I watched the entirety of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, camped out on the sofa with acute sinusitis, dosed up on antibiotics and Sudafed. Every so often some hirsute Balkan hag would appear before me, gyrating and caterwauling as if her life depended upon it, and my ears would begin to bleed. I have never bled from the ears before; it’s a weird, discombobulating thing. The cushions were ruined.
In case you missed this musical extravaganza, the winner was a chap called Dima Bilan from Russia with a song called ‘Believe’. It was appalling, an ineptly executed, over-emotional howl set to a faux disco beat that immediately told you that you were in an old Intourist hotel in Irkutsk in 1985 awaiting some atrocious dinner featuring boiled gristle and rice but not to worry, because the whores would be around quite soon. Many European countries are bad at pop music; surely none are quite as bad as the Russians. The United Kingdom’s entry, meanwhile, was a fine slab of up-tempo Motown soul, nicely sung by a former binman called Andy Abrahams, probably the best UK entry of the last 25 years and one of the top two songs, by my reckoning, in this year’s contest. It finished joint last — back to those bins, then, Andy. The only song which pushed it close was a neat piece of girl-pop from Norway, sung by a very blonde Nordic lady who tried to appear beguiling and come-hither but had this expression which made you think that she’d put your testicles in a vice if you did dare, actually, to come hither.
The rest was the usual dross; lachrymose ballads, abysmal stabs at dance music (Spain’s contribution was, as usual, witless and lame) and the occasional burst of kindergarten heavy metal from countries on the periphery of our continent, i.e. Turkey and Finland. The voting, of course, seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to either the comparative beauty of the song or the ability of the performer. By and large, Russia won because all of the former Soviet SSRs, from Latvia on the Baltic to Azerbaijan on the Caspian, voted en bloc for their former masters. Including Ukraine and Moldova. This gave the Russkies more than enough to top the poll. Meanwhile, the Scandinavians voted, without exception, for one another. And the states of the former Yugoslavia also voted for one another, even for the entry from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which may have been the worst song ever recorded, anywhere, by anyone, ever. There was nobody left to vote for the UK — or Germany and France and Holland, etc. Western Europe was cast adrift — nobody loves us, said a dry and forlorn Terry Wogan, as country after country voted for its closest neighbour (including, we might add, Ireland — which gave the UK a handy few votes). The message was that the people of ‘Europe’ (an entity which now includes Israel and Georgia, by the way) had voted en masse politically, for their ‘friends’ — which meant the countries next door to their own countries, or those tied to their own countries from previous dark political allegiances.
It is true that ten years or so ago there was an opinion poll of European countries which asked the citizens of each nation to rank each country according to how much they liked it. Of course, we came last — with the almost-as-reviled Krauts finishing second bottom. Top spot was acquired by the cheerful, too-rye-aye Irish, who never hurt a soul, never started a war, victims of upprussion but nonetheless always happy etc, etc. Which seems to suggest that European people do vote in such pointless contests as the Eurovision Song Contest according to their prejudices: the UK joint bottom in 2008, remember — joint bottom with Germany. But in the year that poll was taken, the UK actually won the Eurovision Song Contest, with the vile and emetic ‘Love Shine a Light’ by Katrina and the bloody Waves. So the people of Europe may not simply vote for countries they like and ignore countries they abhor; there may be more to it than that.
The notion that countries vote for their friends seems to me way wide of the mark. Bosnia-Herzegovina gave its maximum marks to Serbia: if they are great friends, why did we waste all that money trying to bomb the hell out of Milosevic on their behalf? Similarly, Ukraine gave 12 points to Russia, which had, two years earlier, tried to kill its president with a singularly ineffective form of poison. Armenia and Turkey friends? I don’t think so, but they voted for each other quite happily, somehow forgetting all that genocide stuff. And what about those Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia — suffering the yoke of Soviet oppression for so many years — who did they vote for? Russia, of course. Greece gave a few points to Turkey, too. And vice versa. And you begin to understand that this isn’t political — it’s something else.
Here’s my suggestion: the people of Europe voted, en masse, for the sorts of songs they liked best, precisely as they were meant to do. And the sorts of songs they liked best, with which they were most familiar, came from within their own cultures, or within cultures from which they had received, for good or bad reasons, perpetual exposure over a large number of years. That’s why everybody voted the way they did.
The UK’s song was a piece of savvy, soul-inflected 12-bar blues; that’s what we usually do for the Eurovision, sometimes witlessly, sometimes — as with Andy Abrahams — with a degree of panache. But the one thing none of the countries east of the Oder-Neisse line have is a tradition of 12-bar blues. It may, up to a point, form the basis of our pop music, but it is an alien, disconcerting life-form in Chisinau and Belgrade and Vilnius. Over there, they like stuff in a minor key, the melodic extension of the Imam’s wail or the pobodny liturgies of the Russian Orthodox Church. Go to any eastern European capital and you will hear it blaring out of the taxi cab, or your hotel reception or the local restaurant; this endless hyperbolic, overwrought, desperately cheesy minor-key tune affixed to an unequivocally 1980s backdrop and beat.
It is being suggested that the UK — and quite a few other western European countries — will no longer take part in the song contest, although I would guess that the BBC will resist the demand to quit, seeing that nine million people tuned in last week. The argument seems to be that for political reasons, the western European countries will never win again. What was once a contest between the British 12-bar pap and the French/Belgian/Luxembourgeois sultry chanteuse has been somehow hijacked. Certainly, that’s how the votes had it last week. Fine: the Eurovision Song Contest is quite clearly stupid, its participants devoid of talent and an embarrassment to all concerned. But let’s not pretend that the voting is political.
If we take part next year, here’s the way to win. Choose someone swarthy and hirsute — preferably a woman — and shove her in the sort of dress worn by Joan Sims in the early Carry On comedies. Ensure that she does not shave her armpits. Give her a song in a minor key wedded to a moronic 4/4 disco beat but which begins with a sort of quasi-spiritual ululating. Let the chorus be along the lines of ‘Life Ees Good!’ or ‘We Are All Frentz!’ — and, from Riga to Baku, watch the votes roll in.