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Eurovision 2016: Have Bremainers Met their Waterloo?

The Eurovision Song Contest was explicitly created to bring Europeans together through the medium of song. Beginning with rather bourgeois and safe forms of light entertainment, it has gradually become a camp fest of global proportions and audience, with often amazing songs and performances. It is part of the international gay culture, as has become more and more acknowledged, culminating in the glorious Swedish goddess of sass, Petra Mede, as host in 2013 and 2016. This year she was accompanied as consort by eye-candy-with-substance Måns Zelmerlöw (who won the Contest in 2015). The gender implications of this are glorious: Petra was the host in charge, whose name was bayed by the audience, and Måns, bless him, was the glamorous assistant. Last year’s hosts in Austria were three women and a drag queen. The whole event is now a welcome holiday from heterosexual androcentrism.

Eurovision has helped launch the global career of the world’s most popular group (ABBA, winners in 1974 – sorry, Beatles fans, but nyah nyah nyah!), and has also transformed the careers of many performers to a lesser extent, even if they didn’t win.  Its cultural significance is interesting too. In recent years, it has been praised and chastised for the same things; Conchita Wurst’s well-deserved win for Austria in 2014, with Rise Like a Phoenix, was both hailed as the sign of a more gender-diverse and accepting Europe and lambasted as the sure sign of Europe’s moral decline, interestingly by the Christian Right in the US as well as in the former Soviet bloc.

Bigger than ever, the Contest has a global audience of over 200 million viewers. But beneath the headlines what does it show about pan-European identity? I think there are actually several lessons to be learned from the 2016 event.

First, Eurovision reminds us that European identity and EU identity are not the same thing. In Australia, now a participant in the Contest, the debate about the country’s sense of self (European through its white settler history, or Asian through geography and economics?) is very much alive, although for obvious reasons EU identity is never a feature. Many states that are geographically in Europe but not in the EU take part – step forward Iceland, Andorra, Switzerland and the rest. Several countries that are geographically and culturally liminal take part: Ukraine, Turkey, Israel and others. And Luxembourg, both quintessentially European and at the heart of the EU, no longer enters, although it won five times when it participated. If we want to harness European identity for the creation of an EU demos, then, we will need to do so carefully and by acknowledging that the former can only be a partial Doppelgänger for the latter.

Second, and optimistically, this year’s contest indicates that cultural closeness can be transcended (there was no Nordic bloc this year as Denmark, Iceland, and Norway failed to make the final, and the usual Greece and Cyprus love-in was missing since the Greek song also got stuck in the semis). Indeed, there may be rewards for this kind of gesture; this year’s singer for Austria, Zoé, sang entirely in French, taking her gently-lovely Loin d’Ici to a top ten finish. Does this show that making an effort to cross linguistic borders pays off? Maybe, since this year’s French entry was unusual because partly sung in the language of Shakespeare, and it also received a top 10 placing. That may also have been down to J’ai Cherché’s far more contemporary nature than many of its immediate predecessors. We need a survey: what first made you vote for the handsome Amir at this year’s Eurovision?

Third, the Contest reminds us that expert and popular views do not always coincide – Australia won the jury vote, Russia took the popular televote crown, and Ukraine won the whole thing after coming second with both jury and public.

Fourth, it indicates that East/West dynamics are back, if they ever went away; the new means of delivering the votes stripped off the cloak of the jury votes, and showed the popular votes more readily. A diaspora effect seems clear in the Polish result; their song shot up to 7th place once the televotes were factored in, after languishing way off the pace in the jury vote. Does this signal that if Europeans live abroad they just get nostalgic for home instead of becoming more ‘European’?

Fifth, we see that history still matters – Jamala’s winning song, 1944, was a defiant reminder of Soviet/Russian war crimes in Crimea, both in the past and in the present day. In that sense, it is a worthy winner; powerfully-performed and heartfelt in its delivery, 1944 is a song with meaning and which gives the lie to the idea that pop culture is necessarily superficial. It has also provoked howls of outrage in Russia, including at governmental level, where it is being used as evidence that the West hates Moscow.

Sixth, and perhaps most obviously, there’s the Brexit factor. Here there is real evidence of disconnect, and not just because UK Eurosceptics will always moan when ‘Europe’ doesn’t seem to be grateful for all Britain has done for them. For the casual British observer, the repeated failures to do well in the Contest since we last won in 1997 (conspiracy theorists alert: this was the year New Labour was elected and Tony Blair became Prime Minister!) have become part of the treacherous continental landscape.

After all, everyone knows the UK has one of the world’s liveliest and most successful reputations in music throughout the world. If we don’t win Eurovision almost every year, there must be skulduggery at play; it’s just not cricket. Sir Terry Wogan, an Irishman who became a big UK TV and radio personality and commentated on the Contest for the BBC every year, resigned in disgust in 2009. Sir Terry was miffed because of the frequent popularity of songs from Eastern Europe which did well at the Contest and then vanished without trace; like many others he but this down to ‘political’ voting. Although I would have called it cultural-kinship voting, Wogan did have a point; Marie N’s I Wanna triumphed for Estonia in 2002 but couldn’t even chart in its home country, and the constant voting of the former-Yugoslav states for each other did give them an advantage; Germany, with its 80 million plus citizens, had the same 12 points to give as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia etc.

Of course, Britain is not the only former Eurovision great power that flounders nowadays; we have won five times (actually six if the cheating that stopped Cliff Richard taking the crown in 1968 and came to light years later had seen Spain retrospectively disqualified), and been runners-up on fifteen occasions, but the Irish fall from grace is even more spectacular. In the 1990s, Ireland was almost the default winner of the Contest. Now, the country frequently fails to make the final. Germany, the deserving winner in 2010 with the glorious Satellite, performed by Lena, has come last for two years in a row, and has only won once before 2010 (Nicole’s Ein Bisschen Frieden in 1982). France, for the first thirty years of the Contest a real favourite and frequent champion, has floundered of late, although this year it did much better.

This year’s UK song was a good contemporary pop track, and was well-performed, so the issue is not one of intrinsic quality. It’s also true that as the representatives of a ‘big four’ nation – those that pay the most to the European Broadcasting Union – Joe and Jake did not have to qualify for the final. This may have made the UK lazy; the BBC certainly was not as active in building a fan base for the song as it could, and should, have been.  This is especially salient since You’re Not Alone was not performed by established artists with a big current following, so there will have been little cross-border identification with the track or artists by pre-existing fans.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that it was the popular vote for the UK that sent us almost to last place, though we were hovering on the edge of the top 10 on the jury scores, and recent years have seen the UK come last or near last almost all the time. The timing of the Contest is unfortunate in the context of the UK referendum on EU membership, because this year’s result will help reinforce the sense of British ‘otherness’ from the rest of the continent. Brits are not going to vote to leave the EU just because of Eurovision, even if some of us still bear grudges against particular countries for events of over two decades ago (when Malta robbed our last entrant who was a current top star, Sonia, of victory and handed it to an Irish bank clerk whose subsequent career was, let’s say, minor). But it all adds to the sense of disconnect, alterity and failure to understand each other across the English Channel that colours many Brits’ thinking about Europe and Europeans. If we vote Bremain, please please please give us a Top 10 finish in Kiev!

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