“The Eurovision Song Contest in a Changing World”: Culture, Geography and Politics. A one day conference. Yesterday.
I’m going to have to go back and edit some of my blogs relating to this year’s Eurovision. Because yesterday I learned a deal. I know a lot more about Eurovision than I did 36 hours ago, and yet I feel I know a lot less than I thought I did. It’s always the way with a good conference. I feel enabled now to map my own ignorance.
From Catherine Baker, whose work on Balkan politics I have been recently following with interest, I learned more about the cultural context of the extraordinary Montenegro entry. But she also encouraged me to think about the awkward but unnecessary collusion between a rhetorical framing of European LGTB rights and western cultural (sometimes Islamophobic) chauvinism. Eurovision has negotiated and publicised gay rights as human rights while constantly challenging and expanding definitions of “European” identity. I was also struck by her observation that although Eurovision researchers have much in common with Olympics researchers, most Olympics researchers seem to despise the Olympics while most Eurovision researchers are in love with their own topic. The metrics of “soft power” are endlessly fascinating.
After some coffee, we had a glimpse into the inner circle of Eurovision. Padraig Muldoon and Denise van Beek work with wiwibloggs and know more about every aspect of every rehearsed version of every song from every country than anyone I’ve ever met. They can (and will) tell you which contestants have been variously seducing and alienating movers and shakers from Reykjavik to Baku. Even more intriguing of course, was the chance to meet the legendary Linda Martin, who won the competition in 1992 with “Why Me”, having come second in 1984 with “Terminal 3”. This panel discussion flowed straight into a very extended and leisurely lunch break where we were regaled with intoxicating showbiz gossip, delivered always in a spirit of generosity and gratitude. We learned for example that a water feature required by Jedward to compete in Azerbaijan necessitated a hefty and unexpected bribe just to get into Baku. The exit fee to remove the same item was so hefty that it was left behind – where it presumably remains still – to mystify future generations.
Indeed, gratitude was a key word throughout the central, more relaxed portion of the day. This bizarre occasion, which has one of largest TV audiences in the world, is the occasion for people who may hail from somewhere severely underfunded, to make a mark on a larger world. We pondered, somewhat sadly, on the destructive decision to send Dustin the Turkey to Eurovision on Ireland’s behalf a few years ago. Dustin was a private joke that nobody else laughed at, a failed attempt at humour that made Ireland look snooty and almost bored and contemptuous of its own Eurovision success.
In the afternoon, though, we got to see some serious numbers, numbers which help to disrupt a few prevalent misperceptions about Eurovision voting. From Adrian Kavanagh and Johnny Fallon, I learned that the real “political” voting is to be found among the tiny panels of jury voters rather than the popular national votes. If phone-in voters tend to vote for adjacent nations, it’s less to do with some over-riding political commitment than it is to a general familiarity with the kind of music, and even individual artists from a shared broadcasting radius.
In the final panel, we learned a lot about who might actually win this year. Italy (which is offering a Saidian satirical commentary on orientalist cultural appropriation) is such a runaway fave with bookies, it’s barely worth getting your wallet out. We all agreed, meanwhile, that Romania is a nice outside bet to finish in the top four. Its unique combination of rap and yodeling will triumph with generally inattentive and mostly drunk viewers – an important Eurovision demographic. No self-respecting (and actually identifiable) jury voter will dare vote for it though – so it can’t win.