Saturday, 18 May 2013

Politics Over Performance: The Problem With Eurovision


For anyone under the impression that we British have the luxury of only facing one music-related ceremony per year, you’d be mistaken. While the BRITs is still a comforting nine months away - and for sure I won’t be counting down the days just yet - tonight, as it always is mid-May time, sees the Eurovision Song Contest come rolling on in a sea of colourful and celebratory ecstasy, culminating in the best of European music and representative talent. Or as I like to put it: irrelevant tripe so cheesy it’s past its sell-by-date and turned a starkly, molded shade of green. To be frank, Eurovision has failed numerously in convincing us (the British at the very least) that it remains a genuine excuse to invest both our time and our money into a three-plus hour-long extravaganza masquerading as a revelatory celebration. Anyone who remains in such a blissful looking-forward-to mode is either making the most of it, or (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter fall into this option) are so utterly, undeniably convinced that amid all the media hype and the traditionalist hoo-ha surrounding it, the United Kingdom can actually come out run-away winners. Sadly, this remains but a distant dream and one I feel will never see the light of day in modern-day Europe.

For the past decade-or-so, the United Kingdom entries have been relegated to the compulsory butt of the signatory ‘nil-poi’ (that's zero points in French) punch-line. While we - save for one night in Latvia which some have speculated to have been caused by certain political/military decisions, thus emphasizing even greatly the problematic criss-crossing of political and musical wires in this competition - may not have always ended the night with virtually no points to our name, the graphic of the Union Jack flying high (or should that be low?) in an almighty 20th/21st/22nd position out of a possible twenty four, does leave the funny bone tickling and the physical head numbed with dismaying embarrassment. This is something, however, we shouldn’t even be surprised at. Eurovision, as of late, has fallen victim to the very thing it was built on (albeit a twisted, inverse of its origin). Established in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union, the idea to host a ceremonial, non-interrupted broadcast - in synchronous fashion across the continent to an audience of over 600 million - showcasing the best in European music (and too allowing the public from across the continent to express a voice that goes majorly unheard in the majority of the European market) is something that can't be faulted. Especially in an industry that is, admittedly, dominated by Anglo-speaking artists, and in parts by acts from other Northern/Western nations, it can't be faulted for being a welcome change from the dominance currently undergoing the music market. On that level, Eurovision is - or should I say, was - a relevant and rewarding opportunity to both express and expand on our diverse ideals and philosophies on what makes, perhaps not great, but entertaining music nonetheless. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and I can not help but view this ceremony as less an eye-opening equal opportunities expression, and little more than just some deliberate, back-patting swearing of allegiance and background reassurnance of matters politically-contextual as opposed to musically. The only real music suggestion, sadly, is a host of middle-of-the-road cheery pop that is as structurally offering as any typical three-chord, verse-chorus-verse, three-minute, radio-filler.

It’s a problem, as much it is a joy, to watch the results thereafter and be more in focus with [previous British commentator] Sir Terry Wogan’s representing of British sarcasm over the point allocations than you are supposedly patriotically affixed to seeing your country (hopefully) win. It draws as much a laugh, as it does a stretching-of-the-arm turned shaking-of-the-head turned modest grin, when Cyprus give 12 points to their territorial neighbors Greece for the umpteenth time. Or Monaco (yep, they’re a sovereignty in their own right) attempt some excited build-up in revealing they’ve given the maximum amount of points to France...again. And let’s not forget the compulsory ‘bloc voting’ over in the East of the continent. Former Yugoslavian states voting for one another, and former Soviet republics all giving Russia high amounts of points. The latter, is of course, a double-meaning in its own right; intent on blaring as truth, it’s an intentionally high-brow ‘yeh, we loved your music, and the public think so too’...and behind-the-scenes, in actuality, it’s more than likely a case of: ‘alright, here’s the points...now please keep the oil and gas flowing in pretty please’. In their defense, the bloc-voting nations irrefutably deny any hidden agendas or controversial tactics in their voting; stating that the votes perfectly mirror their nations' specific tastes in music and that Eastern European music - and culture for that matter - is indeed a contrast to the opposing West, but it’s something that they all gladly partake in both enjoying and celebrating. Fair enough; it would be foolish to assert that Africa or South America, for example, don’t have their own diverse musical cultures and equivalent orientations in taste. And to back that argument, the winning entries of Eurovision have increasingly won through higher amounts of points, which may suggest that it’s not just the Eastern bloc[k] that are enjoying this particular take on ‘entertaining’ pop music. But going back to the actual statistics, taking one eye-lowering view down the winner’s table and the results read less like a Eurovision honorary role-call and more an advanced geographic who’s who of the part of Europe east of Austria & Poland that no one hardly knows of.

But let’s not point the finger directly at the Eastern quadrant here. The two most distinguishing winners of the past 10 years, Finland’s Lordi and Germany’s Lena are memorable not just because of their geographic positioning, but through their actual entries likewise. 2006 was an interesting year, for this very reason. Amid all the cheesy pop ballads and extravagantly embarrassing dance choreography, we had a Finnish metal act dressed like cos-players unsure whether to go as Warhammer or Lord Of The Rings characters. Not only was this memorable (in a good way or a bad way, it still remains to be seen), but there’s an argument to be had that it actually represents the Finnish without going too far into outright piss-take territory. From a musical stand-point too, it's a great promotion too of the Scandinavian culture regarding metal bands doing what they do best, and clearly loving it in equal measure. Admittedly, it’s not something I could listen to for hours on end, but on a contextual and national level, it did the [original] Eurovision philosophy some long-deserved justice. And Germany’s winner proved that talent was not always some excusable cover-show for political motivation...regardless of how people see Germany's position in European politics at present.




