Launched in 1956 the Eurovision contest was an attempt to pull together a continent fragmented by years of conflict. In the early days it was light entertainment but went through a transformation in the 60s which fully connected it to the flamboyance and vibrancy associated with the pop culture of the day. It threw in its lot with Disco in the 70s and through the 80s and 90s it seemed to stop evolving in the same way as it had. The LGBT communities who first embraced it in 80s; organising parties to watch the broadcasts, stayed committed and in 1997 Paul Oscar was the first openly gay contestant. A year later Dana International, a transgender contestant won the show outright causing Orthodox Jews to take to the streets in protest of the Israeli singer. Over the last twenty years nothing much has changed with the show neither musically nor, notwithstanding changes to the voting process, in the format of the live final.
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There is an overriding attitude in the UK that the contest is uncool, naff and full of old fashioned songs with no real originality. This seems at odds with a country who fill primetime Saturday night TV with X Factor, The Voice and Britain’s Got (often foreign) Talent. In fact if you merged Strictly Come Dancing with X Factor you would have something resembling The Eurovision Song Contest but we still feel that we are leaders in entertainment, and we still are. We lead the way to such a degree that it has to be legislated against in Europe. Donald Trump’s initial presidential decisions may well be criticised for be ‘protectionist’ but a bill the French government passed in 1994 means French radio has to play 40% French-language music by law. Whilst the music listening population of the UK may not mind, what of the British artists who could be exporting into that market? The dominance of English speaking acts is all too prevalent across Europe, for example only 38% of Germany’s Top 100 in 2013 were German, let alone speaking German. So why are we doing so badly at winning the contest? Politically, we are not the most well liked country in Europe, musically much of Europe is overrun by our output causing a passive aggressive response. Do not underestimate the feelings of national or cultural pride, it is often said that every Scot supports two teams; Scotland and whoever is playing England. Most of the continent however, get on with the closest neighbours sharing as they do cultural connections and sometimes even a language and in that moment when they have to vote they are able to exercise that cultural connection. Whether they would like to listen to just French, or German, or Armenian music for 24 hours a day instead of the English speaking music they often listen to is another matter.
If the viewing population of the UK believe that the Eurovision song contest is an outmoded idea of entertainment, just a dinosaur waiting for extinction, then perhaps they need to look beyond the music. In Russia in 2014 it became legal to disallow someone who identifies as transgender to have a driver’s license, in 2014 gay, cross dresser Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest and was ranked 6th by Russia. It is a bastion of inclusivity in a world which is divided on so many things. The world we live in is changing, and fast. Often there is a whimsical reminiscing over the good old days of ‘great’ Britain but how good were they? Food rationing, hooliganism, power cuts, strikes, home grown terrorism, these are all of less concern nowadays. Segregation, polarisation, the inequality in different populations, religious and secular exclusion; these modern topics are the things which the Eurovision Song Contest does well. In fact does them so well they are not even topics for discussion anymore, so what if the Croatian entry is 94 years old, the Turkish entry is transgender and the Australian entry is, well, Australian, it doesn’t matter because its is an entertainment show about music. It’s only a contest in name and the fact that someone is crowned a winner, the real contest worldwide in music is sadly administered by accountants. The real contest in music is how many units are sold and how many tickets are purchased for the next tour and that’s a contest which is not level anyway, thanks to the power of the moguls but that’s a topic for another discussion.
We scream “How predictable” when Ukraine give Russia top marks, then we give Ireland douze points; we laugh at the Greek entry for being a bit naff and bland, then make the X Factor single our number one; then we chuckle at the fashion faux pas of the Albanian duo having not ever watched the sartorial train wreck which is Geordie Shore. We secretly love the Eurovision Song Contest because, just like the weather, it gives us something to complain about and it enables us to feel set upon by the rest of the continent because even before Brexit we were snobs who thought that we were never real Europeans.
But on May 13th this year I implore you to set aside your petty superiority complex, sit down on your (Swedish) Ikea sofa, pour yourself a glass of (Spanish) Cava, order a (Italian) pizza and ponder, what has Europe ever done for us?
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