Saturday evening was an evening of guilty pleasures for me. At 20.00 GMT, I settled down in front of the television, armed with a nice bottle of Shiraz, to watch the 54th annual Eurovision song contest. Nibbles? Check. Alcohol? Check. An eager expectance of an abundance of comically poor pop performances supplemented with ridiculously camp dance routines? Check!
The Ghost of Eurovision Past
For me, Eurovision always conjours up a strange sense of childhood nostalgia. When I was young there were only two annual occasions where I was generally allowed to stay up late, past my allocated bedtime. One was New Years Eve. The other was Eurovision. This was obviously a VERY BIG DEAL. I am too young to remember Bucks Fizz’s winning entry with ‘Making Your Mind Up’ in 1981 (with THAT skirt-ripping dance!) but an older cousin introduced me to them later in the 1980s and I can still remember the two of us dancing around her bedroom to it like lunatics. So, judge me if you will, but Eurovision holds a bit of a special place in my heart. And it appears I am not alone – between one and six million people tune in annually to watch Eurovision according to recent statistics. It’s one of the most watched non-sporting events in the world and in recent years, the internet has enabled Eurovision to reach an even wider international audience.
The contest has undergone a number of changes since it’s formation in 1956; most recently its expansion in 1994 to allow countries from the former communist bloc to enter (prior to this, Yugoslavia was the only East Bloc country to compete in Eurovision, from 1961, and of course during the 1990s the single ‘Yugoslavian’ entry was then replaced by individual efforts from its many successor states). A total of 42 countries participated in the 2009 contest, and the total would have been 43 had Georgia not withdrawn in protest against attempts to censor their politically suspect anti-Russian lyrics (“We don’t want to PUT IN” as they cheerfully sang!). This expansion also led to the introduction of two semi-finals, meaning that not all states participating are assured of even making it to the final, although the ‘big four’ consisting of France, Germany, Spain and the UK are assured a place each year, along with the winner of the previous years contest, who also have the honour of hosting the competition.
The eastwards expansion of Eurovision however, has also led to increased allegations of political ‘block voting’ and this, coupled with greater inter-European migration since the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, has led to some notable shifts in voting patterns in recent years which have caused grumblings of discontent among some of the older participants who, used to doing reasonably well, are suddenly finding themselves languishing at the bottom of a voting table dominated by the ‘new Europeans’.
Wikipedia’s entry on Eurovision has this to say:
“The Contest has long been perceived as politically influenced, where judges—and now televoters—allocate points based on their nation’s relationship to the other countries, rather than on the musical merits of the songs. According to one study of Eurovision voting patterns, certain countries do tend to form “clusters” or “cliques” by frequently voting in the same way”
The Politics Behind the Music?
Eurovision is presented as a non-political competition, however ‘political voting’ has always been part of Eurovision, and (at least for me) part of the fun has always been predicting the obvious cases of which states will award which scores to one another. A number of long-running examples can be used to support this theory: Greece and Cyprus historically award each other top marks every year,while Greece and Turkey rarely rate each others efforts at all due to their historical hostilities. The UK are also used to receiving top marks from Malta each year, while France and Germany frequently award each other high scores. In recent years however, eastward expansion has made this more of an issue with states in the Baltics, Balkans and former Soviet sphere consistently awarding one other substantial scores.
In 2008, when the UK entry came in with the lowest overall score, UK commentator Terry Wogan who was famed for his trademark sarcastic comments quit his role after 38 years, publicly citing an increase in political block voting among former communist states as the reason. Speaking just ahead of this year’s contest he even (rather dramatically) predicted that:
“If we (the UK) don’t do well this time, a new musical iron curtain will fall down past the Danube”.
The eastward expansion of the European Union and subsequent increase in migration within the Eurozone is also alleged to have had an impact on Eurovision voting patterns in the last few years. Wikipedia also notes that:
“Another influential factor is the high proportion of expatriates living in certain countries, often due to recent political upheaval. Since residents of a country cannot vote for their own entry, countries where a large minority of the population are ethnically tied to a neighbouring country and vote for their entrant can distort the vote considerably. This has been cited as the reason for apparent bloc voting in the Balkan countries of the former Yugoslavia”.
So, in recent years the Spanish award of 12 points to Romania has been explained by the high proportion of ethnic Romanians living and working in Spain (estimated to be as high as 800,000 in total), while similarly, the growth of migrants from the Baltic region in Ireland is seen to have influenced Ireland’s decision to award top scores to Latvia and Lithuania in recent years. In 2008, Russia’s victory in the contest was explained by some due to the high scores they were given by other post-Soviet states who have retained close political ties with Moscow, although it was also claimed that Russia’s success was due to their artist, Dima Bilan’s pre-existing popularity across the former Soviet sphere (and if I’m honest, it was the ice skating that impressed me!). This argument is also mentioned in Wikipedia:
“Defenders of the contest argue that the reason certain countries allocate disproportionately high points to others is because the people of those countries share similar musical tastes and cultures and speak similar languages, and are therefore more likely to appreciate each other’s music: for example, the explanation for Greece and Cyprus’s unfailing exchange of 12 points (every single time since popular voting was introduced in 1998) is because those countries share the same music industry and language, and artists who are popular in one country are popular in the other. A further counterexample to the criticism is the high score that is often exchanged between Ukraine and Russia, even when they are ruled by political parties that are hostile to each other”.