Unfortunately, these moments are few and far-between, and while the Scandinavians have had their fair share of winners - Finland, Norway and Sweden each getting a recent trophy to add to their stands over the past decade - they too are not without questionable motifs behind their point allocations. Sadly, this goes back to my original point of Eurovision being less a genuine competition mixed with celebration, and more a double-edged sword in emphasizing political conviction tagged with...what I haven’t discussed yet...a rather childish exclaiming that the honorary title of 'winner' should go to one of the less spoken-of countries. It doesn’t take much research and scavenging the news archives to realize that of the forty-or-so countries making up Europe, the ones with argueably the most sociological, diplomatic, political and economical strength are the UK, France, Germany & Russia. While this isn’t anything new or something which has just established its reign in the recent shift to the new millenia, it doesn’t hide the fact that Eastern Europe’s lacking a unitary voice is, from their perspective, a problem. 

But to anyone who might call me out proclaiming this is an inevitability and something that would have happened regardless of any continental situation outside of music, did you know Luxembourg have won the contest five times in Eurovision’s 56 year history? Yeh, because Luxembourg are always spear-heading examples with their musical and political establishment in Europe. Same goes for the likes of Switzerland, Denmark, The Netherlands. Not exactly the giants of Europe. All these nations received the title of winner at a time when Eurovision wasn’t (yet) tinted by the personal motivation of political leniance. Instead, it remained a fair competition built on diverse musical ideas and a celebration - albeit a cheesy and over-the-top one - of each country’s independent ideas on what made both great viewing and interesting execution of expression. Now, however, the idea of viewership and expression has been tinged; polluted and gormously contorted to the likes of old-aged Russian pensioners, and presenters with unpronouncable names prnouncing every Eurovision contest as being ‘so exciting’ and ‘the best one that’s ever been’. Heck, even the nation representatives announcing the point allocation have become little more than gormless, all-smiling, marionettes with less backbone and lesser diversity striken across their one-dimensional monologues. For a show written as a diverse celebration of a continent’s love of music and musical identity, it comes more as just a three-hour exercise in smiling for the camera and giving the EBU a jolly-good corporate orgasm in knowing they’re succeeding in something...whatever that is.

 
So how do we improve this? How do we make Eurovision relevant again? Well...and hear me out, because I know it’s fantastical in its objectiveness: let’s have the competition reflect the actual industry and the current roster of talent making themselves be heard. Come on, who wouldn’t want to see a diverse reflection of national music originating from across the board? Who wouldn’t want to see a great fight-off between the likes of Autechre, Sigur Ros, Phoenix, Mew, Röyksopp, Opeth and many more in a carnival-like festure of diverse sounds and diverser takes on entertaining the masses? Impossible. Truth is, it will never happen. For a contest that has been running since the 50’s, the sad fact is that even in 2013, the contest still comes off as if caught in a time-lapse. There’s little to suggest the rather inflated, indulgent fashion of the contest has been rid of. More-so, the fact that the competition sees itself focusing on the diversity of pop music, only proves the broadcaster's delusion. Besides, there’s little more these artists focus on that isn’t love, dancing, people, music...or, in some cases, wanting to win Eurovision.

And as unfortunate as this statement is, we as British public are partly to blame for being caught in this past flux. As much as our healthy record of winners - equalling Sweden, France & Luxembourg and beaten only by our neighbours, Ireland - gives us reason to feel we’re as much part of the contest’s history, at the same time, it’s given a deluded sense that our place in European tastes (or at least amid the convulded pop corners) is still present. As stated, it’s less about the music. Hell, you could argue the musical context is as existant as the dodo. So do we walk out? Protest for a year, or two...or maybe even quit the Eurovision altogether? While our stance as one of the ‘big four’ contributors to the EBU funding and foundation does give us a free-pass into the final - other countries having to fight it off during two preceeeding semi-finals held before the final on the Saturday - it’s as relevant as a chocolate teapot is to boiling water. But what if we do protest, then what? Sadly, I hold little optimism that this would change anything.

Ultimately, while the retro amateur-dramatics of its output remain, and the cultural diversity is existent (albeit in a skeletal-like hollow of its former self) this is something that now stands gripped in the hands of those in the lesser-known regions of Europe, possesively hopeful their nations can at least be relevant for one day of the Gregorian calendar. Their control, amassed by political ideals and, probably, shit loads of stack-waving wads of cash, is never one without controversy. But at the same time, it's one that hardly goes tested and questioned. As we all get one year older - turning to our TV screens as Brits with either deluded hope of winning or realistic virtue that we, at the very least, don’t finish in last place (again) - we as a public simply do not give much of a shit anymore. Whether we want to win or simply don’t want to end up rock-bottom on that chart of flags, names and numeric values, Eurovision holds as much chance for victory as any football tournament has - submissive support increasingly balanced with the realization we have little chance of succeeding. To end, we the United Kingdom are caught between tradition and nationalistic pride. Neither can we expell ourselves from this stage-show, but neither can we take this show seriously. And thus we’re caught; hands tied behind our back, yet showing no effort to escape. As the money continues to pour into Eurovision, our place is one of irrelevance as much it is a compulsory continuing of the norm. Even with the recent change in point allocation - half made up of public voting, the other a professional roster of ‘judges’ - we’re still without any means of moving up the table. Eurovision, it seems, has changed. And while our geographic leniances may tinge our views on it being objectively good or bad, there’s no hiding away from the irrelevance its current shape holds on music as a cultural whole. This won't change the industry, nor will it change the World's view on pop music. Three hours, ultimately, spent on this thing and what do I feel is final outcome on how rewarding and rudimentary this is to a wider society of music fans? The result: Eurovision Song Contest...NIL POI! 
~Jordan

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