Andrew O’Hagan · The Campest Carnival Yet

It turns out the Cold War did not end with either a bang or a whimper in Europe, but with a series of feeble melodies that come invested with the strongest doses of motherland prejudice and rivalry. Those who doubt it have not been paying attention to the Eurovision Song Contest, now in its 54th year, a competition whose chief virtue is to demonstrate the standard failure of political philosophy to rival sequins and bad music as an indicator of the moral outlook of nations. Forget Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Voltaire, Marx, Lenin or Ortega y Gasset. The world-dominating perspectives of Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia and Spain – to name but six of this year's 42 participating countries – are to be represented by assorted ragamuffins with plentiful false eyelashes and voices as dainty as a fortnight of shelling in Dubrovnik. Every year it gets madder, but 2009, which is being hosted by Russia, must surely be the biggest, campest carnival yet, with nations threatening by the half-hour to storm off or to scratch out the eyes of their neighbours, all in the name of peace, understanding and postwar unification.

I'm afraid the rogue element in the class has to be named and shamed: Eastern Europeans take the contest so seriously one begins to wonder, as the dancers spin and the lyrics fade, just exactly who is looking after all those nuclear warheads nowadays. Could a warbled ditty or a step-ball-change suddenly lead to a nuclear stand-off? The system of 'Eastern Bloc' voting – where countries vote against the nationalisms they hate, in favour of ones they admire, no matter what the tune is like – is now accepted as a routine part of the entertainment. And it's mutually assured destruction every time. Sadly, though, Georgia has just walked out after a great hissy fit, objecting to the organisers' decision to ban their entry for taking a swipe at Vladimir Putin. There might be other reasons to ban Georgia's entry – its terribleness, for instance. As a piece of sub-disco, sub-Donna Summer, proto-Eurotrash nonsense it has few rivals this year, but the song – performed by the wintry trio Stephane and 3G – intends to move nations to a point of glorious self-realisation. It's called 'We Don't Wanna Put In'. Nul points? Don't be hostile to the freedom-loving Georgians, OK?

As if to guarantee the vulgarity of the entire exercise, the British entry was penned, as they say, by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It's called 'My Time' and is being performed by a sweetly ambitious London girl called Jade Ewen, with the Lord of Darkness himself accompanying her on the piano. All the very moving songs nowadays are about the wonders and the trials of fame, and 'My Time' - a sub-Whitney Houston anthem to emerging selfhood - hits the nail where it matters by involving Ms Ewen in a drama about Being Somebody, which people in Britain find more moving than anything you could possibly imagine. (It doesn't hurt, by the way, that she is called Jade.) This year's British entry, apart from being suitably insipid, also plugs into the whole nation-baiting energy of the contest: the TV programme that chose Jade Ewen was called Eurovision: Your Country Needs You. God forbid that anything worth having wasn't, at some point, ordained by tele-voting. I mean, you sniggerers there, you at the back - were you ever voted for? Did you get the imprimatur of the Great British Public? You people who are criticising? No, I don't think you did, did you? You didn't. So shush.

Next up are the Russian themselves, who hate the fact that their entry is being sung by a Ukrainian who scorns the mothership. The lady in question looks like a babushka on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and her song, 'Mamo', is highly favoured. The arena in Moscow looks like an explosion in a Play-Doh factory. Cut-off denim shorts, yards of latex, boy-girls, girl-boys: please don't ask ever again why you pay your licence fee.

English does seem to be the accepted language of pop uselessness, as well as pop glory, which makes it even harder to understand what it is about the Eurovision Song Contest that makes Europeans so hot under the nationalistic collar. The answer might simply be that the platform is immense: 100 million people will watch tonight's final, which makes it a lot more tuned into than events at the G20 Summit, and with only slightly more ridiculous hair-dos (if slightly larger political ambitions). I think we should now see the song contest as perhaps our most visionary platform for political protest and national disgust. The last few years have seen a whole slew of tantrums, from Lebanon withdrawing in 2005 after Télé Liban refused to guarantee it would show Israel's entry, to this year's failed attempt by Kosovo to enter the lists. The poor Kosovars were opposed by all the people who would oppose them, but it also appears that they failed to fill in the forms correctly, not becoming members of the European Broadcasting Union, which is the only condition for entry. Well, not the only one: you also must want your neighbours to lose much more than you actually want to win, and that is something Kosovo will just have to learn in the long run.


  • 25 June 2009 at 8:21pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    Odd you should pick on Italy - they weren't one of the 42 participating countries, & haven't participated since 1997 (according to Wikipedia, and who's to say they're wrong?) There's usually a bit of Italian in the contest as if to make up - last year Latvia's song was a nicely overblown bit of operatic pop called Questa Notte. (Latvia?)

    Also, it's not really about "want[ing] your neighbours to lose much more than you actually want to win" so much as the opposite - having neighbours who can be relied on to scratch your back if you scratch theirs. At least, that was how it supposedly worked in the Eastern Bloc Voting era. This year the popular vote was supplemented (i.e. counterweighted) by Panels of Experts, resulting in a runaway win for the most bankable future pop star (Norway's Alexander Rybak in this case) & regional voting be damned.