As a result of antagonisms caused by perceived ‘political bloc voting’ however the voting process was re-vamped in 2009, meaning that telephone voting still counted for 50% of a country’s scores, with the other 50% coming from a professional judging panel.
Russian victory in 2008 meant that Eurovision 2009 was hosted in Moscow. News that the Moscow police had clashed with gay rights protesters earlier in the day, forcibly breaking up organised protests against the Russian state’s – certainly authoritarian, often draconian – attitude towards homosexuality (the Mayor of Moscow had previously described gay rights protesters as ‘Satanic’ ), designed to coincide with Eurovision did not appear to have dampened the spirits of those taking part, and at 20.00 GMT millions of viewers settled down to watch what kind of spectacle Moscow would provide. A spectacle it certainly was, with a fantastic opening sequence by members of Cirque de Soleil. Some of my own personal favourite performances included:
Moldova – not so much the song itself, but watching the crazy backing dancers, who appeared to be trying to combine Cossack moves with Irish Riverdance. Interesting result!
Denmark – The song was written by Ireland’s Ronan Keating. The song was an Irish style ballad sung by a Dane who looked like Ronan Keating and sounded like Ronan Keating (he even had an Irish accent). And Ireland? Ummm, yes, they had failed to qualify….
Albania – Kudos to whoever thought up the idea of an act including bodypopping clowns! The blue/green figure in the bodystocking was just weird though.
Ukraine – I was left rather bemused as to why the Ukranian entry involved a dance troupe of Roman Gladiators!
Romania – The rules state that the song ‘must be sung by someone present on the main stage’. Watching the Romanian performance it appeared as though the song was being sung by a rather attractive lady in a sparkly dress who took centre stage. But no, apparently she was actually miming. If you looked to the far right, in the shadowy corner of the stage, you could see the woman ACTUALLY singing the song. I have NO IDEA why. A Romanian Yang Peyai perhaps?!
Norway – It was the bookies favourite. It was catchy. The singer was cute, likeable, sang AND played the fiddle. I liked it, especially the mixture of traditional folk music with a more modern singing style. A worthy winner overall:
The Results: Eurovision Gets Serious?
So, as the phonelines closed and the votes began to be announced, I waited to see whether the changes to the voting systems would translate into a change of voting patterns. In part yes. Some obviously ‘political’ influences on the voting remained: Belarus predictably gave high scores to Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan; Latvia and Lithuania scored Estonia highly; Andorra gave the maximum 12 points to Spain while Malta gave 10 points to the UK (with 12 going to the winners, Norway), Albania and Cyprus to Greece, and Azerbaijan to Turkey. Ukraine awarded 8 points to Russia while Russia only gave a token 2 points to Ukraine, while the Balkan states all awarded the usual mutual high scores to their neighbours. However the political overtones did seem more muted this year, and particularly across the lower-middle range of the scores awarded, there seemed to be more of a neutral consensus. The winning song, the Norwegian entry ‘Fairytale’ sung by Alexander Rybak did seem genuinely popular, gaining maximum points from many participants across the board and finishing with a massive total score of 387 points, the highest winning score in the history of Eurovision.
The UK certainly appeared to benefit, with singer Jade Ewan coming a respectable 5th place, after several years where the UK have finished around (or on) the bottom of the leaderboard. However I think this is less a result of the new voting system, than the fact that this year, for the first time in a long while, the UK took Eurovision a bit more seriously, drafting in Andrew Lloyd Webber, the award winning musician and composer to both write the Eurovision entry, and accompany Jade on piano in Moscow. Traditionally, Eurovision has always been a bit of a novelty joke in the UK with no one taking it very seriously – until we started coming last with alarming regularity that is! This attitude was in marked contrast to that of many of the newer participants who have viewed their inclusion into Eurovision with serious enthusiasm, as a mark of status and inclusion into the post-Cold War European community, something which I’ve noted in conversations with friends and acquaintances from Central Europe and the Baltics in recent years. The introduction of the semi-final stage means that many countries are entering higher quality acts and ‘touring’ their neighbouring countries to promote their song in advance of Eurovision. It is against this more ‘professional’ approach that the Eurovision ‘old guard’, such as Britain, France and Germany must now compete …. or risk musical humiliation! Could this mean that we may one day see the end of the gloriously tacky Eurovision days of old?!
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