4 March 2016

Eurovision: musical torture or geopolitical nightmare?


Just when it seems our concerns about pan-European integration couldn’t be more fraught, the Eurovision Song Contest begins to loom large. It’s barely March yet the shine of sequins and bottled tan already casts an ochre glow across the horizon where the sun sits like an enormous glitterball against the creamy blue crush of an Abba revival lounge suit. Envisaged as a means of bringing nations together in a celebration of chirpy chirpy pop pop, Eurovision has become a geopolitical nightmare. We already know that this year’s contest in Stockholm will end with some moment of typical understatement. It’s just a matter of whether it will be some marching band playing drainpipes or thermonuclear war thanks to Ukraine’s entry, subtly titled ‘1944’.

It’s obvious now that what every pan-European light-entertainment talent show needs is a song describing Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tartars during World War 2 and this one is already provoking anger among Russians. Of course, there’s very little that doesn’t do that these days. Russia under Putin treats pop music as an offshoot of their foreign policy; all brutish balladeers and cut-your-throat  boy bands. In 2009, Georgia’s entry, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’, was removed from competition due to Russian protests that the lyric insulted their leader. We should perhaps expect Russia’s response this time to be a Eurovision entry titled ‘Itsy Bitsy Black Sea Bikini’ with a spectacular stage routine involving Spetsnaz special forces rappelling from the ceiling and throwing stun grenades into the orchestra pit. Except, of course, it wouldn’t be a stage routine…

The amount of low-grade anger that Eurovision inflames is a remarkable achievement for a show built largely upon mid-European kitsch but in recent years Eurovision has rarely elevated itself above regional favouritism and xenophobia. Originally convinced in 1955 by Marcel Bezençon, the director general of Swiss television, the contest now boasts that it’s ‘Europe’s favourite show’ but that is no more than the familiar patois of pan-Europeanism that has been eroding people’s faith in cooperation. Eurovision is a sagaciously managed conceit that does little to disguise its less salubrious reality. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the inclusion of Eastern European nations have produced more ethnic hatred than a Sacha Baron Cohen film retrospective at the Kazakhstan film festival. Western Europe may have its own rivalries but even the friction between France and Britain looks quaint compared to the hatred among Balkan nations.

The BBC, in their wisdom, continues to invest in this charade of friendship, ensuring that the British entry appears in the final where it can be largely ignored as the other European nations duke it out among themselves to see which long-simmering ethnic feud will decide the winner. All of this does, of course, make Eurovision compulsive viewing. The show is bright, bouncy, filled with happy people being freakishly happy, yet there, amid the drunken revelry, unicycling violinists, and the dangling acrobats, are the very worst aspects of humanity: the spite, the hatred, the militant disregard for our common humanity.

Cue the flaky satellite connection with some distant city… ‘Good evening,’ says the smiling beauty queen, her looks as chilly as the Bulgarian tundra. ‘Please give us your votes’.

In return, some aging disc jockey and/or simpleton in a pith helmet and Hawaiian shirt reads out the scores that say nothing about the songs but a great deal about their nation’s relationships with the rest of Europe. It has become quite clear that Eurovision was originally conceived by the naive but is now being contested by the embittered. No wonder it is largely enjoyed by the cynical, propped up to their uncritical gills on a Saturday night by cheap Romanian booze.

To think this nightmare was once meant to bring nations together under the common bond of music. Year upon year, it succeeds in reminding us of the opposite: that ethnic differences do exist and sometimes produce profoundly violent wars. Perhaps it would be more entertaining if other nations were simply more open about those rivalries. They should all follow Ukraine’s example and offer songs that express their feuds with other nations so we can at least get all the black stuff out into the open. France could complain about the Belgians, the Germans complain about the Swiss. Italy would have a good old gripe about Greece. Greece, meanwhile, could sing about the lot of them in one of those repetitive little ditties that Eurovision has made its own, perhaps titled ‘The Ping Pong Ding Dong Debt Song’. The lyric almost writes itself.

When the British look for a reason for Brexit, Eurovision might provide that reason. The song contest, like Europe itself, expanded its borders too far and too quickly, last year managing to make the inclusion of Israel and Azerbaijan seem almost reasonable by stretching its southern edge (as well as geography, logic, and our patience) as far as Australia. Whatever commonality existed in the old Europe, it is no longer present in the new. What cultural or musical heritage does Iceland possibly share with Turkey or Estonia with Italy? From north to south, east to west, the compass of Eurovision is too large. Instead of allowing peoples of Europe to recognise elements of their shared culture, Eurovision explodes the myth of unity in the same way that the enlarged EU now reveals the huge wealth imbalances between nations, producing economic migration, self-interested voting blocs, and a counter force of newly incipient nationalisms everywhere.

The pressure to contract our borders and to regain our sovereignty happens partly because we also have a paradoxical sense of a greater expansion that’s going on. The politics of Europe have barely matured beyond the 1970s. Political unity is like flared nylon and the word ‘stereophonic’ in an age of smart materials and THX Surround Sound. Eurovision recognises this itself. Nations share the same delusion that makes them all wish to be America. Where once the songs were in native languages, played to their own particular ethnic scales on folk instruments, they now seek that uniform American blandness as filtered through the aural sensibility of X Factor. It’s all screeching divas in swimming pool sized dresses or sassy boy bands hopping from foot to foot as they wink to camera. As people feel increasingly part of a global digital community linked by Netflix and Twitter, Europe no longer seems to matter.

Yet, of course, it does matter and we still need to understand where it all went wrong. France sees herself as a nation born in the emancipation of reason from superstition but, projected outward in the guise of European unity, it has long forgotten that all things spring from the individual. The debate in Britain is very much about establishing the place of the individual and our sense of scale. Sovereignty is something we’re capable of comprehending whereas a union of 500 million people over 4 million square kilometres is simply unknowable. Our parliament is a rabble and a mess but profoundly so in the sense that it is understandably human. The EU parliament is a grand bureaucracy with nothing about it that speaks about the complexities of life.

The Eurovision Song Contest and the EU mirror each other in these not-so-trivial ways. Does it mean we need the EU as little as we need Eurovision? My heart and mind tell me that it is better that our differences are contained within something so eminently risible as Eurovision but then I witness it, hear the songs, cringe at the outrageous mixture of the bland, the banal, and the bad taste, and I am simply no longer quite so sure. But then, perhaps it’s that very bitterness that makes me pause and wonder a second time. Is it better that simmering feuds and cultural frustrations vent on a crassly oversized stage rather than across a border somewhere? Don’t we all love to hate Eurovision and isn’t that love-hate the defining force of our Europeanism?

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.