder if next year will see us be punished with Europe’s most powerful weapon – nul points.
Eurovision doesn’t only reflect the mood of us on the British Isles though, it can give clues to the ideas and feelings of the continent as a whole each year. Take 2014 for example, when equality and gay marriage was all the rage in parliament buildings across the world. Then, out of nowhere, a young Austrian drag queen with a beard comes along and steals the show, the trophy, and the hearts of millions. In that year, Europe and it’s people showed it’s support for equality through Eurovision. Voting for Conchita Wurst wasn’t only for the song or for the visuals, it was for everything that stood behind the entry. It was to show progression and acceptance, tolerance and unity. What spoke even louder was that many Eastern European countries, where gay rights wrestle with stubborn tradition, handed over their points to Austria too. On that one evening in May, Europe stood together.
We can also look at this year’s contest in Stockholm, where going into the Grand Final it seemed that Russia had all but secured victory and Putin was getting ready to oversee another chance of showing off the motherland to the world. But did a Russian victory fit the narrative and the mood of Europe in 2016? Did it reflect the opinion frequently spouted by the media that Russia is the enemy and that we are on the verge of Cold War 2.0? After all, how could a country that had recently invaded another be rewarded by being celebrated as being the best in front of an audience of millions? Under a new voting system, which hindsight may suggest unfolded almost too perfectly to be believed, Russia saw themselves pitted against Ukraine – one would win, the other would not, and as the televotes were announced Ukraine became the new darlings of Europe with a song about Crimea and the deportations that took place under Stalin. The complete lack of commercial success that 1944 saw after victory suggests that this was a vote more in support of Ukraine on the global stage as opposed to musical merit. It almost seems as though Russia was purposefully installed as the hot-favourite only to have their poorer, smaller rival take the spoils at the last possible moment to bring the narrative full circle.
Using television shows as a level of propaganda is certainly not a new tactic, indeed the fundamental creation of the television was likely for such purposes. What makes the Eurovision Song Contest such an interesting sample is that it has been around since 1956 and, as a result, is one of the longest running TV shows in the world. Indeed the whole concept of the show came about not primarily as a song contest, but as an idea of reinstalling unity and hope after the Second World War. As such, Eurovision is much more than a simple song contest, it is a sixty-year story of the trials and tribulations of Europe; the ups and downs, the good and the bad. It speaks to us politically, socially, and musically, and so if you ever find yourself talking to somebody who has just declared their love for Eurovision; don’t sneer and ask why, smile and simply say ‘I understand…’!