Greg Dunn: Calm after the storm (1)
Depending on your definition, the serious music competition/light entertainment event of the year/gay Olympics that is the Eurovision Song Contest has come and gone for another year, dashing hopes, perpetuating stereotypes and fomenting political tensions left, right and centre. And, of course, entertaining people in the process – why else would a hundred and something million of us mark it on our calendars as must-see TV every May?
There’s nothing quite like spending three-and-a-half hours in front of the screen spending your hard-earned money voting twenty times for a song that comes 21st, having five people on a jury invalidating half your voting power in any case and ultimately waiting for Europe to decide which is the least offensive of the songs on offer just so the whole thing can be repeated again in twelve months’ time. Right?
Wrong. Well, right and wrong. But that’s Eurovision in a nutshell: a straightforward concept that’s actually rather complex in its execution; entertainment for the masses which plays on cultural, ethnic, linguistic, historical and any number of other ties, allegiances, fears and biases; a vehicle for unity that focuses on and celebrates diversity; music that is sometimes quite poor being sold as the best a country has to offer. And yet in spite of the inherent contradictions and pointlessness of it all, the contest remains one of television’s greatest and most popular institutions, reaching out to audiences from 9 to 90 and stretching the boundaries of Europe further than they’ve ever been stretched before. It might be cheesy and it mightn’t always be good, but it has a largely indefinable magic that makes fans of many. Myself included.
At its best the contest – meaning the songs it showcases – can produce a punch-the-air moment where you feel you really have just seen something special. At its worst it leaves you with your head in your hands wondering what the national broadcaster or televoters were thinking sending that particular song to represent their country. Either way it holds a special attraction that keeps audiences coming back to it from all over Europe and beyond. For me, an Australian, what attracted me to the contest when I first started watching it in the late ’80s was the fact that it rolled two things I loved into one: pop music and foreign languages. Naturally there’s the element of competition, too, although as an outsider looking in that aspect meant less to me on the other side of the world. I had no vested interest in who won; I was just happy to watch it and marvel at the tortured Polish ballads and trashy Swedish schlager.
This year, however, everything changed. In the 15 years I’ve lived here I’ve only ever had one country to root for – and only then when I felt we deserved it; I’m nothing if not fair – and have watched on with excitement and no small measure of pride as Estonia has notched up one victory and half-a-dozen top-five-or-thereabouts finishes. Eurovision 2015 though marked the 60th edition of the contest and saw a very special guest invited to take part for one night only: Australia. Suddenly I had two countries to cheer on: my home and my homeland. Better than that, it was a year in which both were among the favourites to win the whole shebang, and with more than decent entries to boot. It was like the apotheosis of my Eurovision fandom, and I’ll admit that I tuned in to Saturday night’s final with a good deal of nervous anticipation.
Not that there was any need for nerves, as it turned out: in the biggest (and some would say most resolutely MOR) field ever, both Guy Sebastian and Elina Born & Stig Rästa acquitted themselves admirably, finishing just in and just outside the top 5 respectively. Good songs, well performed, justly rewarded by televoters and juries. True, not enough for either to challenge the unassailable top 3 of Sweden, Russia and Italy, but on that front I suspect both SBS in Australia and ERR are breathing a sigh of relief: the logistics of the Australian broadcaster trying to organise the next edition of the contest somewhere in Europe would probably have been a major headache, while ETV would undoubtedly look at the €€€ outlay required to put on a modern ESC and shortly thereafter be found crying in a corner by an unapologetic European Broadcasting Union.
But it’s not winning that matters, simply taking part. Isn’t that how it goes? In this case certainly. Having put itself on the map with Eurovision in 2002 Estonia really has no need to win again, and quite possibly no desire to, given how much bigger the contest has become in the dozen or so years since then. And we seem to have settled into a comfortable pattern of coming sixth or seventh every few years (Rändajad, Kuula, Goodbye to Yesterday), which is nothing to be sneezed at – especially for a country that doesn’t benefit to the same extent as the likes of Russia from diaspora and neighbourly voting but tends to earn its results on merit. OK, between these bookends have been non-qualifiers (Siren, Amazing) and a couple of also-ran finalists (Rockefeller Street, Et uus saaks alguse), but that doesn’t seem to deter the Estonian audience every year. Again, there’s just something about the contest that brings people back regardless.
So we might sit there on the night and think “What, Latvia only gave us six points!?” or “Surely we were better than that pair from Norway!” or “You can’t tell me that song from Slovenia was better than ours!” and generally decrying the unfairness of not doing better while nursing the thumbs we’ve dislocated voting for the winner and runner-up, but at the end of the day (or night) we all still come back the next year to relive the tension this light entertainment program so effortlessly and innocently engenders. It’s a competition where the winning song wins nothing and the prize is the broadcaster behind it bankrupting itself the following year putting the whole silly thing on again for us to enjoy and argue about, forgetting the previous year’s results in an instant. For better or worse (and I’m going with better), Eurovision is an annual tradition Europe has embraced. So I say embrace our triumphant top 10 finish in Vienna and look forward to next year; start counting down the days till we do it all again, and say goodbye to yesterday.