Monday, 9 May 2011

What does Europe mean to you?

So, what does Europe mean to you (well, apart from a dodgy-uberpermed soft rock band from the 80s)? Culture? Democracy? Art? Sport? A faintly surreal music competition? Which Europeans have had the greatest impact upon the world today: Aristotle? Alexander? Marcus Aurelius? Constantine? Bucks Fizz? Abba?

OK, so I'm a fan of Eurovision (or should I say 'the Eurovision Song Contest'). There, I said it. Perhaps it doesn't quite fit with my 'normal' take on music (see Listening section opposite) for the contest is unapologetically colourful, brash and cheesy. But, to be fair, nothing else gives such a clear idea of the state of Europe today; nothing else so restores my utter faith in the wonderful, beautiful ridiculousness of humanity and the human condition; to be honest, nothing else makes me laugh quite so much. Someone (can't remember who) said that to travel the world successfully, you need only to pack an open mind and a sense of humour. With Eurovision you need never need leave the house.

If you want to understand the diverse nature of Europe, its conflicts and commonality; its culture and criminality...then nothing, absolutely nothing, beats the Eurovision Song Contest.

This time next week and it will all be over (bar the shouting and recriminations); the 2011 contest will leave the British press in a state of bewilderment and remorse spouting headlines such as: 'Why does Europe hate us?'; 'Why does the UK have no allies in Europe'; 'Why the UK entry fail AGAIN when it had so much promise”…well it didn’t. Of course it didn’t.

OK so I'm getting ahead of's Monday evening and there's still 4 hours worth of semi-finals to go before the Grand Finale on Saturday; just under five days before the last vote is cast, the result announced and the winner crowned. All to play for then; so how can I be sure that the UK is going to fail to hit the giddy heights of the top 10. How can I be so sure that the British entry will return home to rejection, dejection and ridicule (especially when bookmakers are tipping it to do so well)? Why do I know that there will be another year of agonised soul-searching within the British Press? How do I know that another career is about to hit poop central?

Four reasons stand out:

1) On Saturday 14th May, the UK entry (Blue) will appear in the finals without having to go through all the tedious business of the semi’s.

Why? Well because the UK, together with Spain, Germany, France pay the lion’s share for the competition, wherever it is ultimately held (this year Germany), but it looks as if all four are using Cash for Privilege – Elite Business Class and flaunting it. No one likes someone whom they think is ‘playing the system’. Resentment is not a good way to start a so-called 'friendly' competition.

2) Not playing the semi finals means that few Euro observers have heard the UK song by the time the final commences (well all except us in the UK - we've had to live with the diabolical-Blue-abomination for some significant time). Big disadvantage. The days of playing the song cold for the first time in the final is over. If the song isn’t instantly memorable then it’s lost. Last year Germany's Lena missed the semi’s too, but had a song that was on general release across Europe for a short while before. It had been heard. It was known.

3) Geopolitics – my favourite bit. Of course despite bleatings to the contrary, politics has always played a major factor in the competition. Neighbours vote for Neighbours, friends for friends. Throughout the 70s and 80s Greece always gave the maximum 12 points to Cyprus, and Cyprus for Greece (it will be so again - probably to a chorus of boos and wolf-whistles). Germany always used to award 12 points to Turkey and Turkey used to reciprocate. In case you feel that's underhand, Malta always gave at least 6 points to the UK (even if they were the only voting nation in the entire competition to do so), Portugal to Spain, Norway to Sweden and so on and so on.

The issue has only become MORE obvious with the break-up of the Soviet Union and more prominent political alliances (made more explicit of course by the “you can vote for your favourite BEFORE you’ve heard the song tactic). Now there's not only the 'Scandinavian bloc' (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark) and Aegean mini-block (Greece / Cyprus) but the old-Soviet-bloc (Russia / the Ukraine / Moldova / Georgia etc) the 'Balkan (but NON Greek voting) bloc (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia, Bosnia etc) and the unpredictable Baltic bloc (Estonia / Latvia / Lithuania). This is of course not as negative at it sounds (Serbia and Bosnia voting for each other a mere 20 years after trying to ethnically cleanse one another has to be fairly good news doesn't it?) but it graphically highlights the way in which the simple 'EU/NATO against the East' divide has fragmented into wholly discreet (but no less powerful) sub groups.

The UK is severely disadvantaged of course, as many have noted for years, for it has no neighbours (who like it) and is not part of a close-knit geographical block. Yes it may be different if England, Wales, Scotland, N Ireland etc were in the competition separately, but they aren't and it isn't.

4) The UK song is NOT an event. It's 4 near middle aged blokes (a man-band?) heaving and singing themselves through a tepid (largely out of tune) dirge.

It doesn’t really matter how popular / unpopular a country is if the song is NOT an 'event', it will get nowhere. Israel memorably won, countering the view that it too has relatively few friends in Europe - and, to be fair, isn't even geographically part of Europe (but then is there an equivalent 'Asian Song Contest?) - in 1998 with the glamorous transsexual Dana International

whilst the Ukraine won in 2004 with Ruslana's sub Xena-Warrior-Princess routine (skins, drums, flames and swords) and so on.

Flashy costumes are no guarantee of success of course (look at Spain's record) and obviously contrived attempts to recreate Eurovision of old (as per last years sub-smurf wackiness of Sieneke from Netherlands) will, perhaps sadly, always fail.

Ultimately you need to create something special. In 2010 the UK sent a 1980s style dance ballad regurgitated from corporateturdpolisher (sorry 'music guru') Pete Waterman. This was music by numbers. A thumpingly unmemorable work out from the bottom of the Hit Factory barrel. A forgotten B side from over 20 years ago. However ‘nice’ and presentable the singer, however polished the performance, it was not an EVENT. Last year's German winner (Lena) was different (at least from a Eurovision perspective). OK she sounded a bit Lilly Allen, but do we not have a Lilly Allen in the UK? Second place went to Turkey's maNga who, instead of the usual belly dance workout, presented a pop industrial / metal combo (are there no industrial metal acts in the UK?).

Had Germany put on Rammstein, they would won easily. Had Slovenia let Laibach (rather than a head-ache inducing folk/rock hybrid), they would have walked it. The 2009 winner from Norway had a jolly face, a set of fiddles and an irritating sing-a-long chorus. The year before Russia was victorious with a singer attempting to avoid a grisly death at the hands of a mad ice skater. A few years before, Finland mopped up with grizzled-mask-wearing-death-metal-combo Lordi.

Nothing surprising here perhaps, but it all worked. Anyone remember the UK singer / song / chorus / costume from the last three years?

No. Thought not.

Go into the semi finals (instead of queue jumping into the final) with an EVENT song, one that stands out from the crowd (but doesn’t mock it – Europe is wary of anything it feels is mocking them) and the UK stands a decent chance. No one thought Germany would ever win again, given it has few political allies in Europe, is not part of a geographical voting block and, like the UK, paid its way straight to the final, but it did just that precisely because it staged a memorable stand-out-from-the-crowd EVENT. Send in Blue, Pete Waterman or any music-by-numbers dance-dirge currently in the UK charts and you will always fail.

Now, where did I put my Killing Joke CDs.....?

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