It’s clunky, it’s creaky, the format has only grudgingly changed through absolute necessity in almost 60 years, and yet – despite the technology it was designed to demonstrate being superseded several times over (the first satellite hadn’t been invented when the first one took place) – it remains hugely popular. People all over Europe hold Eurovision parties and invite all of their friends, families and neighbours around to all watch it together – it is unlike any other annual television event, a sort of indoor street party.
And the main, if not only, reason it remains so popular is that it is so consistently, predictably terrible. The presenters are selected for their ghastliness, the film clips are at best idiosyncratic, while the commentators are unable to contain their derision throughout as it rolls like my first car would have done had it only had three wheels and no brakes to the moment when the winner is announced and get up to do their thing again at whatever hour of the morning it finishes.
And, of course, the songs are almost invariably completely shocking.
In an average year there might be one which stands out as having some merit, at least in comparison with the others, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion that it will win, as householders in 40 nations with little enough in common with their neighbouring countries, let alone those not only at the other end of Europe but in the Middle East, some of which use different musical notation.
Since the addition of the former Soviet Bloc countries, it has been difficult to overlook their tendency to vote for one another as a matter of course regardless of the quality of the songs tendered, and also their tendency to not vote for anyone who has irritated Putin recently.
I tend to the theory that they generally vote for one another because they are culturally more used to the sort of music being made by countries to whom they used to be politically as well as geographically linked, just as Greece or Macedonia will tend to enter a song featuring banks of bouzouki and balalaika players and vote for one another because they like bouzoukis and balalaikas.
Greece and Cyprus ALWAYS give one another 12 points, and would probably insist on doing so even if the other were not taking part.
The Contest is further complicated by countries competing against one another who spend the rest of the year denying one another’s right to exist, or in the case of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus who owns which bit of which land-mass. I defy anyone to read the Wikipedia article on Northern Cyprus and emerge without a headache.
Armenia are boycotting this year’s contest after the Azerbaijani president declared Armenians to be their mortal enemies. Italy pulled out of the contest for 14 years, as far as I can ascertain because in 1974 the song chosen to represent their own country was claimed to contain subliminal messages aimed at influencing a referendum due to be held a month later on the issue of abortion, and the organisers refused to censor the broadcast. Lebanon were due to participate in 2005, but pulled out because they do not recognise the existence of Israel.
But, anyway, the songs… For many years all of the songs were sung in English, but in 1973 that was dropped. Mainly there is a mix of power ballads, bouncy pop songs with choruses accessible to all nations regardless of which language they speak – “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” “Ding-a-Dong,” “La La La,” and the aforementioned “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” all being worthy former winners, odd (to Western ears) Eastern music played in unfamiliar scales with banks of bouzoukis or things that look as if they are carved out of alien pumpkins – and songs which have been entered because the country they represent doesn’t want to win for fear of having to host next year’s competition.
There are always one or two of these which manage to get through to the final, and you can almost sense the fear among the participants that their avant garde performance art might actually backfire, and they will have to face the president when they get home and work out how a country with two-hundred-and-fifty inhabitants and an economy built entirely on the export of soft cheese is supposed to be able to put on an international music festival, and how they would be able to afford to build a major concert venue even if they could get it to stand up on a geological base of fine sand. I am fairly certain in my own mind that Finland did not expect this song to win in 2006.
It is very easy to mock, and indeed can be a great deal of fun to do so, but for almost 60 years the Eurovision Song Contest has done far more to bring people together than any other annual event that I can think of. No one anywhere in the world takes it seriously, but every year everyone turns up, millions of people all over the world switch it on to watch it, and everyone goes home happy. It started before I was born, and it will almost certainly still be going on long after I’m gone.
This year Jedward are representing Ireland again, and are, apparently, the favourites to win. Engelbert Humperdinck is representing Great Britain, but won’t win because none of the Eastern Bloc countries will vote for us, while the Russian Grannies could put up a stronger showing than one might expect. I’ve only ever picked about three of the winners in forty years, but that won’t stop me watching – if only to see if the Russian Grannies can go all the way.
International harmony at its best!